Graduate student supervisor or advisor resource

Outsourcing academic work has a long history. The commercial “ghost writing” industry first captured the attention of journalists, academics, and administrators in US in the 1930s1, although its history goes back much further. By the 1960s, the contract cheating industry was openly and aggressively advertising their services in newspapers and magazines, and universities and governments were attempting to suppress this industry. At the same time, the commercial contract cheating industry was developing in Canada and attempts were made (particularly in Ontario in the 1970s and 1980s) to quash the activities of these companies2.

This resource provides a brief overview of contract cheating and some misconceptions associated with the behaviour and the industry.

What is contract cheating?

In 2006, Robert Clarke and Thomas Lancaster (two computer science professors and researchers in the UK) coined the term contract cheating and defined it as the outsourcing of academic work to a third party, and then submitting that work as one’s own for credit.3

A more recent definition of the phenomenon has been provided as “a basic relationship between three actors: a student, their university, and a third party who completes assessments for the former to be submitted to the latter, but whose input is not permitted.”4

Some misconceptions about contract cheating

1. Contract cheating is very rare.

Most students do not engage in contract cheating, but the rate of this practice is still concerning. Studies investigating the prevalence of contract cheating report a range of 3 – 15% of students will submit work completed by a contract cheating supplier for course credit.5

2. It is not considered contract cheating if students ask parents, siblings, and friends for help to complete some or all of an assessment.

Researchers differentiate between commercial contract cheating and non-commercial contract cheating, recognizing that course work may be completed on behalf of a student without the exchange of money, particularly when friends and family members complete the schoolwork for them.6

3. Contract cheating is impossible to detect.

Although detection rates are low, contract cheating can be identified when the characteristics are known.7,8 These are some examples of characteristics of outsourced work:

  • Examine document metadata: Check if the name of the author of the document matches the name of the student.
  • Look for quotations or citations from journal articles that draw from the excerpts of abstracts, rather than from the main journal article, and/or from books available from online sources only (e.g., Google Books, Amazon).
  • Be alert to in-text citations do not match sources in the reference list.
  • Observe selective compliance to assessment instructions, and suspicious broadening of the research topic. Contract cheaters write quickly and broadly, recycle material, and may not attend to assessment instructors.
  • Pay attention to “compositional dexterity”- suspiciously high writing quality than what you might expect, and inaccurate research.
  • Be alert to style. If you know your students, look for text that does not match their style.

4. Only undergraduate students engage in contract cheating, and graduate students don’t.

Cecelia Parnther9 examined the messaging of 102 websites that targeted graduate students, and “On every website, the dissertation/thesis is presented as a problem outside a student’s control, at times even an insurmountable goal. Graduate student challenges are addressed, specifically related to work and family demands, the urgent need for a quality paper, time limitations, and the document’s importance. Solutions were presented to problems classified as being related to instruction, student challenges, time constraints, and the importance of the work.”

These websites typically characterize faculty, including research advisors/supervisors, as critical, uncaring, overly demanding, and unavailable to provide a meaningful feedback.

Contract cheating companies capitalize on the fear and anxiety that graduate students may have and then offer solutions in the form of expert writers that know what professors and advisors are looking for.

What can research advisors or supervisors do to prevent contract cheating?

The most important way that advisors or supervisors can support graduate students to make the right decision around contract cheating is to discuss the issue with them.10–12

  • The conversations with graduate students is an effective way to bring a shared understanding of the complexity of contract cheating. As part of the conversation, specify where and how your students can work together or access research support, where to access University of Manitoba policies and procedures for academic work and research, that the quality of their learning will be compromised if they outsource their research, and that they could be at risk of being blackmailed.13
  • Educate students about other ethical issues in graduate studies and research, such as predatory publishers and predatory conferences, duplicate publications, overly self-citing. When graduate students are equipped with knowledge, they can make good decisions related to their academic work, including their research and products of dissemination.


Contract cheating, and academic misconduct in general, is often seen as an undergraduate student problem. Although the research evidence suggests that academic misconduct is more common in younger (vs older) students and those in lower levels (i.e., first year and second year courses), academic misconduct, including contract cheating, is being committed by graduate students. Some of the reasons for the misconduct in upper levels of undergraduate programs and graduate programs are similar to those seen in lower levels, such as time pressures and workload, but the pressure to publish or perish can also drive graduate students to engage with contract cheating providers.

If graduate students fall victim to the contract cheating service providers, they are at risk for jeopardizing not only their graduate student careers but their futures as professional practitioners and researchers within their chosen fields.


Acknowledgements: This resource has been adapted from The prevention of contract cheating in an online environment authored by Phillip Dawson, Deakin University (

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. For more information: at The Centre for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning, University of Manitoba.

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The Centre for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning
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University of Manitoba (Fort Garry Campus)
Winnipeg, MB
R3T 2N2, Canada



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