Spectrum of Threats to Academic Integrity

One of the priorities identified this year by WCET’s Steering Committee was to shed light on the unscrupulous practice of third party sites that entice students to cheat. WCET learned that many of our member institutions regularly issue “cease and desist” notices to organizations that violate intellectual property by copying faculty content, assessments, etc. and then charge students to access these materials. WCET’s Steering Committee organized a working group to raise awareness about this problem. Throughout this three-part blog series, authors are united in the need for more awareness-building for faculty, students, and student services personnel. All agree we need to uphold the integrity of our degrees.

Today, to open the series, WCET welcomes Jen Simonds and Dan Gallagher, from University of Maryland Global Campus, to share about UMGC’s culture of academic integrity and how they respond when issues do occur.

In addition, this month, WCET will join with the International Center for Academic Integrity (ICAI) to participate in the 5th Annual International Day of Action Against Contract Cheating on Oct. 21. We encourage other organizations, college’s and universities to sign up and participate in ICAI’s website.

A big thank you to everyone who wrote, advised, brainstormed, and reviewed the articles included in our series. We’ll be back next week with the next installment. Thank you,

Mollie McGill, Deputy Director, WCET


The rise of the new cheating economy in higher education has been driven by commercialized websites that have monetized academic misconduct and repackaged it as so-called educational services and products. The practices of the new cheating economy are not new, but the internet vastly expands their prevalence and scale, and so intensifies potential threats to academic integrity. In response, the University of Maryland Global Campus has changed not only how we sustain a culture of academic integrity, but also how we define it in practice and respond to academic misconduct. The Academic Integrity Threat Spectrum is one tool we use in our approach to deterrence.

Academic Threat Spectrum – UMGC

The Academic Integrity Threat Spectrum

The Threat Spectrum arrays threat types by the severity of the risk, with the highest on the left and the lowest levels on the right.

Fraud – Degree for Hire

The most severe threat involves students engaging in academic fraud by hiring a paid contractor to complete an entire degree, from application through graduation, using original work throughout. Because the electronic footprint created by the contractor is consistent throughout the degree process and original work is not identifiable by similarity detection software, this is nearly impossible to prevent.

Fraud (degree for hire): full degree, account created by hired agent, fulldegree, account created by student, full course, partial course

At the same time, this form of fraud is rare because of the high cost of paying a contractor across the lifecycle of a degree. Moreover, this level of fraud requires students to surrender highly sensitive pieces of personal information (including SSN, if federal financial aid is involved) that even someone unscrupulous enough to buy a college degree may be reluctant to surrender. No reliable data is available on this type of cheating, but full end-to-end degree-for-hire services are not easily secured online.

More commonly, and next in order of comparative severity, is a paid contractor who will complete coursework within the student’s learning management system. This red-zone threat involves students providing a contractor with login and password credentials to the university’s learning management system. This poses risks to the student’s own identity and data, and to the institution’s cybersecurity: once in the classroom, the contractor can access other students’ educational data and records.

How Do They Target Students?

Students may seek out contractors, but it is also common for contractors to seek out students. Students honestly searching for assignment help online may find one of the many commercial websites that advertise their “excellent writers” who will complete assignments for a fee. Or students may be solicited by contractors who gain access to student email information once they have been hired by another student to complete work in that online classroom. More commonly, contractors push spam and phishing emails to students using language that presents the contractor as a “tutor.” When sent or received through a college/university system, or when implying that the contractor has “previously worked with other students in this course,” these emails may appear college/university-sanctioned to students who are not educated in the deceptive tactics of contract cheaters.

Academic Misconduct

More familiar or common forms of academic misconduct are shaded in teal. Beyond the most familiar forms of copy-paste plagiarism and faulty citation practices, this category encompasses more pernicious forms of internet-based transactional cheating that take multiple forms. These can include straightforward monetary transactions as well as online bartering in the form of assignment exchanges and assessment uploads hosted on commercial websites that position themselves as “study help” services.

These websites might provide some valid forms of academic assistance, but their primary business model involves the facilitation of plagiarism through the peer-to-peer sharing of completed assignment files. Students might not realize the pitfalls here: websites often misleadingly frame this type of peer-to-peer cheating as the sharing of “study materials” with other students in educational need in ways that present academic misconduct as an educationally beneficial act of generosity.

Copyright Violations

There are two related threats in the area shaded in gray that address unauthorized distribution of institutions’ proprietary teaching, learning, and assessment materials. First, students’ unauthorized distribution of an institution’s proprietary materials is a violation of institutional copyright. At UMGC, the university’s academic integrity policy defines such behavior as academic misconduct. Second, the violation of institutional copyright constitutes a threat to the integrity and quality of the teaching and learning enterprise, and so to institutional reputation and brand.

A Strategic and Tactical Response

Disaggregating academic conduct and threats from the new cheating economy along a threat spectrum in this way allows for a more strategic and tactically precise response to different types of academic misconduct and risks. Distinguishing threat types from one another facilitates the identification of unique root causes and ensures appropriately calibrated responses that foregrounds restorative justice practices and educational remediation alongside more traditional accountability measures. This measure of recontextualization improves the situational response to specific incidences of academic misconduct and bolsters a culture of academic integrity across the institution.


Jen Simonds,
Asst. Vice President for Academic Integrity & Accountability
University of Maryland Global Campus

Dan Gallagher
Director
Effective Writing Center
University of Maryland Global Campus

Posted by

My name is Lindsey Rae Downs. I am the Assistant Director of Communications and Community for WCET, the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies. I work remotely from beautiful Helena, MT.

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