Essay mill disclaimers are a joke – it’s time to get serious on cheating

A sample essay by Philip Newton and Michael Draper on the dodgy disclaimers used by essay mills makes clear why the Advertising Standards Authority’s ruling will not stop contract cheating

April 3, 2018
Small print

This is a sample essay on “the advertising used by essay mills”.

This is a reference work only. It must not be used as your own work, even partially. You cannot submit this work for academic credit; that would be cheating. Contract cheating, in fact. We have to put this disclaimer here because last week the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) upheld a complaint about the advertising used by an essay mill in the UK.

The ruling was based on the “overall misleading impression given by the website that consumers would be able to submit purchased essays as their own without repercussion”. Another part of the complaint was that “references to press coverage misleadingly implied that [the essay mill] had received positive coverage or endorsement from those press outlets”.

So, just to be clear, all those logos from newspapers and other media organisations at the bottom of the page mostly mean they have run shocking stories about the use of essay mills by students.

That’s right. The ASA upheld a complaint from the Quality Assurance Agency about the advertising used by an essay mill. The ruling supports the conclusions that we arrived at in a paper last year, in which we found that there was a profound mismatch between the advertising used by essay mills and the “small print” deployed in their terms and conditions.

The QAA made a complaint to the ASA and the ruling was returned last week, referring specifically to one site.

The site is one of thousands that offer to write bespoke “custom essays” and other assignments for students in return for a fee. They can, and do, produce essays on anything. They’re quick and cheap. This phenomenon is part of the concept of “contract cheating”, wherein students get someone else to do their work for them. Yes, you can buy essays on…contract cheating.

In this case, the advertising used offered guaranteed grades and a money-back guarantee if the work did not meet the standard. It was partly on this basis that the ASA concluded that the site gave a “misleading impression…that consumers would be able to submit purchased essays as their own without repercussion”.

This misleading impression is potentially harmful because students underestimate the penalties imposed by universities for the use of an essay mill.

The site’s “fair use” disclaimer about not doing so was buried at the bottom of the page. This is standard practice for essay mills, along with guarantees that work is “plagiarism-free” and with options to select very specific details for a piece of work, including the referencing format used, a “plagiarism report”, and the opportunity to pay extra for a “top” writer.

Will this ruling eliminate contract cheating? No. Will this ruling fundamentally change the behaviour of essay mills? No. However, is this ruling a positive step? Yes.

There is no simple, single solution to contract cheating. There are a number of other things that need to be done, many of them contained in a formal guidance document from the QAA released last year (has your university done anything with those recommendations?).

We need to improve the assignments that we use in higher education. We need to educate students and staff about academic integrity. We are not currently very good at that; a recent analysis of the most common teaching textbooks in higher education found that not a single one had the phrase “academic integrity” as a keyword.

We also need to change the law. Historically, it has been hard to identify a law that specifically targets providers of contract cheating services, but we think we have come up with one, if any lawmakers are reading.

What benefit will the current ruling have. Well, would our spoof disclaimer at the top have put off any students? Possibly some, yes. Does it change the context in which we discuss these services with our students? Yes, a bit.

Also, essay mills are a “third-party” service, offering to do the work of students. However, they rely on third parties: writers to do the work; social media and other platforms for advertising and hosting. There are now questions for these third parties: is the advertising you carry legitimate?

This is a step in the right direction, but there is still a long way to go.

* Welcome to the Disclaimer Zone. Well done for getting this far; this is where the disclaimers used by essay mills currently live. In keeping with that principle, this is not really an essay!

Philip M. Newton is director of learning and teaching at Swansea University Medical School. Michael Draper is an associate professor in legal studies at Swansea University

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