Can universities beat contract cheating?

As students increasingly turn to essay mills to do their work, Anna McKie explores what drives this global trend and how universities are fighting it

September 13, 2018
hands-out-of-computer
Source: Aron Vellekoop Len/Getty (edited)

Type “essay writing” into Google and dozens of websites will appear on the first page. Pick one. UK Essays, for example. Do you want a 2:1 for your undergraduate essay? That will cost you £140. A first? £279.

But the site doesn’t offer only essays. An undergraduate dissertation will cost about £700 for 2:1 standard, while a decent grade for a master’s dissertation will set you back at least £2,000. Some sites even offer PhD theses, for several times more again.

The services carry a disclaimer: the essays and dissertations provided are intended only to assist buyers with their studies; they are not to be passed off as students’ own work. But, of course, that is not how students use such essay mills – and it’s not how the sites are marketed.

Welcome to the murky world of contract cheating. Although essay mills are not illegal in the UK – as the UK Essays website points out, “we would have been shut down a long time ago” if they were – their use is prohibited by university regulations.

Advertising for these companies is ubiquitous on modern campuses, popping up on noticeboards and in lavatory stalls, and often using logos uncannily similar to those of institutions themselves. In 2017, a number of essay mill adverts were plastered over the London Underground, and, earlier this year, the BBC uncovered hundreds of YouTube stars who were being paid to advertise EduBirdie, a Ukrainian essay mill.

It’s hard to tell quite how many of these companies are out there because what might appear to be five separate companies can turn out to be just one. But, within the UK alone, there at least two dozen currently registered at Companies House. There is clearly a large market for their services.

Research from 2014 by Thomas Lancaster, then associate dean for student recruitment at Staffordshire University, and Robert Clarke, a lecturer at Birmingham City University, found 30,000 examples of students buying essays online. An investigation by the UK’s Quality Assurance Agency in 2016 estimated that about 17,000 students are caught submitting ghostwritten essays each year in the UK – with the total number using essay mills likely to be far higher.

And a recent analysis by Phil Newton, director of learning and teaching at the Swansea University Medical School, found that as many as one in seven recent graduates may have used essay mills, amounting to more than 30 million learners globally. Newton says that the problem is likely to be getting worse, too. However, it is “hard to say with certainty because the whole point of contract cheating is that it is difficult to detect, so we do not have a good objective measure”, he adds.

In her introduction to the International Journal for Educational Integrity’s featured collection on contract cheating, published earlier this year, Tracey Bretag, director of academic integrity and an associate professor in management at the University of South Australia Business School, wrote that “most commentators agree that there has been a global rise in contract cheating in recent years, across all disciplines”.

Meanwhile, Philip Cowan, a senior lecturer in journalism at the University of Hertfordshire, fears that “the academy could be in denial” about how big a problem contract cheating has become. “There is clearly a demand; there’s clearly a supply,” he says, noting that essay mills also offer a way for the glut of underemployed PhD graduates to make some money by putting their skills and knowledge to use.

During his own research into the topic, Cowan contacted essays mills and was struck by how persuasive their sales pitches were. “You could imagine someone who is weak-willed giving in to temptation,” he says.

Of course, the temptation to cheat is as old as the sun, and many a student essay has, in the past, been ghostwritten by a friend or, perhaps, a family member.

“This type of cheating – getting someone else to do it – is probably the oldest form there is,” says Cath Ellis, associate dean (education) at Australia’s University of New South Wales. But the mechanics and, potentially, the scale of modern cheating have changed as internet technology has developed.

“The rise of e-commerce – things like PayPal – is making it easier to buy things online,” Ellis says. “It means that there are students in one country able to pay people in another country to do their work for them. That would have been impossible 10 years ago. What technology has done is make [the opportunity to cheat] available to people who previously it wasn’t available to. In the old days, you had to know someone: you had to have social capital. Now you just go online.”

It still helps, however, to be relatively wealthy. Although a premium model of the essay mill, often based in the UK and the US, offers work of a decent standard, cheaper options based in other hot spots, such as Ukraine, Kenya, Nigeria, India, Pakistan and the Philippines, are less reliable.

In Australia, the subject of contract cheating was thrust into the spotlight in 2014, when hundreds of students at 16 universities were found to have been using the contract cheating site MyMaster to write their essays and even to sit online exams for them. This resulted in large numbers of students being suspended or expelled across the country’s universities, particularly when it emerged that a decent proportion of them had used the site four or five times throughout their degree course. The scandal prompted the government to provide its Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency with extra financial resources to crack down on contract cheating.

After the scandal, a study, “Contract cheating: a survey of Australian university students”, authored by Ellis, Newton, Bretag and a number of others and published in Studies in Higher Education in April, surveyed 14,000 students at eight Australian universities on their attitudes to contract cheating. It found three significant variables associated with a willingness to contract-cheat: dissatisfaction with the university teaching and learning environment, a perception that there are “lots of opportunities to cheat”, and speaking a language other than English at home.

The last factor was particularly highlighted by the 2014 scandal: the MyMaster site was targeted specifically at Chinese-speaking international students. However, Ellis points out that plenty of domestic students also speak a different language at home. She adds that the targeted group of students are easier to catch when they cheat because they are “less likely to realise that what they have bought will open them up to detection because it’s not good enough” or – on the other hand – because its smooth English is conspicuously more polished than their own everyday usage.

Irene Glendinning, academic manager for student experience at Coventry University, says that academic ability and subject knowledge are big risk factors for essay mill use. For this reason, universities bear some blame if they recruit weak students who go on to cheat. “If you admit students who are not capable of succeeding in the time frame they have, you are asking for problems,” she says.

For Newton, the essay mill business model is, “to be blunt, very effective. Products are available quickly, cheaply and appear to be of a reasonable standard. Otherwise [the companies] wouldn’t stay in business.”

But there is another, darker model emerging, too. These are essay mills set up primarily to blackmail their customers by threatening to expose them to their universities after they have submitted the bought essay as their own. The website EssayScams.org is full of stories of students who commissioned a piece of work that, when delivered, was of incredibly poor quality. When the students demanded a refund, they were likewise threatened with exposure to their universities.

Although educators do not want to see their students get into such situations, Glendinning says that they provide “a really useful message for the students: don’t mess with these companies – they are not to be trusted”.

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A major problem in the policing of contract cheating is that, in the absence of a whistleblower, malign or otherwise, it is very hard to prove – and university staff are keenly aware that falsely accusing a student could have severe consequences.

“You have a situation where the academic says this person has improved immensely and it’s suspicious, but they could have gone home and studied extensively – how can you possibly know for sure?” Cowan says. “You are accusing a student of something huge.”

This high burden of proof makes it extremely time-consuming to investigate suspicions of contract cheating.

“You’re taking a lot on in an attempt to prove it. And it raises the question, what are we here for? Are we here to catch cheats or to educate?” Cowan says.

The Australian study also looked into why staff do not report suspicions of contract cheating, and it found that a high number of academics who had suspicions about contract cheating doubted that they could build a robust case against the student in a reasonable time frame.

This is because while traditional plagiarism is relatively easy to test, by running a work through Turnitin software, custom-written essays are much harder to identify as such. But the creators of Turnitin are developing software that they hope will at least reduce the burden on tutors and academics when it comes to substantiating suspicions. Bill Loller, vice-president for product management at Turnitin, explains that Authorship Investigation, as the software is called, uses artificial intelligence and forensic linguistics to analyse punctuation, uniqueness of vocabulary and sentence complexity to compare a work in question with other writing samples from the student in question to determine whether that student could have written it.

“One of the core values of the software is it takes that process – 20 hours, 40 hours, of work – and reduces it to 10 minutes. It then recommends if you go further or not,” Loller says.

But human judgement remains a necessary part of the process. “There are complexities in assessing different writings,” Loller concedes. “For example, people use different writing styles for different disciplines, so someone might write differently for creative writing than in an economics class.”

In July, a beta version of the software was rolled out to a number of universities across the globe that “either have a deep interest in the software or have experienced the problem first-hand and have a real interest in building ideas around policies, awareness programmes and educational programmes”, Loller says. “We’re not just giving them software, but thinking about it as an overall programme and sharing experience,” he adds.

His view is that universities need to take a “holistic approach” to contract cheating. “Lots of institutions don’t yet have policies to address it, so we need them to determine what [those should be] and then to make students aware of them. Then, as a final backstop, a university can use the software to protect its brand, its reputation [for academic rigour],” he says. The software is likely to be officially rolled out to universities next year, he adds.

Newton agrees that it is right that the tool be used in conjunction with human judgement. But “the software should be helpful because it provides objective evidence quickly”, he says.

“It’s particularly hard to get a handle on the cases where it is someone getting a friend, or someone from a previous year, to write the essay. But that should turn up in Authorship Investigation. It has the potential to create a whole new storm of interest in contract cheating if it turns out the problem is much bigger than we hoped.”

But for Jon Scott, pro vice-chancellor for student experience at the University of Leicester, the long-term solution to university cheating is less technical and revolves around redesigning assessment.

“There is a knee-jerk reaction that fewer essays and more exams is the answer, but I don’t subscribe to that,” he adds. “Students need to learn and recall, yes; but it’s far more important how they process information and what they do with it. There is a benefit to doing essays, it is a specific skill, but we need to think more creatively about how we engage with students through the process of producing that piece of work.”

His preferred solution is to provide students with feedback on their essay drafts before the hand-in date: “an additional stage in the [assessment] process that adds a layer of authenticity that the person who hands the essay in actually wrote it. The thing about this form of assessment is that students like it: they like to know they are on track.”

Inevitably, however, this brings us back to the amount of time that staff have to spend with each individual student. “You will need a clear strategy for how assessment is put together and designed, taking into account what you want students to do and how you are engaging with them, but also taking into account the capacity from the academic side to do it all,” Scott admits.

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For Newton, a better solution would be to change the law to make essay mills illegal. He says that it is “patently obvious to anyone that it should not be legal to offer, or advertise, a blatant contract cheating service”.

This remedy has already been attempted. In 2011, the New Zealand government made advertising and arranging contract cheating illegal. However, it has had little success in proving intent to facilitate cheating; one of few success stories is the case against Assignments4u, a domestic company that was selling essays to Chinese international students. At the end of the case, which started in 2014 and took four years to complete, the husband and wife pair who ran the essay mill settled with the government for NZ$2.1 million (£1.1 million).

Despite that, a website called Assignments4u.com remains live. That it appears to be based in and geared towards customers in the US suggests that it is unrelated to its New Zealand namesake, but its presence underlines that trying to tackle essay mills can often resemble a game of whack-a-mole.

In July, the Republic of Ireland’s minister for higher education, Mary Mitchell O’Connor, announced a bill to provide the country’s quality assurance agency with statutory powers to prosecute essay mills and other providers of academic cheating services. And a petition to Parliament calling for the UK to adopt similar measures has so far attracted about 3,000 signatures.

For Newton, any legislation “needs to learn from the situation in New Zealand and take out the requirement for any prosecutor to show that an essay mill ‘intended’ to help students ‘cheat’ [because] essay mills can get around this in their terms and conditions”. Working with Michael Draper, an associate professor in legal studies at Swansea University, he has produced a proposal for a new law that would make it a strict liability offence to offer or advertise cheating services. The strict liability means that prosecutors would not have to prove intent on the part of the company to facilitate cheating.

This follows a proposal by Lord Storey, the Liberal Democrat spokesperson for education in the UK’s House of Lords, that the Higher Education and Research Act incorporate a clause making it an “offence to provide or advertise cheating services”. However, the clause was not adopted, and Storey says that he did not push his amendment to a vote because Jo Johnson, who was then higher education minister, said that it was better for the sector to devise a collaborative solution by itself.

But Storey has not given up. He was the source of one of two questions about contract cheating in Parliament in July. In both cases, the government refused to rule out legislation against essay mills, but would not say what circumstances would prompt it to act.

In 2017, the QAA published guidance advising UK institutions to take a tougher line on “unscrupulous essay companies” and urging them to take action, such as banning essay mill sites from advertising on university premises, blocking online advertising and warning students about the risks of cheating – including that academic misconduct will be reported to professional bodies.

More recently, the agency has convened a working group that will publish recommendations for the government, most likely at the beginning of next year. “Hopefully the government will take note,” Storey says. “By allowing a contract to cheat, we are undermining the credibility of our whole higher education system, which is supposedly the envy of the world. So it needs to be dealt with. It’s a creeping cancer.”

But legislation must target the essay mills and those who run them rather than the students who buy them, he adds. “Students are under a lot of pressure, and we need to be supporting them.”

Glendinning agrees. She also points out that legislation will not stop the practice of contract cheating from happening – especially until similar laws are adopted in other countries where essay mills are based. “But it’s going to give us a powerful weapon to talk to students with,” she adds.

For New South Wales’ Ellis, more conversations about academic ethics and integrity are crucial – and anything that might promote that should be supported. “A lot of students think that academic integrity is a set of arbitrary rules that they have to abide [by] until they leave the university, but we need to be linking academic integrity to personal and professional integrity,” she says. “We don’t have enough conversations about ethics. We need to start talking to students about how this is unacceptable.”

Newton adds that cheating appears to be a symptom of wider problems around the marketisation of higher education. “This was something that came screaming in out of the data from the Australian study,” he says. “We found a number of disincentives [to tackle cheating]. If students are withdrawn for contract cheating, then university completion rates go down, and the university loses tuition fees. If a teacher has a good module with good feedback on a programme – in the UK this would be good National Student Survey scores – they are not going to risk that by experimenting with a new assessment method [that might make cheating harder to do, or easier to detect]. Our studies show that students see this, too: they are being encouraged to view a degree as a commodity, as a transaction. And, for some, it is a calculated risk to outsource their work.”

On the UK Essays website, one “happy customer” claims that you should use the site “if you want to succeed”. Many academics would violently demur. Although students may succeed in obtaining a degree, they will not have succeeded in getting an education. 


‘Would you like me to check the price?’: the hard sell of contract cheating

At the end of 2017, Jedidiah Evans was browsing the site of an essay mill company when a LiveChat window popped up and “Jim:” began his sales pitch. He decided to run with it. This is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Jim: Hi, this is Jim. Wonder if we have a writer for your paper? Let’s check!

Me: Hi. So, you folks write papers from scratch?

Jim: Hi. Yes. What kind of paper would you like us to write for you?

Me: It’s a literary essay.

Jim: Okay, do you have a specific topic?

Me: Broadly speaking, it relates to Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye, but it is specifically interested in the ways in which Morrison evades writing for the “white gaze”.

Jim: Got it, one sec. We definitely can do it for you. How many pages should it be?

Me: Hold on, just need to clarify a few things. How does this not count as plagiarism? Is there a check for these papers?

Jim: Yes. We check all our papers for plagiarism and we guarantee that your paper will pass Turnitin.

Me: I’m a little horrified, to be honest. Paying for a service to do my work for me...Jeepers. Hope you have a good holiday season.

Jim: Wait please. Would you like me to check the price at least? There is no way to find out it was written here. We guarantee 100% confidentiality.

Me: All the same, I think it is better for me to do it myself. I was curious, but this feels a little underhanded.

Jim: We have been on the market for a long time and received hundreds of positive reviews from our clients. All payments are protected by our billing provider PayPal, which wouldn’t work with scam companies. Finally, we guarantee 24/7 support meaning that you can contact us anytime. So if you pay us, you get the work done.

Me: No, I understand. I just think I’m getting cold feet about the process. Just out of curiosity, for something like 2,000 words, is it expensive?

Jim: Depends on your deadline and academic level.

Me: Just undergraduate. And about a week, I think.

Jim: Okay. One sec. The price for a standard writer is $112 USD. Is that an option for you?

Me: What’s a standard writer?

Jim: They are mostly undergraduates and qualified enough to complete high quality papers. We also have PRO and TOP writer categories. They are more expensive. Would you like to know more about them?

Me: Hmm. Well, does that mean I’m getting better marks?

Jim: Yes. PROs and TOPs provide better than standard quality and you can expect for [sic] an A+ from TOPs and B+ – A from PROs. For 2000 words in 7 days: PRO – $140, TOP – $162.40. How does it sound?

Me: I don’t know, Jim. This whole process feels weird. How many people do this kind of thing?

Jim: We have many regular customers and they are satisfied with our work. Let me explain you how it works. Basically, you fill in the form with all details about your paper. After submitting the payment details our Quality Assurance Department starts searching for a proficient writer. After the paper is done, you will receive an email notification to log in to your personal account and check the preview. After approving the paper you get an editable word.doc version.

Me: If I make changes, can I run them past you guys?

Jim: Yes, you can. We provide free revisions.

Me: OK, I understand everything. Thanks for that Jim. Maybe I should try this one myself. But this thing seems like a good option if things go bad.

Jim: Yes, we can help you with an urgent paper anytime.

Me: OK, that’s sweet.

Jim: Our experienced writers can do it easily.

Me: Cool, thanks for all the help.

Jim: My pleasure. Please let us know if you need help with a paper you cannot write for any reasons and we help [sic] you.

A few months later, I decided to get back in touch and come clean. I told Jim (he assured me he was the same one) I was actually an academic who was working on a paper about essay mills.

His response? “Actually, we can write it for you. And it will be completely original. No plagiarism. Would you like me to check the price?”

Jedidiah Evans is a sessional lecturer at the National School of Arts, Australian Catholic University.

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POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: ‘There’s clearly a demand; there’s clearly a supply’

Reader's comments (7)

With a little imagination one could set assignments that cannot be churned out in an essay mill. Base the assignment on say a student's field trip, or on a specific location in their home town (or the University city). Or base it on the results of a role playing / debating exercise in class, on which the participants have taken rough notes. Anything individual to that class /student / geographical situation.
A great, in-depth article. To sign the petition referred to in the article, please visit the Parliamentary website, here: https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/227277
Surely the best way of making the most important student works - disertations at all three levels - much less susceptible to cheating is simply to require an oral exam. You would have to be very naive or very brave to take on an oral exam with a ghost written thesis.
Agree, I once had a Chinese 3rd year UG dissertation, containing the word 'amblygeustia' (diminshed sense of taste due to age'. I was fairly sure he hadn't come up with this himself, and the oral exam on that was, let's say, 'interesting times'.
In theory I agree, in practice, if you have a large year 1 or 2 group, and fewer than ideal staff, it's the practical issue of getting them done. I used to work on a year 1 module, our first year was only 250 (quite small these days) we should have had 5 staff working on it (though 1 was ill); doing 10 minute vivas (with 5 mins between students to write notes) took a significant chunk of time - and that was included the students demonstrating their software to us, we hadn't had to previously read an extended piece of work.
I am a member of staff who's also doing a PhD and several spam e-mails offering essay-mill services arrive in my student inbox. All are immediately forwarded to IT Services for blocking of that account! For projects - I run our final year project module - each student is assigned to a supervisor with whom they work all year; and they are encouraged to share their draft reports as they write them... this helps avoid such issues. They also do a live demo of their work (computer science, so mostly programs they've written).
This is only one aspect of the cheating that I found during my 10 years as a University Lecturer. Other methods that students use include: "A" for a lay Paying the Lecturer $10,000 for an "A" Offering sexual favours Overseas holidays Free car hire Free Accommodation With most of these bribes being undetectable unless ALL bank accounts were checked - one Head of School was found to have $500,000 in a Singapore Bank account, was investigated, but kept his job as he had membership to a number of Clubs and Societies, as well as producing many papers from his student's research and theses. The only way to stop this is to undertake oral examinations with each student.

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