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Towards Consistency and Transparency in Academic Integrity

Edited By Salim Razı, Irene Glendinning and Tomáš Foltýnek

This book is an outcome of the 4th International Conference «Plagiarism across Europe and Beyond» organized by Canakkale Onsekiz Mart University, Mendel University in Brno, and the European Network for Academic Integrity. The conference is co-funded by the Erasmus+ Strategic Partnerships Programme of the European Union. It aims to be a forum for sharing best practices and experiences by addressing issues of academic integrity from a wide-scope global perspective. With regards to the crucial role of ethics and honesty in academic work, universities are in need of more effective policies against infringements of academic standards. The papers in this book therefore aim to contribute to the standardization of consistent and transparent approaches to issues of academic integrity from several perspectives.

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Whose Work Is It Anyway? Exploring the Existence of Contract Cheating in the UAE Context (Zeenath Reza Khan / Sabiha Mumtaz / Priyanka Hemnani / Sanjana Raheja)

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Zeenath Reza Khan1, Sabiha Mumtaz2, Priyanka Hemnani3 & Sanjana Raheja4

University of Wollongong in Dubai, UAE

Whose Work Is It Anyway? Exploring the Existence of Contract Cheating in the UAE Context

Abstract: Academic integrity is the foundation upon which the academic sector stands. Contract cheating, a form of academic dishonesty where students get assessments written by others, has taken on a darker turn with the ease of use and over-reliance on technology. To the best of the researchers’ knowledge, no studies so far have looked at the student population and trends in contract cheating in the UAE (United Arab Emirates), a country whose education sector has been booming in recent years. Therefore, it is imperative to explore and understand the contract cheating phenomenon in the UAE. For this preliminary study, focus group interviews were conducted with undergraduate students. The results indicated that 95% of students were aware of contract cheating, 91% aware of others receiving substantial, unpermitted help, and 77% were aware of others turning in work done by others. These findings document the first records of student-reported incidences and establish the existence of contract cheating in the UAE. With this knowledge, the paper paves the way for a comprehensive future study with a larger dataset of instances in the UAE.

Keywords: academic integrity, contract cheating, e-cheating, essay mills, student cheating, UAE


Academic misconduct is a global issue that has been researched consistently over the years (Bowers, 1964; McCabe, 1992; McCabe, Trevino & Butterfield, 2012). Studies have highlighted numerous reasons why students cheat or are likely to cheat, e.g. being overloaded at school (Newstead, Franklyn-Stokes, & Armstead, 1996), passing the course (Newstead, Franklyn-Stokes, & Armstead, 1996), getting ← 199 | 200 → grades and lack of time (Muhney et al., 2008), among others. With the infiltration of technology, cheating has transformed into e-cheating, with newer methods and forms of cheating (Khan, 2014). Contract cheating is a form of academic dishonesty where students get someone else or a company to write and complete their assessment, sometimes in exchange for money (Clarke & Lancaster, 2006). Students have been practicing getting someone else to write an essay or a report for decades (Betram Gallant, 2008). However, it has been the focus of research for the last decade due to a boom in websites and these web-based business models gaining popularity (Clarke & Lancaster, 2013). This act can be dated as far back as the nineteenth and early twentieth century when fraternity houses were found to have had mills in their basements churning out and often selling papers for friends, classmates and peers (Stavisky, 1973). The first cases of modern day “essay mills” showed up in the 1950s and 60s and mushroomed across campuses in the United States (Stavisky, 1973). The onset of technology and the Internet have only made the problem more far-flung and widespread (Lancaster, 2017), with the twenty-first century information era giving the term “paper mills” its own twist, i.e. it has now gone online.

Top universities in the UK, USA and Australia have been embroiled in essay mill scandals in recent years, conferring punishments ranging from failing subjects to revoking degrees (Grove, 2017; Khomami, 2017; Marsh, 2017). In the UK, Lords have called for the banning of online essay services and companies in a bid to tackle the problem (The Wave, 2017). On a similar note, Australia’s Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) has called for banning such services on or around the university campus and sites (Lane, 2017). Ireland recently took legal steps to criminalise and tackle essay mills following in the footsteps of New Zealand, which made it illegal for companies to advertise any kind of third party services to students (McKie, 2018). What is worrying is that traditional text-matching plagiarism-detecting solutions are unable to provide the means to detect and deter contract cheating (Lancaster & Clarke, 2014). Hence, a number of studies have begun to look closely at the issue of contract cheating such as Clarke and Lancaster (2013), Wallace and Newton (2014) and Rigby, Burton, Balcombe, Bateman, and Mulatu (2015) among others. Most recent studies have gone beyond establishing incidences and have made a significant contribution to exploring issues such as attempting to detect contract cheating in assesments (Clare, Walker & Hobson, 2017; Dawson & Sutherland-Smith, 2018; Rogerson, 2018), analysing contract cheating advertisements (Kaktins, 2018), and even exploring contract cheating as an agreement in order to analyse its legal and ethical ramifications (Tauginiene & Jurkevicius, 2017). ← 200 | 201 →

Relevance to UAE

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a young nation comprised of seven states or emirates that are ruled under a federal government (CIA, 2018). The country hosts a considerably large group of expatriates who represent more than 200 nationalities (Emirates 24/7, 2016). The UAE’s economy depends not only on oil but also tourism and more recently education (Ali, 2018). It is important to note here that the UAE is currently ranked 17th in the Global Digital Competitiveness index, topping globally in Business Agility, Future Readiness, Regulatory Framework and Technology (Cherrayil, 2018). The country is a magnet for digital startup companies and innovative entrepreneurs (Sadaqat, 2018), and boasts spending power averaging AED 480,315.09 million from 2001 until 2017 (Trading Economics, 2018).

Until 1977, the UAE had only one higher education institution (US Department of Commerce, 2018) but has now replaced Malaysia and Singapore to become the fourth most-desired destination for higher education after the USA, UK and Canada (The Young Vision, 2016). It is a higher education hub for students from all over the world and to cater to this demand, various international universities are establishing their offshore campuses here. More than 100,000 higher education students are enrolled in these universities (CAA, 2018). Dubai alone has more than 25 branch campuses of international universities (Swan, 2014) having different syllabi, culture, and governance, making UAE a very diverse educational service provider.

Studies carried out nationally highlight 60–80% self-reported cases of cheating and plagiarism (Moussly, 2012; Shahbandri, 2015; Swan, 2017). It is important to note that we found only 42 national studies conducted on academic misconduct through a simple metadata search using Google from January 2017 to January 2018 for the period 2005–2017. About 50% of those studies were research studies while the rest were news articles. To the best of the researchers’ knowledge, no studies have looked at contract cheating among students in the UAE and Middle East, indicating a significant gap in the literature.

With the UAE’s young education sector establishing quality education and producing graduates on a global platform, it is crucial to explore and understand the current status of contact cheating among higher education students, given the above evidence of existence of other forms of academic dishonesty. This can provide a strong basis for developing a holistic approach to tackling the menace of contract cheating in the UAE. ← 201 | 202 →

To establish the need for such an explorative investigation, this paper is positioned as a preliminary focus group study targeting higher education students in the UAE.

Research Objective

The research objectives of the study aim to:

RO1. determine evidence of the existence and awareness of contract cheating among higher education students in the UAE.

RO2. (i) explore the services which students most frequently use for contract cheating

(ii) explore the reasons why students use contract cheating services.

RO3. understand how students are most commonly contacted by essay mills.

Research Methodology

To fulfill the research objectives of this project, focus group interviews were conducted as they are very good tools to use for conducting exploratory research, especially when little is known of the topic of investigation (Stewart, Shamdasani, & Rook 2007).

The recommended sise for a focus group is generally between five to twelve respondents (Marczak & Sewell, 2018; Tynan & Drayton, 1988), with fewer respondents recommended for a sensitive or difficult topic (Tynan & Drayton, 1988), and multiple sessions are said to yield stronger results (Stewart, Shamdasani, & Rook, 2007). Hence, four focus group interviews were conducted for this study, with two focus group sessions having five respondents each and two sessions having six respondents each.

After attaining ethical clearance, independent research assistants recruited and trained in the rules of engagement (Krueger, 1988) moderated the four sessions. At each session, lasting 30–45 minutes, the focus group moderators explained the process of the group interview and consent/removing consent; and noted the responses without any identifiable information about the respondents. After the interviews, the research assistants met for a debriefing with the researchers.

Results and Discussion

In this section, demographic information and focus group deliberations addressing the three research objectives will be discussed. ← 202 | 203 →

Demographic findings of the study

Of the 22 respondents, 9 were female and 13 were male. The mix of students was thus gender balanced. Further, the students were all undergraduate students having proportional representation from both the school of business and that of engineering.

Figure 1: Distribution of respondents by gender


Findings addressing research objective RO1

When prompted on awareness of contract cheating, only 5% of the group had never heard of such an act and were surprised it could be considered as academic dishonesty. In contrast, 95% of the group agreed that they had in fact heard of contract cheating. Further discussions revealed that 86% of group were aware of at least one individual who had requested help in writing their assessment, thus indicating a very high level of awareness of contract cheating and recorded instances of contract cheating among the students.

Figure 2: Percentage of respondents who had heard of or had knowledge of contract cheating as an academic misconduct


← 203 | 204 →

Figure 3: Percentage of respondents aware of at least one individual who had asked someone else to write his/her assignment


The awareness level and recorded incidents, albeit indirect, seem astonishingly high. Further discussion with the groups revealed interesting information indicating the seriousness of the issue. While 77% of the group had heard of students turning in work done by someone else, 91% had heard of students receiving substantial unpermitted help on an assignment, and 64% had heard of students writing a paper for someone else.

These findings can be considered very significant. According to Bretag (2017), the range of students who turn in work done by someone else is typically 6–10%, a number that is similar to a recent study in the Czech Republic that found 8% self-reported instances of contract cheating (Foltynek & Kralikova, 2018). In our study, the numbers recorded were higher than this. We feel that the modus operandi of a focus group, whereby the interviews were done by student research assistants with assurance of total anonymity of the researchers and confidentiality, led to a high level of confidence and engagement among the participants, who then gave honest and genuine answers. This is further supported by the literature, which strongly suggests that when dealing with sensitive topics (such as contract cheating in this study), focus groups of friends is a very good methodology to use in order to record accurate results based on the participants’ discussion (Oliveira, 2011). In fact, extant literature on focus group methodology for sensitive topics has shown that it helps to establish an enjoyable, more constructive atmosphere of data collection, moving power from the researcher to the participants (Morse, 1994; Kitzinger, 1994; Kitzinger & Barbour, 1999). Our results seem to support this argument and in turn help to explain the anomalous finding.

It is also very important to note here that as this study has a small sample sise and is a preliminary study, we do not claim that the results are a representative sample for a population of higher education students. However, these findings ← 204 | 205 → definitely justify the claim that contract cheating exists among students in the UAE and needs further investigation.

Findings addressing research objective RO2

In further developing an understanding of contract cheating in the UAE’s education sector, discussions revealed that the focus group contract-cheated most in theory and research-based or subjective courses that expect more writing than numerical or facts, a finding that is consistent with the existing literature (Trenholm, 2007).

Table 1: Responses Suggesting Most-Likely Subjects that Students May Resort to Contract Cheating

Subjects most likely to attract contract cheatingTotal%
Research subjects314%
Difficult subjects29%
Easy subjects314%
Minor subjects29%
Major subjects15%
No Answer15%

Group members mentioned that the subjects students considered “Easy” also had a high chance of being outsourced. This draws attention towards the nature of assessment and the relevance of assessment design to learning outcomes, as reported by Rogerson (2018) and Baird and Clare (2017).

In addition, the group quoted lack of enthusiasm, poor time management and procrastination as possible primary reasons why students sought alternative ways to get their assessments completed. ← 205 | 206 →

Table 2: Responses Suggesting Reasons for Contract Cheating

Close deadline, or submission required in the due week itself314%
No motivation for the subject/teacher/assessment/learning836%
Not having the required skill set to complete the assignment15%
When the weighted grade of the subject is too high29%
Working at a job as well as studying at university, laziness, or poor time management314%
Difficult subjects requiring a lot of research29%
Not participating in the discussed topic314%

Discussing ‘cost’ as a significant possible enabler, 64% agreed that cost certainly mattered for students when getting a paper written, just as 64% agreed it also mattered how soon assessments would be completed and returned. However, it is also interesting to note that the focus group thought students would also be cautious of the quality of the work the students received and be more likely to contract cheat in group assessments where they could share the overall cost, a finding supported by Rigby et al. (2015).

When the focus group discussed the topic of faculty members ignoring contract cheating and that of university policy, they were split on both points, and interestingly so. While 50% agreed that some faculty ignored the issue, 27% said their faculty did not ignore it, 5% said that sometimes faculty ignored it, and 18% said they were not sure. Similarly, 43% said they found university policies hindered contract cheating while 33% said they helped, 14% said they were not sure, and 10% did not participate in this discussion. These findings, especially about the role of policy, are interesting. While the findings on teachers’ attitudes are consistent with existing research (Khan, 2014), the finding on policy is quite contradictory, as literature has thus far always pointed to the importance of policy as deterrents of academic misconduct (Bretag et al., 2011; Khan, 2014). When further discussed, the group revealed that they felt the policies in their campuses did not take contract cheating into account as academic misconduct and “only focused on plagiarism”. This is an interesting finding because it also brings to light the need for consistency in academic integrity policies, which has been and continues to be a focus for researchers across the globe (Khan, Khelalfa, Sarabdeen, Harish, & Raheja, 2018; Tennant, Rowell, & Duggan, 2007). We feel there is scope for further investigating students’ responses on a large scale and acquiring a deeper ← 206 | 207 → understanding of how students view the role of university policies in helping or hindering contract cheating on their campuses.

Findings addressing research objective RO3

This sub-section throws significant light on students’ perception of whom they deem to be a third party; how they are approached, and how they approach others to contract cheat.

It is important to note that the focus group did not necessarily define ‘third party’ as essay mills as they mentioned a variety of personal contacts such as ‘seniors’, ‘friends’, and peer groups including ‘current classmates’, and even ‘working people’ as possible third parties. One group member discussed a strange phenomenon not found in prior contract cheating literature:

Students sometimes ask multiple students to write segments of the assignment, for instance, for a 1000-word report or essay, a student might approach five different students and ask them to write 200 words each.

Group members were then encouraged to discuss how and where they thought students were approached by third parties. While 50% agreed they knew of students who went looking for someone to write their papers for them, they were quick to point out e-mail, advertisements, social media and even outdoor student events as means and places where companies contacted them regularly. They expressed surprise at the level of professionalism demonstrated by the agents approaching them, who were sometimes post-graduate students in their own universities, working for mills or looking for contract jobs to earn extra money. One respondent further explained:

Companies seem to know exactly who we are, where we study, and contact us on a regular basis, as if from a database of clients.

Therefore, the focus groups were well-aware of how and where the companies approached students to pitch their business.

The above findings stand as a record of contact cheating incidents among higher education students in the UAE although, as discussed previously, the small sample sise does not reflect the entire student population’s behavior or practice. However, we cannot ignore that the data reveals statistics much higher than reported in current literature. Hence, further research is proposed to quantitatively explore the nature and extent of contract cheating behavior in the UAE. ← 207 | 208 →


Contract cheating is a constant threat to academia (Lancaster, 2017) and stakeholders are waking up to the true depths of the infiltration of contract cheating everywhere (Bretag et al., 2018). In response, stakeholders are also bringing in policy and regulation changes (Lane, 2017).

The findings from this pilot study confirm the first recorded instances of contract cheating among higher education students in the UAE as reported by the students themselves and provide preliminary insights on areas more prone to contract cheating. The results highlight the enablers of cheating (cost, high subject weightage, un-enthusiasm, simultaneous submission of multiple assignments, procrastination) and emphasise the importance of faculty action and university policy in reducing students’ likelihood to contract cheat. The study also made a significant discovery in the manner and behavior of students in using peers, friends and seniors more than actual companies and the practice of using multiple ghost writers for a single assignment. This provides an insight into specific patterns of behavior that may be prevalent among the student body in the UAE, uniquely different from other regions.

One of the limitations of the study is the small sample sise but keeping in mind our aim of exploring the subject to establish the need for a more comprehensive study on contract cheating, we think it served our purpose.


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1 Assistant Professor, Faculty of Engineering and Information Science,

2 Assistant Professor, Faculty of Business

3 Faculty of Business,

4 Faculty of Business,