Academics need to consider whether widespread warnings about the dangers of buying ghost-written assignments will actually increase their use, a UK conference has heard.
Phil Newton, director of learning and teaching at Swansea University Medical School, told the Quality Assurance Agency’s annual conference at the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama in Cardiff that universities should think about the so-called “Streisand effect” when they explain to students policies around those caught using essay mills and their availability.
The phenomenon is named after the American actor and singer Barbra Streisand, whose attempts to suppress the publication of pictures of her Malibu home in 2003 led to worldwide attention for the images, which would have otherwise gone largely unnoticed.
Professor Newton, whose research found that there are more than 1,000 essays mills operating worldwide, told delegates on 25 April that it would be unwise to have an institution-wide poster campaign about the perils of contract cheating because this would give too much publicity to these websites.
Nonetheless, academics could not ignore the subject. Students are increasingly targeted with advertising, rather than actively seeking out websites to purchase essays.
“Students have recently received Facebook adverts that appear to have university logos and I think we have a duty to let them know they aren’t genuine,” said Professor Newton, who added it was almost certain that “your students will have been contacted”.
Ghost-written essays are also much more affordable because of the growing number of individuals prepared to write customised essays to order, said Professor Newton. In some cases, prices were roughly half what they were a few years ago, with some providers now employing about 60 full-time staff in the UK to process orders, he said.
“If you want a 4,000 word essay on any subject you want, you can have it in about six hours for about £40 to £50 and it will probably be OK [in terms of quality],” Professor Newton continued.
An analysis of student surveys, in which students were asked if they had ever paid for an essay, going back as far as 1981, which Professor Newton has yet to publish, suggests that the use of ghost-written essays is “getting more common”. He said there was “some basis” to what was once described as “hysteria around contract cheating”.
Professor Newton said he was against a law that would make it a criminal act to buy essays online, even though use of essay mills could constitute “false representation” under the 2006 Fraud Act.
However, he said he would support a law targeting essay mills themselves, which are currently not liable to prosecution because it is almost impossible to prove their “intention” to give a student an “unfair advantage”. “They use their terms and conditions to get around this,” Professor Newton added.
Making the activity of essay mills into a “strict liability” offence – which would allow prosecution “regardless of whether there is intent [to deceive] or not” – would do much to deter their proliferation, he concluded.