Why Did You Do It? The Psychology of Contract Cheating

Contract cheating is any work someone does for a student (whether paid or unpaid or as a trade for services) that they then represent as their own. It can be:

  • Receiving a paper written by a family member or a friend on your behalf for free.
  • Paying an individual to write a paper on your behalf.
  • Commissioning an essay in exchange for services (i.e., a roommate writes a paper in exchange for a months’ worth of dishwashing).
  • Paying an essay mill for a paper written on your behalf.

Contract cheating is a form of academic misconduct, even if it isn’t an act of plagiarism.It is an extreme behavior that students undertake at great risk. So what is going through students’ heads when they engage in contract cheating?

That’s an excellent question. You know who has the answer? Essays mills.

In a brief ten minute search of Essay Mills’ websites, we observed messaging that was either nurturing and empathetic:

  • “Take a Break From Writing Essays”
  • “Essay Writing Made Easy: Do Not Stress Yourself with Academic Writing Pressures When We Can Deliver the Best for You”
  • “The Professional Essay Writing Service for Students Who Can’t Even”
  • “Taking Care of You Every Step of the Way”
  • “Relax. Your Wish is Our Command.”

Or, it reassured students that purchasing a paper was normal, not deviant, behavior:

  • “100% Plagiarism-Free Essays”
  • “Providing Students with Original Papers Since 1997”
  • “Key to Your Academic Success”
  • “Satisfied, Returning Customers”
  • “Today, a Lot of Students Yearn to Connect with Cheap Custom Essay Writing Service [sic]”

These messages contain words that a stressed student under deadline might be thirsty to hear. Who isn’t receptive to the words “care” or “relax” or “easy” while under pressure? These are nods of reassurance. These are empathetic messages that essay mills send out to students. In parallel, essay mills also influence students into thinking contract cheating is normal and prevalent, which they enforce with messages like “plagiarism-free” and “returning customers,” as well as testimonials from said customers.

Their goal is to normalize contract cheating so it appears less illicit.
This is not unlike how cigarette companies normalize smoking by showing tobacco use with commonplace activities. This is how they turn students into repeat customers.

They further this normalization through their social media presence. Many essay mills reply to student tweets about writing essays--putting essay mills at the top of students’ minds at emotionally vulnerable moments. By being interactive and seemingly ubiquitous, they reinforce the notion that contract cheating is “normal.” And of course, responding to students who tweet frustration is an opportunistic act of concern. They’re there. They’re approachable. They’re listening. They’re out in the open, as normal as can be.

Yes, this sounds predatorial. Their goal is to feel prevalent--and they very well may be, given that contract cheating is hard to detect and prove.

The other facet of this is that contract cheating is ultimately a collaborative act between two humans--whereas with plagiarism, only one person, the plagiarizer, is aware. Both the ghostwriter and the student are cognizant of the transactional nature of their relationship. So there’s the added factor that the essay mill writers also normalize their work. They have to get over an ethical hurdle to do the job they do and justify their actions. And they do.

At this point, students have engaged an essay mills’ services and they have met another human being willing to participate in unethical behavior with them. As contract cheating begins, students feel relief. When all the parties involved normalize contract cheating and yield immediate results--it makes the newly relieved student receptive to further indoctrination.

The result is that students repeat the very messages of the essay mills when caught.
In a brief survey of our teacher network, we collected student excuses in response to being caught:

  • ”This isn’t the same as plagiarism, this is original work. And I paid for it”
  • “You can’t kick me out, because I paid for it”
  • “Everyone else is doing it”
  • “It isn’t plagiarism. It’s all original”
  • “Contract cheating wasn’t mentioned on the syllabus”

Students are especially susceptible when they aren’t educated on the nuances of academic misconduct, or when there aren’t deterrents or detections in place. Not only do essay mills make it easy for students to buy an essay--they make students feel welcome and absolved with their messaging.

The way to fight this psychological narrative is through education.
We can’t let the essay mills control the messaging around contract cheating--educators must take charge, define it in our syllabi, and support students in recognizing this practice as a form of academic misconduct. We have to take on tactics to mitigate contract cheating. These are all deterrent measures--and it’s a start.

Posted on the Turnitin Blog on 12 February, 2019. To read more great stories visit our blog.

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  • Hoping this helps unpack why students use essay mills. Do you have any anecdotes? 

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