University of Oregon Senior Instructor of Biology Alan Kelly first learned that students were using Chegg, an education technology company, to cheat on exams from a colleague at the University of Maryland in November. After their conversation, Kelly pulled up the company’s website and copied his test questions into the search bar. The results showed almost every question had been posted and solutions provided.
Chegg’s honor code policy states it does not tolerate use of its services “for any sort of cheating or fraud,” while several UO chemistry and biology professors have told the Daily Emerald that some students are accessing solutions to exam questions through Chegg’s subscription-based service, Chegg Study.
Launched in 2014, Chegg Study provides students 37 million Q&A’s “to help students better understand their schoolwork,” according to its website. While many of its customers use the service to do just that, some students pay the $14.95-per-month subscription fee to get dependable answers during unproctored online exams.
“Students had been posting our questions from the very first exam,” Kelly said. “They were actually getting real-time answers from the Chegg tutors.”
Students can type or upload photos of questions and receive solutions from Chegg’s network of “experts” in an average of 46 minutes, according to the Chegg Study webpage. Senior instructor of chemistry Thomas Greenbowe told the Emerald that Chegg allegedly attempted to recruit UO graduate students to answer chemistry questions uploaded to Chegg in the spring. The students informed instructors that they declined the offer.
Services like Chegg have become more accessible to students during unproctored exams in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, causing what UO chemistry professor Shannon Boettcher believes is a “huge problem with academic dishonesty across the nation in the light of remote learning and COVID-19.”
Many of Boettcher’s exam questions came from a general chemistry test bank, which helps instructors save time and avoid mistakes associated with writing original test questions. In Boettcher’s spring term general chemistry class, he randomized test questions and reduced the time limit for students to take their exams to curtail cheating.
Although he considered his methods “quite successful,” he learned toward the end of the course that Chegg “has every single question from every single test bank that I have ever seen,” Boettcher said. He admitted that, to his surprise, some students' scores increased from 50% to nearly 100% between the first and second exam. Their scores then plummeted during the final exam when he modified the test bank questions so students couldn’t use Chegg.
Chegg did not respond to requests for comment or address written questions from the Emerald.
Academic integrity and copyrighted test questions
Some students may believe their online academic misconduct is lost on professors, but this is far from the truth. Several UO professors are requesting Chegg’s help to identify students using their services to cheat on exams through its honor code investigation request form.
But Kelly and Nicola Barber, career instructor of biology, said they believe the company has an ulterior motive for cooperating with universities.
“All of the course materials in our courses are copyrighted,” Barber said. “So if students upload test questions, for example, to websites like Chegg, that’s a copyright infringement.”
Besides stating that users should not use Chegg’s services for academic misconduct, Chegg’s honor code also said users “should only upload content to our website that you’ve made, or that you’re otherwise authorized to post.” Meanwhile, the Chegg Study webpage tells students, “Take a photo of your question and get an answer in as little as 30 mins.”
The Digital Millennium Copyright Act’s notice and takedown process requires that service providers remove material that a copyright owner identifies on their website through a valid notice of copyright infringement or become subject to potential secondary liability for assisting with copyright infringement, according to Copyright Alliance.
Chegg Inc. has been sued twice in federal court for claims of copyright infringement, denying allegations in both instances.
“Chegg does not want to get sued by universities for copyright infringement, so they’re happy to work with faculty who are concerned about their course materials ending up on their website,” Barber said. She added that Chegg has sent IP addresses of students using the service to professors who request them.
Kelly said he submitted a request to Chegg for user information when he found his original exam questions on Chegg’s website. With the help of a teaching assistant, he spent several hours compiling a list of 47 posts and requested that Chegg remove them from its website and provide user information to help him identify students involved.
“One of the most time-consuming things that we do as teachers is actually trying to come up with substantive, fair, exam, quiz and bio report questions for the students,” Kelly said. “If everybody already knows them ahead of time, they’re really not very good questions anymore.”
In a response from Chegg three days later, he learned that approximately 8% of his class had published or accessed exam questions on the service, many doing so during the testing window. Although Chegg removed the posts, Alan found the information Chegg provided him — including user IDs, personal email addresses and IP addresses — unhelpful in identifying these students.
“Why couldn’t Chegg just give me names?” Kelly said. “It seems to me that they’re really just covering the tracks of the students who misuse this service.”
Kelly forwarded the information Chegg provided to Katy Larkin, UO director of student conduct.
“Online sources, including Chegg, are a common factor in academic misconduct cases, regardless of the method of instruction,” Larkin said, adding that the information Chegg provides does not always help her identify cheating students.
“As much work as it is for us to prevent or pursue cases of academic misconduct, I think it’s our duty to protect the students who are doing legitimate work and not getting displaced by cheaters,” Kelly said. “It’s really maddening and as a colleague described it, it’s a game of whack-a-mole. You figure out how to prevent one form of cheating and now they come up with something else.”
Chegg’s reach extends beyond UO, as professors at Purdue University criticized the partnership between Chegg and Purdue’s renowned Online Writing Lab. They have accused Chegg of copyright infringement and helping students cheat, according to Inside Higher Ed. Professors feared the partnership — developed to improve Chegg users’ writing skills — could harm Purdue OWL’s reputation.
“If the schools want to take this seriously, they’re going to have to go up the chain of command and not just leave it to the professors and the instructors and somebody in the office of student conduct,” Kelly said. “We need to get people higher up including, perhaps, legal counsel to threaten Chegg with lawsuits if they are not cooperating.”
The Examinations Institute of the American Chemical Society, which creates standardized chemistry exams for high school and college students, filed a lawsuit against Chegg on June 19, 2017, in San Francisco U.S. District Court, alleging it had published answers to questions from ACS test booklets and study guides. The nonprofit gets its revenue from exam fees and study guide sales, and creation of unbiased ACS exams that meet chemistry proficiency standards is a costly, timely and collaboratively intensive process, according to the complaint. All ACS test questions are copyrighted, along with most textbooks, study guides and exam booklets.
“Chegg facilitates and profits from cheating through a business model that thrives on copyright infringement and academic fraud,” the complaint read. “Chegg has engaged in unlawful, unfair, and fraudulent business acts or practices by encouraging students to cheat on their examinations and to infringe copyrights through the provision of its Q&A service.”
According to the court filing, “Chegg pays its experts per question answered and fires experts that fail to answer more than a certain number of questions, regardless of whether such questions or answers would infringe third-party rights.”
Ian Ballon, an attorney who represented Chegg, said in a hearing on Nov. 16, 2017, that the company takes down posts any time a copyright owner submits a DMCA notice. When ACS identified their questions, Chegg took them down “usually within 24 hours or less,” Ballon told the judge. “And Chegg has no interest in helping students cheat. That's not their business.”
A settlement conference is scheduled for Feb. 2, according to court records.
Apart from its subscription services, Chegg rents and sells textbooks. The publishing company John Wiley & Sons Inc. filed a lawsuit against Chegg on Dec. 18, 2018, in Manhattan U.S. District Court, alleging that Chegg sold counterfeit versions of its textbooks. According to the complaint, in December 2017, Chegg “acknowledged that it routinely purchases used textbooks from sources who may deal in counterfeit works.” The company also advertises that it sells textbooks at a discount of up to 90%, the court filing showed.
“Despite recognizing its risk in purchasing and re-selling textbooks, in its 2017 10-K, Chegg admitted that it has not implemented any measures to decrease the likelihood that it will re-sell counterfeit textbooks,” according to the court filing.
In its answer to the complaint, Chegg denied that the claims “have any merit.” The parties agreed to dismiss the case in July 2019.
One of Kelly’s students admitted to using Chegg during an exam after he threatened cheaters with harsher penalties if they didn’t come forward. The student received an F on the exam and a mark on their permanent record.
“I appreciated that they were remorseful enough and had enough integrity to come and admit to their mistake and accept the responsibility,” Kelly said. “In my book, their integrity shot through the roof.”
Kelly said they were a good student who asked questions frequently and was engaged in the course. He similarly described another student he suspected of using Chegg to cheat based on their email address.
“I think there is this temptation, something that’s distinguishing this form of cheating from old school cheating,” Kelly said. “It’s readily accessible, it doesn’t take any effort, it’s not hugely expensive, so what a temptation.”
Kelly added that if he is able to identify other students involved through the student conduct office, the penalty for those students will be much harsher.