Courageous conversations


Academic misconduct is a shared challenge that demands a collaborative response. But what are the steps we need to take to help students admit mistakes and begin to make things right? To mark this month’s Plagiarism Prevention Day, we share an article by Cath Ellis (Assistant Professor, UNSW (Australia)), a leading researcher in the area of contract cheating, who challenges us to ask ourselves how we can begin to ask not just what happened, but why, and what we can do to help students move back to a state of integrity in their academic careers.


At the heart of every case of cheating is a real student, with real life and academic pressures, real emotions, and real dreams and aspirations. It’s important to remember that they're often both victims and perpetrators in this situation.

As my former colleague David House puts it: many people tend to look at contract cheating and think this is something that bad kids do at uni. It's not. It's the bad thing that kids do at uni. Our attitude towards contract cheating needs to change. What is needed is a shift from the dominant perception out there that contract cheating is both rare and egregious. It's neither.

Now, it doesn’t help that this is the new dominant form of cheating behaviour, the cut and paste plagiarism of 2021, if you will. And of course, most of us are horrified by the thought of contract cheating. It is just so far out of the realm of what we would even consider doing.

But we need to let go of at least some of our anger, frustration and disappointment. As with so many other circumstances in life, the first step to doing so is by having courageous conversations with our students. What do we mean by courageous?

The courageous conversation is about sitting down with a student and raising concerns about the behaviour prior to investigation. It’s important to weigh our words carefully and be aware of the circumstances in which we say them. At this point, we're only ever talking about concerns rather than allegations, about mistakes rather than breaches.

When it comes to proving cheating, the threshold we have to reach is the balance of probability, not beyond reasonable doubt. The story being told by a student submitting work for assessment is “I did the work myself”. The story that the investigator needs to be able to tell is “this student didn’t write some or all of this work themselves”. Then it is up to the decision maker or decision makers to decide which story, on the balance of probability, is more plausible. 

Many mistakenly believe that it’s necessary to prove that the student definitely didn't write that essay. In fact, all that must be shown is that two or more documents submitted by the same student were not written by the same person. That is evidence that contract cheating has occurred.

That’s what makes our conversation with a student so important. It helps ascertain which story is more plausible. But as important is how it can help the student see just how implausible their story is. It gives them the opportunity to put their hands up, to admit that the game's up.

In fact, this is arguably the real value of having these courageous conversations because it takes courage to admit you've done the wrong thing. And it takes even more courage to commit to learning from it and to making things right.

And that's what we want from our students. Honesty, with themselves as much as us. It's the first sign to us that this is an individual who can act with integrity. That this is a person we can work with on this. And after all, we teachers are in the business of helping students learn from their mistakes, so that they can say, “Yes, I've made this mistake, but I want to find my way back to the path of integrity. And I want to graduate from this degree with a qualification I can be proud of.”

Once we get to that point, we’re in a position to move into working with integrity, and we can start reaping the benefits of courageous conversations.

First, it saves the students from the immense distress of a full-blown investigation, because if they admit to wrongdoing in or before the investigation is undertaken, then it's really an easier decision to be made.

It also saves the institution the expense of a full-blown investigation and radically reduces case turnaround time.

It can also enable institutions to offer a reduced penalty, to say “Okay, we'll take the harshest penalty off the table and we'll offer a reduced penalty because you've been able to act with integrity.”

These conversations also allow us to start identifying both the academic problems and educative interventions needed for this student, because you move on from “this has happened” to “why does it happen?” You can start having a really wonderful conversation with a student about where they want to go, and how to help them get there.

Finally, in a courageous conversation you get to say, “Well, disclosure means disclosure. You can't just tell us that you've done it. You need to show us information, screenshots, receipts. You need to name names, tell us what's going on here.”

This point of full disclosure is important, and not just because it helps the student draw a line under the matter. It’s crucial to gathering really important probative evidence that can be redeployed not just in that particular case, but elsewhere too. It’s the key not just to bringing a successful close to a cheating case, but to successfully opening up a new front in the fight against contract cheating and taking the fight to those providing those services.


This article is based on ‘Detecting and Investigating Contract Cheating Cases and Supporting Students Through the Process’, a presentation delivered by Assistant Professor Cath Ellis (UNSW, Australia) as one of a series of webinars organised by the National Academic Integrity Network in 2021 that aimed to stimulate discussions on issues in the field of academic integrity. Watch the full presentation below.