November 23, 2004

Academic outsourcing

Two email messages from faculty in computer science, recently passing through my inbox:

A: I wonder if I am hopelessly naive about these things, but has anyone else had any experience with ?
Apparently, this is a web site where students can hire other students to complete their programming assignments.  It seems that my latest  homework assignment in [Course X] was posted to the site.  I'm not quite sure how to proceed.
B: A colleague of mine at another university discovered one of her assignments at and simply bid very low, won the auction, and was contacted by the "winning" student...

B's solution is clever, but it won't always work -- student buyers can be anonymous, can disguise the solution before submitting it, might choose bids on the basis of reputation as well as price, etc.

However, I suppose that students who are not smart or industrious enough to do their own work may also not be smart or industrious enough to avoid being caught in simple traps.

I should point out that bills itself as a service to honest businesses rather than to dishonest students: "an international marketplace where people who need custom software developed can find coders in a safe and business-friendly environment. Buyers can cherry pick from a pool of 90,408 coders...enabling them to hire a coder across the country or across the globe…from the comfort of their computers." I don't have any idea what proportion of their transactions involve outsourcing course assignments. However, I observe that one of their work categories is "homework helper", so they are doing business in this space without any pretense.

Similar markets exist for paper writing and other tasks, not to speak of the large market in pre-written papers. For someone paying full tuition at private college or university in the U.S., each course costs about $3,000. If you think of this as a sort of social licensing fee, as opposed to an opportunity to learn, then it may look like a bargain to pay a few dollars more -- or even a few hundred dollars more -- to get someone to do an assignment for you, in order to get a better grade.

I don't know how reliable the numbers are, but I've read about several studies that say that most college students admit to one or another kind of academic cheating. Hiring proxies -- outsourcing college work -- strikes me as potentially the most troublesome kind of cheating. It's hard to detect by the usual methods, and it leads to wealthy students who are lazy or slow hiring smarter, poorer students to do their school work for them. This is the way of the world, I suppose. But if a generation of American problem sets and term papers are actually done by contractors in India or Romania...

Of course, there's nothing new about this mode of cheating: students were paying others to do their assignments when I was an undergraduate, back in neolithic times. Even earlier, in 1951, Ted Kennedy was kicked out of Harvard (for two years) for getting a friend to take a Spanish exam for him. I'm not convinced that the frequency of proxy work is much greater now than it was in Ted Kennedy's college days, though I admit that I don't have any evidence. The worldwide digitally-networked marketplace, with provisions for essentially anonymous transactions, certainly increases the opportunity. On the other hand, today's more egalitarian admissions policies may decrease the demand. In my own recent experiences with college students, outside the classroom as well as in it, they seem to be smart, earnest, hard-working and honest. But the best evidence is lexicographic: as far as I know, there is no new slang or jargon for the processes, categories or roles involved in academic outsourcing. (If you know any, let me know)

All the same, there are likely to be some consequences as the market in academic proxies grows, or at least becomes more blatant. Instructors will be forced to put more emphasis on in-class written tests, or on oral exams where students explain and defend their out-of-class work. Cooperative small-group projects may make it harder for individual students to outsource their research, writing and problem-solving without being detected. And some faculty or administration groups may set up systematic sting operations to try to poison the well at places like, along the lines suggested by B. There's a job category for you: special investigator for AHA, the Academic Honesty Agency.


Posted by Mark Liberman at November 23, 2004 08:35 AM