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Contract cheating and academic literacies: Exploring the landscape

Thacker, Emma Jessica

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Emma Jessica Thacker


John Howlett

Hannah Wilkinson

Cora Lingling Xu


The phenomenon of contract cheating in higher education is complex and a growing concern for those invested in the delivery of high-quality education and positive educational outcomes. This research explores the academic literacies practices, exchanges, and tensions between and among academic ghostwriters, students, and teaching staff, within the Canadian post-secondary sector. Dominant approaches to academic misconduct have not addressed the institutional and sociocultural factors underlying the growth of the contract cheating industry. Academic institutions lacking a coherent, holistic strategy will continue to undermine the public confidence, and teaching and learning frameworks. Given the dominance and prioritizing of reading and writing in higher education, this study adopts an “academic literacies” conceptual approach (Lea & Street, 1998), which foregrounds literacy as a social practice (Street, 1984). This approach provides a lens that includes the social, cultural, and institutional, while supporting a critical gaze on the literacy practices of students, ghostwriters, and teaching staff. This qualitative study used a multiple case studies orientation, and conducted semi-structured interviews with 11 ghostwriters, 7 students, and 8 faculty members to provide the data for analysis. Texts such as advertisements, and sample ghostwritten assignments were also considered. Through the rigorous coding of literacy social practice building blocks (e.g., practices, events) (Hamilton, 2010) the data were used to create a “Literacies Landscape Map.” This map explored the “scape” (Appadurai, 1990), or “eduscape” (C. Luke, 2006) of how multiple literacies are practised and reflected in the phenomenon of contract cheating. In addition, drawing from Bourdieu’s (1972/1977, 1979/1984, 1983/1986, 1984/1988) notions of capital, habitus, and field, the study revealed findings around the practices of collaboration and literacy brokering, arguing that some students and ghostwriters are engaging in “assessment brokering” within a “fourth space” (Thacker, in press-a). This study offers a more nuanced view of contract cheating, finding a tension of exchange beyond the financial, and having implications for higher education policy. The study concludes with a call for academic institutions to consider the development of transformative, institutional strategies to support academic integrity.


Thacker, E. J. (2022). Contract cheating and academic literacies: Exploring the landscape. (Thesis). Keele University

Thesis Type Thesis
Publicly Available Date May 30, 2023
Keywords academic literacies, assessment brokering, assessment literacy, Canada, collaboration, contract cheating, literacy brokering, fourth space, higher education, eduscapes
Award Date 2022-12


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