Cheating by students who use essay mills is “virtually undetectable”, according to a study that found that many ghostwritten papers would receive good marks if they were submitted.
Lisa Lines, an associate lecturer in history at the University of New South Wales, conducted an experiment in which she ordered essays from 13 ghostwriting websites and then had them graded by leading academics who believed that they were looking at genuine student submissions.
The results were “alarming”, with the quality of purchased essays being “higher than expected”, says Dr Lines, who warned that the use of essay mills might therefore be “much, much higher” than previously thought.
Posing as a student, she had purchased 13 undergraduate history essays, required to be 2,000 words long and on the subject of the end of the Second World War, at a cost of between A$166 and A$529 (£95 and £304).
Of these, only two received failing grades of 49 per cent or lower. Seven received a pass (between 50 and 64 per cent), three got a credit (65 to 74 per cent), and one was judged worthy of a high distinction (above 85 per cent).
She also purchased 13 master’s essays, with the same word limit and a similar title but requiring more sources to be cited, at a cost of between A$181 and A$713.
Of these, six received fails, often because they appeared to misunderstand the question. But three got passes, two a credit, one a distinction (75 to 84 per cent) and one a high distinction.
Significantly, Turnitin plagiarism detection software did not perceive anything wrong in any of the undergraduate essays, and identified the copying of material in only three of the postgraduate papers.
Writing in Teaching in Higher Education, Dr Lines says that some of the essays did contain warning signs that could have been detected by academics who were aware of them, including the use of a thesaurus to replace words and avoid detection by Turnitin, the use of American English and the ghostwriter’s name appearing as author on the digital document.
But she argues that much more radical steps will be needed to combat the use of essay mills, including greater use of exams and requiring students to give oral presentations on the topic of completed essays.
Otherwise, the pressures on students mean that the use of ghostwriters will “only escalate”, Dr Lines says.
“It is clear that this type of cheating is virtually undetectable by academics when students take precautions against being caught,” she concludes.
“This fact, coupled with the study’s findings that the quality of essays available for purchase is sufficient to receive a passing grade or better, reveals a very troubling situation for universities and poses a real threat to academic integrity and standards, and public perceptions of these.”
Phil Newton, director of learning and teaching at Swansea University Medical School, agreed that higher education institutions needed to diversify their assessment methods.
“We already knew that essays were available cheaply and quickly,” Professor Newton said.
“This study confirms that they are very difficult to detect using the strategies traditionally employed to detect plagiarism and, perhaps most strikingly, that the essays purchased can be written to a high academic standard.
“Trying to combat the problem by attempting to detect ghostwritten essays is just not going to work.”