There has been a proliferation of internet-advertised services that offer to write assignments for students for a fee.
Some of these adverts modestly claim to offer model answers and do not pretend to get the student good marks, but others are more upfront and claim to have helped students get through various stages of their degree programmes.
The fees typically range between £150 and £250 per assignment, depending on length. The services claim that they use subject experts to draft the assignments.
My limited case-study experiment for a BBC radio programme using three of these services leads me to conclude, however, that students who use such services place themselves at risk. This is not solely because they are committing plagiarism and, arguably, a fraud on their institution - but because they are also getting very poor value for money.
The students in my study used their student email addresses and paid the fees using their own bank accounts or credit cards, so the services would have every reason to believe that these were genuine requests.
The assignment topic was one that I give to some of my final-year undergraduate and masters students. The services were given two weeks to reply, mimicking a real-life situation when, two weeks before the deadline, students suddenly realise they are running out of time. The good news was that all three services delivered the essays on time (although in the case where a follow-up service to make corrections to the first draft was offered the amended version arrived too late for the deadline), and each essay was completely different. The Joint Information Systems Committee Plagiarism Advisory Service plagiarism detection software showed that, other than a single sentence in one of the essays, none of them had plagiarised from other documents on the web. The bad news was that the quality of essays ranged from mediocre to awful. Had this been the real thing, the marks would have ranged from 42 per cent - a bare pass at undergraduate level and a fail at masters - to 58 per cent - a good 2:2.
The worst of the essays appeared to be written by someone whose native language was not English. In addition, the essay was riddled with factual errors, was badly dated in places and included irrelevant digressions. The other two failed to devote enough space to answering the question as set and included factual errors and out-of-date material. They also made assertions without supporting evidence.
All three essays offered incomplete references, mistakes in the titles of cited works and too few citations to scholarly journal articles even though the instructions clearly stated that this was required. Academics generally suspect plagiarism on the basis of "this is suspiciously good work from this student". There was no danger of any of these essays falling into this trap. Reading these assignments, I simply would have thought that the students had let themselves down badly with lazy and poorly argued pieces of work. I would not have challenged them with accusations of plagiarism.
Based on this admittedly limited experiment, my advice to students under pressure to meet an assignment deadline and tempted by these services is simple: do not touch them with a bargepole. And, who knows, maybe just occasionally when a student submits a really disappointing piece of work and then comes to see you, expressing concern at the low mark you have given, the real motivation for the challenge could be disappointment over the money spent.
Brains for Sale is scheduled for broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 11am on April 15.
Professor of information science, Loughborough University.