Detecting and Investigating Contract Cheating Cases and Supporting Students through the Process


Assistant Professor Cath Ellis of UNSW (Australia) joined the National Academic Integrity Network recently to share her insights and advice on dealing with contract cheating. You can watch her fascinating talk in full here but here are some key takeaways:

The importance of having robust detection procedures as well as those for deterrence

Cath shared some Australian research that highlighted that staff hadn’t reported suspected cases of academic misconduct in a significant proportion of cases, the three main reasons being given as staff reporting that ‘it is impossible to prove’, ‘too time consuming and don’t know how to pursue it’, ‘staff not supported by senior managers to pursue it’. She then posed the question - so what are the reasons why under-reporting in your institution may be the case and how can you examine this to see where the barriers may be? 

The evidence of student engagement with these cheating services is ‘hiding in plain sight’.  

Cath suggested that the reason we aren’t finding it is that we aren’t looking for it – or maybe that we are worried of what we may find once we start looking. She quoted Tracey Bretag et al research from 2019 and Phillip Newton from 2018 which identified that the proportion of cheating in Australian HEIs is around 10%.  

High Incidence, High Suspicion, Low Detection 

Detection was described as not necessarily hard work, but it is a lot of work and Kane Murdoch, her colleague at UNSW, involved in detection procedures, described some processes.

Academic integrity is everyone’s responsibility, but it also needs to be explicitly someone’s job. 

We should think about the language we use when talking about academic misconduct – she said that in UNSW they never refer to the students as ‘cheaters’.

The three commandments of effective academic judgement:  

Know thy Course 

Know thy Content   

Know thy Students  

Students as Perpetrators and Victims 

Students are human beings with their own dreams and aspirations who don't set out to circumnavigate the system. Cath talked about the newly implemented UNSW approach – Courageous Conversations – based on the principles of restorative justice and the constructive way in which it enables students who have engaged in the use of cheating services to come forward. Based on an approach of retraining and education, it was interesting to hear the stories about the absolute relief that students said they had felt from being able to admit to it and find a way forward which wasn’t solely punitive.  


In closing remarks, Cath poses the following questions for discussion with staff at institutional level:

  • What could be done to streamline processes at your institution?  
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of the existing processes?  
  • Are they fit for purpose?
  • Are they well understood?  
  • What might be changed?
  • Who has this within their sphere of control? Influence?
  • How might you work with students as partners to improve the process and the outcomes?  

Engaging Students in Academic Integrity 

To find out more about what is happening in Ireland to engage students around the issues of contract cheating and academic integrity, catch up with this blog written by QQI and the Union of Students Ireland for the recent QAA Annual Conference on the #myownwork campaign.