As the next round of assessments comes in this session, the spectre of cheating may be looming again in your mind. You’ve done everything you can to prevent it in terms of instilling academic integrity and providing rich feed-forward but once the assessments are submitted, it’s time to keep in mind security and detection.

One thing to look out for when marking is contract cheating. I’ll be writing a couple of blogs in the coming weeks that focus on some different strategies to help us combat this hard-to-detect aspect of cheating.

The first one I want to write about is metadata. The message is simple: 

Investigate the metadata

Metadata is your friend.  But what is it? 

Metadata contains a file’s key properties that were embedded when it was first created. It’s basically the data about the data. It can often tell you things like: 

  • the author 
  • the creation date  
  • the editing time  
  • the version number 

…and most importantly for contract cheating, it can show if the properties are blank or have been purged. 

How does metadata help me with contract cheating?


Well, quite simply, if the author in the metadata is not the student submitting the work, that tells you something significant.

Creation date

If the creation date is before the semester even started or the assessment brief was even made available, that tells you something important.

Editing time

If the editing time is 0 minutes or doesn’t seem to reflect the time it would actually take to work on this assessment, that may tell you something important.

No metadata?

If the Properties are blank or wiped, what does this mean? Well, it’s relatively easy to purge data from a docx. But this is often a departure from existing patterns. In response to this, the provenance of a document is very important.

If the student suggests it was written on a friend’s computer, or that it is a final ‘fresh’ version, there is no technical reason they shouldn’t be able to provide drafts and other evidence of progressive work.

The software used to create the document may also be significant – an overseas version of ‘Word’ software for example, may be a cause for concern (TEQSA). However, with so many international students at UTS, this probably shouldn’t be a primary red flag.

Different file types contain different amounts of metadata 

If you’re someone like me, who doesn’t know much about metadata, generally the most easily accessible file type is docx or doc. These are the file types created by programs like MS Word.

But you can also see metadata in:

  • pdf 
  • ppt, pot, pptx 
  • xls, xlt, xlsx 
  • jpg, jpeg 
  • html, htm  

Next level

If what I’ve explained so far seems too basic to you or your assessments have a broad range of file types, then you’re ready to start using some more advanced analysis techniques. 

If you want to start exploring the metadata from multiple file types, there are several free software items available online. One of the simplest and most effective to run is ExifTool by Phil Harvey. It’s important to note that this is not UTS-supported software, so the LX.lab cannot answer questions related to this. However, there are extensive online forums and FAQs.

Of course, we now need to consider the possibility that if we can access this data, surely contract cheating companies can as well and will try to edit it to make it look real? So far, the evidence suggests a very low level of concern on the part of these companies for the success for their customers (see Delivery, submission and after-sales care in Dawson, 2020) but we also shouldn’t put it past them.

Beware false positives

Just because the information in the metadata may look odd, doesn’t mean you have found a case of contract cheating. This is just one aspect to be considered and generally shouldn’t be your first point for analysis. However, if you have a suspicion based upon other key indicators, metadata can be a key way to confirm or refute your concerns.

What happens next?

If you think you’ve found something suspicious and think it should be pursued, review the Guidelines for Handling Student Misconduct Involving Plagiarism and contact your Responsible Academic Officer.

For a comprehensive overview, you can also visit the Misconduct page on the main UTS Website.

In future blog posts, I’ll go through some of the other things we as educators can and should do to combat contract cheating. After all, it is not just the integrity of student work at stake, it’s the integrity of universities as institutions of learning that can be threatened by contract cheating.

Feature image by OpenClipart-Vectors on Pixabay

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