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What $25,352 worth in contract cheating looks like.

Community Contributor
4 35 6,496

Abstract: The hardest part about contract cheating is quantifying the problem. We can't do much about the former, but we're trying to change the latter. That is, we are trying to quantify contract cheating in hopes of learning more about assessment design, motivations of cheating, and the black market of 'contract cheating'.

Methodology: A web crawler (with the pet name of "Contraband") was let loose on the Internet to sniff out content related to cheating posts. The contracts were then aggregated all together. You can read what the crawler found at the end of this post.

Findings: 18% contractors were approached directly. Out of the posts in which the contractor was not approached directly, 6 (4.5%) contracts were for admission essays, 9 posts (7%) were for work related to masters/PhD theses, and 7 posts (5.34%) were in languages other than English. Almost all of the contracts looked like they required undergrad (or above) proficiency. Finally, the average contract was worth $157. 

It is to be noted, that the crawler (optimistically) scanned  ~1% of the entire "market" and the data collected covered just 3 weeks worth of activity. It might be unfair to simply extrapolate these numbers to arrive at the 'market size', but let's just do it for simplicity's sake.

If 1% of the market is worth $25,353, it implies roughly $2.5 million worth of contracts traded per month. This might sound like a lot, but an average contract value of $157 per contract would mena that roughly 16,148 students cheat online every month.

Future direction: Firstly, I want to expand the corpus we are crawling. Secondly, adding in more data-points such as: collecting the number of bidders (therefore quantifying the size and activity of the market), analyzing peak/trough times, and estimating the writing proficiency of the cheater (low writing proficiency might suggest weak writing skills as a prominent motivator) seems interesting.  Also, the labeling process definitely needs to be improved (since there were some false positives).

How you can participate: Just chime in with your thoughts, is data like this helpful? Should we stop doing this? Is this initiative kinda creepy? What other information can we collect? Anything goes. 

Pour some motiva-tion on me: Summarizing reports like such take a lot of effort, so if you want to motivate me to keep publishing stuff like this please subscribe to the contraband page here.  

The data-set: What follows now is the actual data collected. (Hint: use cmd + down/up arrow for Mac or ctrl + end/home for Windows to directly scroll to the comments section/top of the post.)  

Contraband's contract cheating report.

Total value: $25,232
Total coursework:161

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Community Contributor

waaaseee‌ - WOW. This is eye-opening to say the least. I am not one who is typically naive to this type of activity but what your crawler has found is more than I imagined. I have heard about this type of cheating and I think it is difficult to catch, but if caught, I can only imagine the academic discipline faced for both sides (this assumes, of course, that the hired help is also a student or someone with a close tie to an academic institution). I teach at a law school.  There is a strict code of academic conduct that must be followed.  In addition, attorneys and attorneys-to-be have a strict moral code of professional responsibility.  A finding of engagement in cheating of any kind could prevent admission to the bar. I would love to know how much of this is on a graduate level. For instance, the writing assignments looking for MLA or other similar citation formats are most likely seeking assistance for undergraduate projects.  If there were any mentioning the words "law, legal, legal writing or Bluebook," this would suggest that the assignment is a law school project seeking another law student or a skilled lawyer. I am glad you brought up this discussion. I am curious to see more from the crawler! #contract cheating

Community Champion

Thanks for sharing this; it is a very important issue. 

I would agree that poor writing skills and insecurity about that is a HUGE motivator in students engaging in these practices.

How to fix that? I have two suggestions:

1. Stop punitive grading. Instead of punishing students for their poor writing skills, we need to assess where they are at and help them to improve. They need to be able to share their mistakes (not hide them), and we need to help them learn from their mistakes.

2. Create meaningful, semester-long writing experiences. Instead of meaningless writing assignments that just end up in the virtual trash can, we need writing assignments that are part of a larger process, including lots of revision based on feedback from the instructor and from other readers.

Very few faculty members at my school know anything about teaching writing. College professors are, in general, skilled, confident writers, and they don't really know how to help students who are struggling with their writing. Yet that is most students! 

Here is how the semester-long writing project works in my classes:

Online Course Wiki / Projects

Here are the kinds of writing challenges I ask students to choose from during revision weeks:

Grow Your Writing: Revision Challenges 

And here is a website (blog) with some of the writing materials I have prepared to help my students:

Online Course Lady: Writing Laboratory 

Our failure to do a solid job of teaching writing in college is one of the greatest failures in higher education today in my opinion. And these paper mills are further proof of that failure.

Community Champion

 @michellez ‌, I would say that your efforts to move away from high-stakes assignments to a more process-oriented approach is a big part of the solution to this problem! 🙂

Community Contributor

Thank you laurakgibbs- I love that you focus on how to FIX the problem! 

Community Contributor

Thanks for commenting...I'll definitely keep an eye out for keywords you mentioned..I was actually thinking of making of subject/subject comparison via an infographic? You think that is a good idea  @michellez ? 

Community Contributor

You're so right about including about teaching writing as a meaningful solution. Do you feel, however, that due to the weight of courses and time constraints instructors might not be able to allot the time required to teach writing along with the course itself? I think this is a place where AI has huge potential to intervene and augment. 

Community Contributor

waaaseee  Yes, I think that's a great idea - although iI hope it is not too much work for you.

Community Champion

Time is a big part of it, and if instructors have limited time, then they should design their courses to make best use of that time. Having all the students turn in 10-page papers at the end of the semester is probably the worst way to do that. Instead, shorten the writing and spread it out so that you are reading and responding to some amount of student writing every week, and design your course based on the effort you can make.

Another option: make the writing assignments optional, allowing students to demonstrate knowledge/skills in other ways besides writing. That way, you are left with the students who want to work on their writing, and you can spend your time working with students on their writing who actually want to devote time to their writing also.

AI cannot assess writing or respond to it in meaningful ways, but AI can help in monitoring student progress/success in other kinds of activities that are more objective / less subjective. If you want to use AI, you need to find student work that is AI-compatible. Writing is not one of those areas. But there are LOTS of ways that students can demonstrate skills/knowledge, and adaptive testing so that you are building truly accurate, reliable tests that measure student performance is a great use of AI.

Community Champion


I believe the company waaaseee works for is interested in the ways AI can work with writing. Check out this page on what appears to be their key product: Serum: Detect contract cheating with behavioral analytics | Slate. It is an interesting approach for sure, and I am curious about it, but it makes me think of a digital Panopticon. Smiley Happy  

Community Champion

That is something very different: it is not about giving feedback to students ABOUT their writing, to improve their writing. There are some AI projects out there which claim to "help" students with automated feedback, like the Lightside Lab project that TurnItin bought and is now marketing as Revision Assistant. I've written extensively about Lightside and engaged in long conversations online with their lead developer. It's a terrible application of machine learning in my opinion, and with the way TurnItIn is marketing it, it will become even worse than the original Lightside project (more automated, with even less room for true AI / machine learning).

I'm not really interested in plagiarism policing in any form; that's policing, not teaching. But I know it is a big business.

Meanwhile, I really appreciate the way that waaaseee‌ has initiated some fantastic discussions here. Just because I do not believe in automated policing for plagiarism does not mean I am not interested in the topic, and I have really enjoyed all these discussions!

Community Contributor

Having a 10 page paper turnt in is the norm, at least from what I experience. A key reason for that (from what I have observed) is that most instructors just want to see what the student ended up with, due to time or motivational issues.

For example, a dissertation supervisor would be happy in reading in chunks but not, say, an under-graduate social science professor who has like way many students and they want their students to feel life in the "grown up lane" so hate to spoon feed etc. Law is one area where I think people are expected to have strong writing skills, and I hope  @michellez  will chime-in about chunked assessments.

I don't think, however, that making written assessments optional will work for everyone. For some degrees/courses it seems certain that writing/research skills are too essential to deem optional. As someone who essentially teaches language I'd love to know what  @dhulsey ‌ thinks about this.

I wonder if having students read each others' chunk of writing is an elegant solution to this though.

Community Champion

If instructors only want to see what students ended up with, then that is not TEACHING writing. It will only work if students are strong, confident, independent writers. And... at least at my school... they are not. For lots of reasons.

I believe in the teaching of writing, and if instructors don't know how to do that, then they can/should learn. There are lots of ways to improve writing dimensions of a class that do NOT take more time. But they do take more teaching skills.

Research skills and writing skills are VERY different, and I think we would do well to separate them: teach research skills, teach writing skills, but don't necessarily bundle them. And if research skills matter more than writing skills (and often they do), then be honest about that and find ways for students to produce research products that are not formal end-of-semester papers. Annotated bibliographies, etc. Lots of options.

Having students read each other's writing is valuable, but you cannot expect them to do the work of an instructor. I rely a lot of student-to-student feedback for motivation, encouragement, brainstorming, etc., but it's very different from the kind of feedback students get from me, and teaching students HOW to give good feedback is another task to add to the list of teaching tasks; you can't just tell students "give feedback" and expect it will go well. I spend two weeks helping students get ready both to give and receive feedback, and of course I do tons of modeling when it comes to feedback.

Here are my two assignments for getting students ready to do feedback work:

Online Course Wiki / Receiving Feedback 

Online Course Wiki / Giving Feedback 

Weaving growth mindset throughout my course design is another big way I help students to appreciate the value of mistakes, the role of feedback in learning, etc. Here are the "feedback cats" for example (often inspired by useful infographics):

Growth Mindset Resources: Feedback Cats 

Feedback tells me to try harder.

Feedback tells me to try harder. mama cat and kitten.

Community Contributor

Thanks waaaseee - you're right about law school and strong writing skills.  The legal writing professors have students begin writing and analysis right away and it is important that they obtain feedback and review so that they can improve.  Chunking has recently been addressed at our faculty meetings and I have started using chunking in for one assignment.  For instance, this semester, I am having the students submit a portion of an appellate brief for one assessment and then the remainder for the final assessment. In past years, the whole project was submitted all together.

In many ways it's nice for the students to concentrate on one portion at a time. They can focus on cases and legal issues that pertain only to that particular part of the assignment. I have some concerns, however, about their understanding of the entire project as a whole and learning how the pieces fit together. I will be happy to share my findings once I complete the grading for the semester. 

#formative assessment#summative assessment

Community Champion

Just out of curiosity,  @michellez ‌, how do you find the balance between feedback for content, for style, and for writing mechanics...?

Admittedly, my students are not law students, but they are graduating seniors, some of them hoping to become law students, and all of them are dealing with some writing mechanics deficits. Some of them have really big areas to work on (especially punctuation and the kinds of spelling errors that spellcheck is no help with).

Community Contributor

Hi laurakgibbs‌. I can understand completely.  Unfortunately, many of the students at my institution have severe writing deficiencies.  We have a wonderful Writing Center to help with common basic writing mechanics like punctuation and grammar. Individually, we provide instruction on this as well and detailed feedback for every assessment.  We specialize in legal writing, which incorporates legal analysis so the feedback is specifically designed to this style. It is sometimes a struggle to find a balance because they must learn the skills for the course but they also need feedback on some of the basics in order to get there. 

Community Champion

I am so glad to hear you are helping with that!!! I work a lot on sentence-level feedback, and many students have told me they have never gotten help with that before. I actually enjoy it (I find writing errors of all kinds to be fascinating... I am a frustrated linguist at heart), and one of my big motivations for doing no grading is to make sure students realize that I mean it when I say they will not be punished for mistakes: instead, I will give them feedback on that so they can have the chance to practice, revise, and learn the things that, for whatever reason, they did not learn (were not taught?) in school before. 

It's through that kind of work I realize the importance of human readers and human feedback. Punctuation often depends on the meaning of a sentence, so if the machine doesn't understand the meaning, it's not going to know how to punctuate the sentence properly.

Students are often surprised to find out that Microsoft Word grammar check is NOT enough... same also for Grammarly, WriteCheck and all these other services that will take students' money without giving them fully accurate or fully reliable writing feedback in return. And false positives and false negatives do so much damage that, for many students, using grammar checking software is one of the worst possible things they can do.

Community Champion

waaaseee‌, I teach about 200 students per term and teach First year composition and sophomore literature at a community college. I evaluate both process and end product. I ask for prewriting / scaffolding work and rough drafts and I read it all. I offer detailed and personalized feedback on it. I am not terribly eager to be replaced by an AI. I am interested in making my feedback better and more timely. Right now, here are the feedback tools I use in various assignments: rubrics, reusable comments (Turnitin QuickMarks or snippets saved in a clipboard manager), audio feedback, video feedback. Sometimes, I will even pick up the phone and call students.  

Community Contributor

Yes, I am definitely interested in how AI can work with writing and definitely in contract cheating/cheating as well (a very emotional topic for me).

Anyways, I felt that "plagiarism-detection" software do very little to actually help with a student's writing/learning hence we started by writing Slate Desktop . For example, citations are extremely confusing for students and we've tried to reduce the complexity involved around it. I mean look at this: Auto-complete for citations, it makes adding scholarly references as easy as mentioning someone on Canvas (or Twitter for that matter!). It really makes me happy, when people smile when they see it for the first time.

As for Serum, thanks for you curiosity  @dhulsey f you'd like I can send you credentials for a demo account.

Community Contributor

Is this the same assessment you mentioned in your low-stakes assesment blog post?

Community Champion

Yes yes yes on reusable comments... copy-paste-customize. That has been the key for me, including lots of links to help pages I've created on the problems I most often see. And the customizing is key: I copy-and-paste the generic text but then I adapt it since I'm going to say something quite different to a professional writing major than to an engineering major than to an international student working on English as a new language etc. etc.

That's because I get to know my students. That's human intelligence, not artificial. 🙂

Community Contributor

Stole the words right out of my mouth! It's so strange that people forget that the "A" in A.I stands for "artificial" not "actual" lol

Community Contributor

It's not that much work really..I have to write out code just once Smiley Happy

Community Contributor

You are one of the few people who actually talk about learning from your students, as much as they learn from you. It's very refreshing.

And, yeah, I was wrong to lump research/writing in one category. But usually writing is involved in courses where research is involved because all of the research has to be documented and reflected on etc.

I mean from the auction bids I have shared above it is very apparent that lack of writing skills seems to be the primary motivator for cheating of this sort. To sum it all up, you advocate that a sustainable solution is to teach students to write better rather than policing them? Am I right?

Community Champion

YES: to ask students to do writing is very different from HELPING them to learn to write well.

What's great about writing is that everybody can learn to improve their writing (and that includes me). So, there's always something for everyone in the class to do as they work on their writing skills. And that includes me too! 🙂

As for motivation: I would say it is the combination of lack of writing skills AND fear of being punished by bad grades as a result of that lack of skills.

Plus boredom.

Boredom is an ANTI-motivator. 🙂

Community Participant

I just found this thought-provoking post and discussion thread. So many thoughts are swirling in my brain right now, I can hardly express myself coherently. 

First, about the web crawler and its results: It can certainly be useful to crawl through raw data to identify tendencies and areas for potential follow-up. However, similar to spam/junk email filters, the algorithms may misidentify messages and require constant fine-tuning and learning.

For example, in reading through the actual messages, some are potentially not related to contract cheating.:

I need a book publisher

I am a professor in University of Mumbai. I would like to use my knowledge and spread it throughout my 1000+ students by writing a book in my subject. I specialize in Botany - Plant Taxonomy and need help in publishing my book by June 2018

And others sound more like requests for tutoring than outright cheating:

Proofred my article

There are several English articles writings that I combined in one article and translated in German, but my employer didn't liked it and he insists that article is written like the native german writer wrote it. I'm student and my budget is not so high, therefore I can't offer bigger price then this and it is a big article. It is over 6000 words, but I do not need someone who is going to read everything and edit it. I need native german who will point me to mistakes and explain to me, so I can edit them and improve my german and do further project without any problem. Only native German freelancers are required.


Secondly, I love how this discussion has evolved into being about supporting students. I've learned some new ways to help students improve their writing just from the ideas and resources in this discussion. Also, importantly, I've gotten some great ideas to support instructors as well.

There are so many reasons that students struggle with their writing. Depending on class size, it can be overwhelming for instructors to provide the individual support that some students need. Pride, personality, socialization, culture, available resources, access to transportation, and so many other factors can affect a student's ability or willingness to get help. And, regrettably, some students didn't learn, or weren't taught, the importance and foundations of clear, concise, well-formed, and organized writing from the beginning.

As an instructor/instructional designer, whenever possible I provide alternatives for students to present what they've learned, both for accessibility and Universal Design for Learning. However, some fields require a minimum standard of quality in writing and students targeting those fields will still need to meet that standard. 

Like Laura Gibbs, I've also been surprised when students assume that tools like spell/grammar check in Word or Grammarly will fix all of their mistakes. What those students miss is the nuance and complexity of language and expression that AI and spell/grammar checkers have yet to master, including basics like accepting the wrong word simply because it's spelled correctly.

Community Contributor

Thank you for pointing out that the entire data-set wasn't accurate. This is what I alluded to when I said "the labeling process definitely needs to be improved (since there were some false positives)." (it was in the  future direction section). This was the first (of hopefully many crawls) and I aspire to improve it gradually. Please subscribe here if you wish to see more posts like these Smiley Happy . 

Community Contributor

 @dhulsey  how does this process differ from someone who doesn't teach language? Has this discussion ever come up?

Community Champion

waaaseee‌, I got lost. There are a lot of issues and processes percolating in this discussion. Which one are you asking me about? Smiley Happy

As for my curiosity, I might be up to take a look this summer when I am teaching fewer classes and have some, um, leisure time to indulge my curiosity.

Community Contributor

 @dhulsey , I was asking about you analyzing both the process and the end-product (chunking into smaller assessments). I was just trying to enquire if others (who do not teach language) follow the same process at your institute?

Community Champion

Thanks for reorienting me! Drafting seems pretty standard in the humanities -- history, speech, art appreciation, philosophy, etc. We don't see much scaffolding work on writing outside of the humanities though. 

Community Coach
Community Coach

But they should! One and done is not the way to write!

In my statistics class they turn in their initial draft for each part of their project (intro, methods, results, conclusion) before the final project is due. That way they have time time to make corrections and learn from their mistakes. 🙂

Community Champion

I agree with you,  @kona ‌. Smiley Happy 

Community Contributor

 @michellez ‌...I just recalled this conversation when I saw some legal papers in this batch...where should I send those out to you? I can't dm you as of right now..

Community Contributor

Thank you waaaseee - If they can be emailed, please use Thanks for remembering!

Community Contributor

Okay, I'll send them your way later today!