Detecting ghost-written essays is a tricky task for academics.
Written by other academics or postgraduates to student specifications, these scripts are not the easily identifiable copy-and-paste efforts that anti-plagiarism software is so adept at catching.
But they often still leave behind clues to their illicit origin, according to Ann Rogerson, lecturer in organisational behaviour at the University of Wollongong, in Australia.
Ms Rogerson – who spoke at the 6th International Integrity and Plagiarism Conference held in Gateshead this week – began to investigate the issue after suspecting that a high level of cheating was taking place on one of her postgraduate courses for international students.
Despite warning students about plagiarism and offering them extra academic support, many essays submitted later in the course were again a cause for concern, even though “originality reports” from the Turnitin plagiarism detection software gave them a clean bill of health.
In the inquiry that followed, Ms Rogerson interviewed 70 students about the anomalies in their work, in which they were asked to explain strange passages or unusual references used in their essay.
The main clue to the use of ghostwriters – or file swapping sites in which undergraduate essays are uploaded in exchange for access to others’ files – was inconsistent use of English, she said.
“Inconsistent grammar, confusion over plurals and the lack of joining words were fairly common, but then suddenly you would have a passage of perfect English, rich in vocabulary and citations,” Ms Rogerson said. “The shift in language simply jumps off the page.”
Another feature of essay mill use, again not detected by Turnitin, is a distinct “blandness” to the essay, in which the student “waffled on” to the point of meaninglessness, she said.
“Those essays swiped from the internet don’t have any real-world examples to support their arguments, particularly recent ones,” she added. “It was non-specific content that read just like a textbook – I felt a bit sorry for these students because they could not tell they’d been given a load of rubbish.”
Another telltale sign of the essay mill was the inclusion of non-existent journals in academic references, albeit presented perfectly in standard Harvard format. Bibliographic “mash-ups”, in which titles of journals, newspapers and books were blended to create a seemingly credible reference, were another trick used by ghostwriters, she added.
One reference that cited “H. Tribune” as an author caught Ms Rogerson’s attention.
She asked the student to explain where she found her source before breaking it gently to her that Mr Herald Tribune did not exist and was actually a US newspaper.
“She was absolutely adamant that H. Tribune did exist,” she recounted, eventually tracing the reference to a paper on a Chinese file-swapping site.
Other clues include out-of-date references not available in the library (one student quoted a textbook published in 1871) or references in other languages.
“These essays were banking on the fact that academics don’t read the reference list too closely,” she said. “But when I grade papers the first thing I do is turn to the bibliography, which is normally a really good barometer of the quality of a paper.”
She said that educating students about proper referencing and research techniques remained key and that plagiarism offenders could change their ways, given enough support.
“Those students who you do manage to turn around are the ones that make the job worthwhile,” she said.
Prevention: Ann Rogerson’s tips on beating plagiarism
- Make sure students are aware of processes and punishments for plagiarism and essay purchasing.
- Students with poor English are more likely to contemplate use of essay mills, while also struggling to assess the quality or appropriateness of any material purchased.
- Do not set the same generic assessment questions from one year to the next as it makes it easier for students (and ghostwriters) to produce non-specific answers.
- Stress to students that achieving a passing grade through cheating defeats the object of study, which, at postgraduate level, is to demonstrate the acquisition and application of knowledge.
- Promote the idea that bibliographic matches to quality papers will lead to a high Turnitin score, which can be a good thing.
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