What grade do you get if you pay £257 for an essay?

Using a pseudonym, barrister Daniel Sokol puts an essay mill to the test 

May 19, 2018
Man frustrated by paperwork
Source: iStock

My name is not Michael Casio but, inspired by the calculator on my desk, that’s the name I gave to the essay writing company. I told them that I was an undergraduate student in need of a first-class essay of 2,000 words. The topic: “Should doctors always tell the truth to patients?”. 

This was no random title; fifteen years ago, I wrote a PhD on the subject. Since then, I’ve taught at universities, setting and marking exams at undergraduate and postgraduate level. I now work as a barrister for Alpha Academic Appeals, which represents students accused of cheating. 

The very need for specialist lawyers reflects the growing problem that is essay cheating, with an estimated 17,000 cases each year, according to a 2016 Sunday Times investigation. And those are only the students that are caught. Type “essay writing service UK” into Google and hundreds of companies offering to write your assignment appear in the results. The essay writing industry is reportedly worth more than £100 million a year. A recent BBC investigation found that hundreds of popular YouTubers were paid to promote a Ukraine-based company whose “super smart nerds” would write essays for students. Although many of these videos have been removed, we can expect a surge in cases this year. Universities, in my experience, are woefully unprepared for this looming epidemic.

To understand better the process of buying an essay and to gauge the quality of the work, I decided to put a well-known essay mill to the test.

Wednesday 9 May 2018

Once on the company’s website, I am greeted by Olivia on the “pop up” Live Chat.  She is pleasant and helpful.

“Is this confidential?” I ask.

“Yes, absolutely," she says. 

“Am I right in thinking it will be plagiarism-free?”

“Of course.  We guarantee that all the papers we provide are plagiarism-free.” 

Olivia explains that each essay is filtered through their own plagiarism checker. I then test her ethics by implying that I will use the essay to cheat. “That’s reassuring.  If I get caught by the uni, I’d be in serious trouble.”

“I understand it”, Olivia responds, perhaps revealing her non-native English. She then recites the refund policy and concludes: “So you don’t have to worry about it”.

She tells me the essay can be written in as little as three hours. To avoid inflicting a frantic three hours on my ghost writer, I give a more humane deadline of two-and-a-half days: Friday 5pm.  

Olivia kindly guides me through the process of ordering the essay. For an extra fee of 15 per cent, I select the “Platinum” service, giving me a writer with at least a master’s degree. I seek quality. I input my title, the word count, the number of references (10) and the format of citation (Harvard style).

The next step involves selecting an author. Of the dozen options, I like the look of a Dr A, who has completed hundreds of essays with high satisfaction rates.  “Does he actually have a PhD?”, I ask Olivia.  “Yes.”  “Does he actually teach at a university? I don’t want it to be mine!” Olivia respects Dr A’s confidentiality: “Unfortunately, I’m not able to share such information about our writers.”  Professor S is also a real professor, Olivia assures me. 

In the end, I plump for Dr L, PhD, who has allegedly completed more than 1,600 essays over a nine-year period. Her customer reviews are glowing.

I decline the option of receiving a plan of the essay for an extra £30. Some universities require a plan as part of the assessment. Even if no plan is needed, it constitutes evidence of authorship if a student is ever challenged by the university. Clever, these super smart nerds.

The total cost for the essay is £257. I quickly estimate how much Dr L is earning: say, an average of £250 per essay multiplied by 1,600 essays over nine years works out at £44,444 a year. In many countries, that is a princely sum.

Shortly after payment, I receive an e-mail:

“Hello Customer [number]

“Don’t waste your time on academic papers. 

“Having a hard time completing your assignment?  Let us do it for you with the highest quality possible.”

I eagerly await Dr L’s effort, and recall one client who told me that he had bought all eight of the essays that he had submitted for his master’s degree. Olivia and Dr L have certainly made my first purchase easy.

Thursday 10th May 2018

I log on to the site and see that Dr L has started work on the essay. I imagine her, a modern-day polymath, hunched over her laptop, writing simultaneous essays on James Joyce, the Crusades, and macroeconomic theory, like a chess prodigy playing against multiple opponents. Perhaps, just perhaps, she’s reading my seminal paper on the meaning of deception in medicine, instantly doubling my total readership. 

I notice a “chat” option next to her name. I click and, magically, my genie appears. Dr L herself. I thank her for helping me and tell her that I require an excellent grade. 

Her reply is syntactically troubling: “I will give you a quality work.” Just a slip of the keyboard, no doubt.

I then conduct the ethics test: “And, just as important, I can’t be caught by the uni – they take this sort of thing super seriously, I’m told.”

“No, it will not be plagiarized and no one will tell the university that I wrote it for you.” An American spelling “plagiarise”. No matter. The Americans have published good work on my essay topic. The only downside, if I were a student, is that I would have to change the American spelling into its British variant. Too many Americanisms could trigger suspicion.

Friday 11 May 2018

The day has finally come.

At 3pm, my essay is ready.  I run it through three separate plagiarism detection tools: no plagiarism.

I check the word count: 2,252. Too long, but this includes the references. Without the references, it is 2,013 words. If a student, I would have to trim the essay to avoid a penalty. The instructions to Dr L clearly stated “no more than 2,000” words.

I examine the document’s Word properties for any tell-tale signs of cheating. The author is described as “user” and the file was last modified by “BERIDGE”. 

I then decide to mark it. 

Sadly, Dr L was not on form. The essay argues for the absolutist position that doctors should always tell patients the truth but it lacks any critical sophistication. There are sweeping statements such as “lying is simply wrong and morally unjustifiable” and “patients always want detailed information about their conditions”. Some observations are incorrect, such as the “imperative of Hippocratic Oath, which requires that physicians reduce patient harm by not conveying upsetting conditions (Sullivan, 2001).”  The oath says no such thing and the referenced article makes no mention of the Hippocratic Oath. 

Other comments are odd, such as “the ability of patients to access medical information from other sources (for example, Internet sources) makes deliberate withholding of truth by doctors a painful and hurtful experience for patients”. 

Linguistically, there are minor grammatical and typographical errors. From the language of the essay and my online interactions, I suspect that Dr L, like many contract writers, is based in a country such as India, Pakistan or Nigeria, where graduates are low-cost and possess a high level of proficiency in English. A 2016 article in the International Business Times reported that India was a key supplier of writers for essay cheating.

The most recent reference in Dr L’s essay, an article from the Indian Journal of Psychiatry, dates from 2008. When I express my concern to Dr L in the Live Chat, saying that the examiner may wonder about the absence of contemporary references, she replies somewhat comically: “This is not a recent issue,” and adds, “I am sure that would not be an issue.”

Finally, I ask Dr L what mark she believes the essay would receive.  “I am sure you will get a good grade.”

Not if I were marking it. I give it 58 (high 2:2). If that’s the “Platinum” standard, goodness knows what the “Standard” service is like.

Daniel Sokol is a barrister and lead adviser for Alpha Academic Appeals.

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