Students Pay the Price: Doctoral Candidates are Targeted by Contract Cheating Websites

Andrew Kelly, Kylie J Stevenson
International Journal of Doctoral Studies  •  Volume 16  •  2021  •  pp. 363-377

This paper analyses the textual features of contract cheating websites that offer thesis writing services for doctoral students and considers implications for practice.

Contract cheating is an increasing challenge for higher education institutions, governments and societies worldwide. However, relatively little is known about the prevalence of online thesis writing services and the ways in which these companies attract doctoral students as customers.

This study has a three-step textual analysis methodological approach: firstly, identifying contract cheating websites that target doctoral students; secondly, applying a top-down thematic approach to the literature to identify potential vulnerabilities; and, thirdly, using these themes in a textual analysis to interrogate the language used on these websites.

Much of the current research into contract cheating has focused on coursework students. This study builds on the small sub-field of scholarship that has investigated contract cheating in a research writing context, and in contradistinction to previous studies, analyses the persuasive language features used by online contract cheating websites in the context of commonly reported doctoral student challenges. This is a novel approach not yet explored in the literature.

The analysis reveals that contract cheating websites include specific language to appeal to doctoral students’ vulnerabilities across four common themes: ‘balancing work and personal life’, ‘the complexity of doctoral academic writing’, ‘self-efficacy’ and ‘academic career progression’.

The themes present in this study highlight the critical role thesis supervisors can play in supporting doctoral students’ thesis writing progression, as well as the value of peer learning groups in building self-efficacy. The limited research literature into contract cheating in a doctoral context also suggests a need for increased training and awareness-raising programs for supervisors, thesis examiners and new graduate students.

Future studies that further investigate the prevalence of these themes across a broader scope of websites and countries will provide greater insights into the extent to which these websites are a global threat to vulnerable doctoral students.

The paper provides a foundation for researchers and graduate schools to raise greater awareness of contract cheating amongst doctoral students and, in so doing, combats the reputational risks it can have on universities and the potential safety risks for the general public.

Semi-structured interviews and focus groups with doctoral students and supervisors that explore their awareness of contract cheating for thesis writing and their ability to identify research writing that has been completed by a third-party.

contract cheating, academic integrity, doctoral students
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