On Saturday, August 14, 2020, questions began to circulate on Twitter about whether Alberta’s Minister of Advanced Education, the Hon. Demetrios Nicolaides, worked for a contract cheating company.
The question seems to have first been raised by Kim Siever on Twitter. The question Siever asks whether the man now serving as Alberta’s Minister of Advanced Education is the same person who has a user profile with the same name on the website UnemployedProfessor.com.
If the two people are one and the same, this would be an egregious breach of public trust. Why? Because we want to have confidence in our elected political officials, especially one appointed as the provincial minister to oversee higher education. We want to have confidence that a government minister in charge of advanced education for our province would not supply services to the shady underbelly of education that facilitates the buying and selling of fraudulent academic work on the Internet.
Let’s look at what we know and consider some questions we should be asking.
The company: UnemployedProfessors.com
This company provides services includes completing written academic work on behalf of students including anything “from response papers to midterm and final essays, all the way to dissertations and thesis chapters”.
Although I was unable to find information about how long the company has been operating, a search of the Internet Archive WayBack Machine, shows that the website URL shows the site first became active in 2011.
The contract cheating industry
Companies such as these have been around for decades. They are known as “term-paper mills”, “essay mills” and “contract cheating companies”. They are part of the global commercial industry that has been estimated to be worth more than $1 Billion USD. The term “contract cheating” was coined by Thomas Lancaster and the late Robert Clarke, two computer scientists in the UK, who found computer science students outsourcing their coding assignments to online suppliers. Their work has become foundational on the topic.
In 2018, I wrote a blog post estimating the extent of contract cheating in Canada. Back in 2018, I estimated that just over 71,000 post-secondary students in Canada could be buying academic work from contract cheating companies. I now believe that number to be low, but we don’t have a lot of data on this in Canada. In contrast, in the UK and Australia, research around contract cheating is well funded and national quality assurance bodies such as the QAA (UK) and TESQA (Australia) are actively working to combat contract cheating.
In 2019, my colleague Roswita Dressler and I conducted a study that showed that commercial contract companies are actively marketing to Canadian students in both English and French, and that they target students as young as Grade six.
Can we believe the information posted for username “DemetriosNicolaides” on UnemployedProfessors.com?
Well, let’s be honest, companies whose business focus on providing fraudulent academic work for students to submit are not exactly known for their credibility.
If the user profile details on UnemployedProfessor are legitimate (which is questionable), then the user with this name has completed more than 740 assignments across a variety of disciplines.
The most recent user reviews (if they are actually legitimate user reviews) were posted in August 2020.
Are the Hon. Minister and the user “DemetriosNicolaides” the same person?
The user who goes by the name “DemetriosNicolaides” on UnemployedProfessors appears to have set up their profile in 2016. Or at least, that’s as far back as we can get information about this user by looking up their profile using the WayBackMachine. This is a screenshot of the profile archived by the WayBackMachine archived on April 18, 2016, which is the earliest available record of this user profile:
The profile associated with the username “DemetriosNicolaides” appears to have similar academic credentials to the Hon. Minister. The current user profile indicates a PhD in Political Science from the University of Cyprus, with a specialization in Conflict Resolution. The official profile of the Hon. Demetrios Nicolaides from the Legislative Assembly of Alberta indicates that the holds a PhD in political science from the University of Cyprus.
The devil is in the details…
The user profile on UnemployedProfessor seems to have changed between 2016 and 2020. If you look closely at the current and archived profiles, we can see how the details have changed.
The 2016 profile indicates that the user (allegedly) held a PhD from the University of Cyprus, an MA from the European Peace University and a BA in History and International Relations from the University of Calgary.
The 2020 profile from the same user indicates an (alleged) PhD from the University of Cyprus, an MA from European Peace University and no information about where the Bachelor’s degree was from. The Bachelor’s degree information differs from the 2016 archived profile and the 2020 profile. (Incidentally, the European Peace University lost its accreditation from Austrian authorities in 2013 and now appears to be defunct, so there is no way to check to see who its graduates were.)
So, what we can say is that the user behind this profile has changed their (alleged) educational credentials and profile information between the time the profile seems to have first become active in 2016 to now. Looking at changes to this user profile using the WayBack Machine, it seems that the information changed sometime between 2017 and 2020, though there is no evidence about exactly when the change happened.
I am not a linguist by training, but I do have a background in English and second languages. When I conducted a close read of the current profile of this user in detail, I can say that it would surprise me if this profile were written by a native English speaker. The concluding line of the profile as it is currently written says, “Trust me for the best and you will never be disappointed by my that hire me button and lets talk more.” This is awkward phrasing, with punctuation errors (i.e., no apostrophe in “lets”) and seems to lack coherence. (Personally, I wouldn’t hire this user to write anything for me!)
There is text highlighted in green on the 2020 user profile that claims, “I’m a P.h.D holder and Experienced Academic Writer”.
Well, anyone with a PhD knows that there is no period in between the “P” and the “h”. We write it “PhD”; “Ph.D.”, or even “PhD.”, but never with the period in between the “P” and the “h”. That in itself would seem to be a giveaway that this user behind this profile doesn’t actually hold a PhD of any kind.
For a comparison of the writing, here is a link to the PhD thesis of the Demetrios Nicolaides who currently serves as the Hon. Minister of Advanced Education for Alberta. It is worth noting that the dissertation is archived as a matter of public record by the University of Cyprus in the official university digital repository, available for anyone to look at. Again, I am not a forensic linguist, but it seems fairly obvious that the person who wrote the PhD thesis archived by the University of Cyprus and the person who has a user profile on Unemployed Professors.com seem to have completely different writing styles, as well as different language ability and competence.
It is worth noting that when questions began to arise on Twitter about this user, I took a screen shot that showed the user had completed 746 assignments on behalf of students, as of 14 August 2020.
Curiously, as I was writing this blog post a day later, the number went up by 1, to 747. So, there is evidence to suggest that the user is still active on this site; and in fact, it would seem that they have done a gig over the past 24 hours. If you look closely at the first screenshot I took on August 14 and the second one I took on August 15, you can see the number of completed assignments has gone up.
Given the questions that have arisen on Twitter and that the Hon. Minister was copied on those Tweets, if the person behind the user profile and the Hon. Minister were indeed the same person, it would be very puzzling indeed that the supplier would keep writing for the service in the midst of a tirade of questions!
So, there are a number of inconsistencies in all of this.
Questions worth asking
Is it possible that someone to set up a fake profile to discredit the minister?
The short answer is yes, it is possible.
In my opinion, that scenario is improbable, because this user profile can be traced back to 2016. It would have to be one hell of a dedicated faker to have started that long ago and kept up the efforts to discredit the person over four years.
Is it possible that there are two people with the exact same name, one of whom is supplying fraudulent essays and the of whom is a politician?
Yes, it is possible, but also improbable. One website indicates that about just over 3600 people in the world have the surname “Nicolaides”, with most of them being in or from Cyprus. Compare that with, for example, the surname “Smith”, which about 4.5 million people have.
The chances of two individuals with the surname “Nicolaides” both holding PhDs in political science seem slim.
Isn’t it weird that the users who provide services to contract cheating companies would use their real name in their profile?
Yes, that would be weird. Like, really weird. It is easy for suppliers to set up a profile with just about any user name they want. Someone would have to be pretty stupid to use their real name as their user name on a contract cheating site, to be honest.
Is it possible that whoever is behind this user profile just picked the user name “NicolaidesDemetrios”?
Yes, that is also possible. After closely scrutinizing all of the available evidence, my best guess would be that is the most probable scenario.
I am not a professional legal investigator, but I am a damn good researcher. My conclusion is that it seems highly unlikely the Hon. Minister of Advanced Education for the Province of Alberta and the person behind the username “DemetriosNicolaides” on UnemployedProfessor.com are the same person.
How long would it take someone to complete the 740+ assignments associated with this user?
There is no clear answer to this. It is impossible to tell how long the assignments were, what type of papers they were, or how long it took to complete each one. The only available details are the ones noted on the user profile, but no telling if those are real or not.
If, for the sake of argument, we used 2 hours per assignment as a rough estimate, then if you consider the 747 (allegedly) completed assignments we’d be looking at about 1500 hours of work. Given that a standard work week is 35 hours, that would equate to about 43 continuous weeks of work. That’s quite a bit of time… like almost a year of full-time employment just writing essays for students.
How much money has this user made from working for this site?
Unknown. These companies do not provide details about how much money their suppliers earn. One expert in the field, Dr. Thomas Lancaster, has estimated that low-end workers can be paid as little as $4 USD for assignments up to 2000 words. In another scenario, if a student paid $300 USD for an assignment, the supplier might receive $140 for that gig. (Check out Lancaster’s slides form one of his presentations on the topic.)
Although some of the commercial sites promise big bucks for their writers, the reality is that it can a miserable way to earn a bit of money.
Isn’t this illegal?
There is draft legislation in Australia proposed to make contract cheating illegal. New legislation in Ireland makes provisions to prosecute those who facilitate academic cheating, including those who supply academic work to students.
In Canada, writing essays for students is not illegal. It is immoral and it is also an egregious form of academic misconduct that can result in consequences that include everything from failing an assignment to (in extreme cases), expulsion, but it isn’t actually illegal in Canada to buy or sell academic work. It is illegal for students to hire someone to impersonate them to take a test or an exam. In a report I did into major academic integrity violations in Canada, I offer highlights of three cases that resulted in the arrest of imposters hired by students to take exams on their behalf.
So, what’s next?
Sorry, folks, I don’t think there’s an actual scandal here involving the Hon. Minister of Advanced Education.
There is, however, a desperate need in Canada to raise awareness about the contract cheating industry. I estimate that Canada lags behind the UK and Australia by at least a decade in terms of research, advocacy, education and legislation. If you are keen to know more, here are three concrete things you can do:
- Inform yourself about what contract cheating is and how it works. There is a strong and growing network of researchers who specialize in understanding the commercial contract cheating industry. Some people (besides me) whose work you can look up include: Tracey Bretag (Australia), Cath Ellis (Australia), Thomas Lancaster (UK), among others.
- Participate in the 2020 International Day of Action Against Contract Cheating on October 21. On this day, educators and advocates across the world will be raising awareness about what contract cheating is and how to stop it.
- Contact your MLA or Member of Parliament to let them know that you are concerned about contract cheating and its impact on Canadian higher education. Ask them to take action to make contract cheating illegal in Canada.
The more people that think this issue is important, the more action will be taken on it, not only by researchers, but by policy makers and politicians.
Update – 16 Aug 2020
Since I wrote this post less than 24 hours ago, the individual behind the profile on UnemployedProfessors.com has changed their user name to “Prof_Wilfred“:
- COVID-19, Contract Cheating and Academic Integrity in Online Courses: What you need to know
- Contract cheating: A view from three Calgary post-secondary institutions
- Universities unite against the academic black market
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Sarah Elaine Eaton, PhD, is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, and the Educational Leader in Residence, Academic Integrity, University of Calgary, Canada. Opinions are my own and do not represent those of the University of Calgary.