Rational, motivated students and suitable units: Detecting suspected ghost-writing of unsupervised written assignments

Dr Joe Clare

Murdoch University, School of Law, j.clare@murdoch.edu.au

The expectation that problems cluster in a non-random way and the potential to design and implement targeted problem-prevention strategies provide a suitable platform for evaluating ‘ghost-writing’ (or ‘contract cheating’). Ghost-writing, which is the act of a student commissioning a third-party to produce an unsupervised assessment which they then submit as if it were their own, has been identified in the Australian education sector as a contemporary, growing concern, facilitated by the internet with the potential to undermine current approaches to academic assessment. Based on the covert nature of this activity, comprehensive detection and prevention strategies have yet to be developed. With this in mind, in late 2015, Murdoch University undertook a preliminary analysis of existing institutional assessment data to try and uncover ‘unusual’ patterns relating to discrepancies between supervised and unsupervised assessment items. This process examined almost 4,000 student results from approximately 1,500 students in one School. Consistent with the opportunity theory expectations, this analysis exposed examples of unusually large differences between unsupervised assessments (essays) and supervised assessments (exams). Furthermore, these patterns clustered at the individual level (repeat ‘offenders’) and the unit level (repeat ‘locations’/’targets’). Although in-and-of itself, these are not definitively cases of ghost-writing, the non-random nature of these patterns merits further analysis. This is particularly the case given that this approach could provide an avenue for targeted prevention, which need not result in academic discipline, as it would be possible to reduce both the suitability of high-risk assessment items and the motivation for potential offenders.


Joe is a Lecturer in Criminology at Murdoch University, Western Australia and has a MA in Criminology and Criminal Justice and a PhD in Forensic Cognition. Joe has worked for universities and governments in Australia and Canada to conduct applied, operations-focused research with emergency first responders and criminal justice agencies. Joe’s research focus is on using available data to contribute to solving applied problems.