Universities can do little to prevent cheating via essays written to order, says a seasoned ‘ghostwriter’

An anonymous ‘freelance ghostwriter’ explains how universities have little defence against personalised services of this kind

August 1, 2013

In recent months, I have written thousands of words of coursework for more university courses than I can remember. I’ve covered everything from literature and international relations to conservation and the Renaissance. But my name is not attributed to a single essay I’ve produced. I will receive no academic credit for my work and it won’t help me to graduate.

Why? Because I am a freelance ghostwriter. I work primarily through agencies (as any academic knows, there are many operating in the UK), bidding for contracts to complete students’ university assignments.

Sometimes I work through the night to complete an assignment on a tight deadline. On other occasions I work slowly, gathering material and considering my arguments with careful deliberation. And yet I don’t have a library card, nor access to any university’s cache of e-books and journals. Google Books and Wikipedia are the tools of my trade. I give the illusion of depth, the impression of analysis. It’s always enough to score a 2:1 (at least).

It all started six months ago, when I was made redundant from a well-paid office job. I cast around seeking conventional work, yet nothing appealed. In truth I was tired of sitting beneath strip lights filling out spreadsheets, answering emails. I was initially hesitant to get involved: was it all a scam? Besides, what kind of student would be tempted to use this service? During my own studies at Oxbridge I never once thought of cheating. I enjoyed what I did and was good at it.

The agencies are surprisingly thorough in hiring writers, which surprised me. I had to provide evidence of my qualifications as well as samples of my writing. I was asked to provide a breakdown of the areas in which I felt comfortable writing (but that has never stopped me taking on essays in areas that are not immediately familiar). It was also a prerequisite that I had graduated from Oxbridge or another Russell Group university. We are told that we are the best, the pick of the crop.

I’ve seen all sorts of assignments as a freelancer. The agencies maintain sophisticated databases of available work, and there is often more demand than we can handle. If you perused their lists, you would be shocked. They feature everything from first-year undergraduate assignments on Dickens (so easy! Who would need to cheat?) to PhD theses on molecular biology – not to mention the odd MBA on business ethics.

Google Books and Wikipedia are the tools of my trade. I give the illusion of depth, the impression of analysis. It’s always enough to score a 2:1 (at least)

I stay away from applied fields – it is my only ethical standard as a ghostwriter. I will not help a nurse to qualify on false pretences: who knows, it might be my parents who find themselves in their care.

Some clients provide vague briefs, such as an essay question and suggested reading. That’s easy. Other times you can be sent a full package of primary data, segments of chapters and comments from the student’s supervisor. While some clients are in a hurry or lazy, others have difficulties with their English and cannot complete their assignments to the required standard. I suppose they are afraid to fail.

I can make up to £150 for a standard essay of 2,000-3,000 words – an evening’s work. Longer items can fetch up to £2,000.

I know all the tricks universities use to identify plagiarism and have learned how to dodge them. Now that software can identify the percentage of text that has been lifted from other sources, bespoke personalised essays – as opposed to generic ones – are the norm. I’ve also edited students’ clumsy plagiarism, hiding their tracks with my own well-hidden watermarks.

I operate on the assumption that the student I’m working for will have little or no personal interaction with academic staff. This means there is only a small likelihood that the lecturer who sets and marks the questions will be familiar with the student’s style of writing. Helpfully, clients will also specify what grade they require – after all, a third-rate student would attract suspicion if they submitted a first-class essay. These students ask for a 2:1, or merely a pass; sometimes it helps to leave a sentence in rough shape or drop in a spelling error. Personalisation is the key.

I don’t justify the work I’m doing on ethical grounds. While what I do is not illegal, it does enable others to break rules and suffer the consequences if they are caught. The agencies maintain the image of legitimate businesses: many do not even refer to “cheating”. You are simply “helping” with an assignment (making up, as one agency argues, for the university’s failure to provide adequate tuition). While I’m happy to acknowledge that I am dependent on clients’ continued cheating, this doesn’t mean I am not conscious that my job is a symptom of an illness, a fracture, in our universities.

If you asked me whether I enjoy my work I’d say – on the whole – “yes”. Of course I’d prefer to write honestly for a living, but in this market words are a slight commodity. For now it beats getting the train to work.

On the opening page of each assignment, I always remember to add that oh-so important line: “I confirm that this essay represents entirely my own work.”

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