As many as one in seven graduates may have paid someone to undertake their assignment for them, potentially representing 31 million students across the globe, a new study suggests.
The study, published in the journal Frontiers in Education, has revealed that the use of contract cheating -- where students pay someone else to write their assignments -- is rising rapidly around the world.
According to the researchers, essay-mills are currently legal in the UK, although they are banned in the US and New Zealand, while other countries are actively developing legislation.
"These findings underscore the need for legislation to tackle essay-mills, alongside improvements in the way students are assessed and awareness-raising of the fundamentals of academic integrity," said co-author Phil Newton, Professor at the Swansea University in the UK.
"We need to utilise assessment methods that promote learning and at the same time reduce the likelihood that contract cheating can happen," Newton added.
For the study, the research team analysed 71 survey samples from 65 studies dating back as far as 1978, covering 54 514 participants.
Because the products of essay-mills are designed to be difficult to detect, it is hard to develop objective measures of contract cheating, the researchers said.
This new study therefore systematically reviewed findings from prior 'self-report' research papers; questionnaire based studies wherein students were asked if they had ever paid someone else to undertake work for them, the research team added.
The researchers found that across the sample, contract cheating was self-reported by average of 3.5 percent of students, but this was shown to be increasing significantly over time.
In studies from 2014 to present, the percentage of students admitting to paying someone else to undertake their work was 15.7 percent. Cheating, in general, also appeared to be on the rise according to the studies reviewed.
The data is actually likely to underestimate levels of contract cheating, for the simple reason that students who engage in contract cheating are less likely to volunteer to participate in surveys about cheating, the researchers said.