The damage contract cheating can inflict on society is clear. Graduates emerge from university with huge (and in some disciplines, potentially dangerous) gaps in their learning and knowledge
Picture the following scenario: marking an essay by one of your more underwhelming students, you grow suspicious. You would like to be pleased by the unexpected quality of the work, but instead you feel “a twinge that a sentence is too neatly framed”, as one scholar who has found herself in this position puts it. The analysis is superb, the writing style good - but is it too good? It bears little resemblance to previous work by the same student: indeed, it is in a different league. But it has been through Turnitin, the academic plagiarism checker, and come back clean. Has the student miraculously improved, or are you looking at a particularly pernicious problem afflicting today’s higher education sector: the paid- for, custom-written essay?
Custom essays, usually bought through websites known as essay mills, are in some ways an academic’s worst nightmare. Unlike standard examples of copy-and-paste plagiarism, they cannot be detected using software because they are “original” pieces of work - just not the student’s. They also arguably represent an even more cynical form of cheating than, for example, regurgitating unattributed passages in a piece of submitted work.
For many years, essay mills have been brazenly advertising their wares online, although they are always careful not to condone customers handing in bought pieces of work, arguing that the essays purchased are intended simply as useful guides or reference material.
No one knows how big the market in custom essays is, or whether universities are managing to detect those students who do hand them in. There are also concerns that in an age of mass higher education and high student-to-staff ratios, lecturers are less able to get to know their students’ work, making this form of cheating more difficult to detect. And there are fears that the pressures of the job might encourage some academics to turn a blind eye to the practice. But perhaps the most important question is whether it is possible to prevent this form of cheating in the first place.
Asking how many custom-written essays are being bought and sold in the UK is a bit like asking “how long is a piece of string?”, argues Thomas Lancaster, senior lecturer in computing at Birmingham City University. For obvious reasons (including the fact that cheats do not want to be caught, essay mills operate online, and there are no official statistics), it is difficult to come by reliable figures.
However, Lancaster, along with his former colleague Robert Clarke, has attempted to quantify the scale of the problem.
The pair studied a large sample of essay mill sites between March 2005 and June 2013, and identified nearly 19,000 attempts at contract cheating by students.
While they examined websites that could be used by anyone anywhere in the world, a more detailed study of 59 postings in 2011 on one website, vworker.com, found 18 references to assignments at UK universities.
“What we detected is the tip of the iceberg,” cautions Lancaster. No one even knows how many essay ghostwriting sites there are on the web, but five years ago Lancaster and Clarke listed 158.
In addition to the online activity, there is an unknown number of essay writers who advertise their work offline - even on campus.
“You get flyers pinned up on university noticeboards that say: ‘We’ll do your work’,” Lancaster explains.
Then there are those who arrange contract essays socially, for friends, family members or students one or two years below them, who leave no public trace at all.
Prices vary dramatically. An upper-second, five-page undergraduate history essay will set you back £70 at the cheaper end of the market, but some sites charge in the region of £150-£160. One website, which sells itself as a “premier” service, charges £50 an hour. This may sound expensive, but it is loose change compared with the cost (particularly for international students) of having to retake a year.
At the top end of the scale, postgraduate dissertations of 25,000 words cost in the region of £2,800.
Some essay writing companies are willing to provide more specific estimates of the scale of demand for their services, although the figures are self-reported and some academics say that the firms may exaggerate their popularity to attract publicity and gain more custom.
Jennifer Wiss, business development manager at All Answers (which trades under a number of names on the web, including UKessays.com), says that the company dispatched 11,470 custom essays in 2012, of which three-quarters were ordered from UK IP addresses.
This figure is difficult to verify, but the firm’s accounts appear to be consistent with a company selling essays in such quantities.
Wiss estimates that a further 4,000 custom essays are written in the UK by rival agencies each year (although students at British universities can also order from abroad).
In 2005 Barclay Littlewood, who was then chief executive of All Answers (which promoted itself as UK Essays), estimated that the business was worth £200 million a year and boasted that it had allowed him to buy a Ferrari and a Lamborghini.
Robert Eaglestone, professor of contemporary literature and thought at Royal Holloway, University of London, believes that custom-written essays are a problem, but thinks that some essay mills choose to exaggerate their size through the press “because it’s good advertising. It’s a very media- friendly problem.”
Whatever the number of essays being commissioned and the scale of the companies involved, information gathered by Times Higher Education under the Freedom of Information Act suggests that the number of custom-written essays being detected and officially reported is tiny.
THE asked UK universities to provide details of the number of students they had disciplined in the academic years 2011-12 and 2012-13 for handing in custom essays or assignments bought from essay mills. Among the universities that responded to the request within 20 days, just 29 students were disciplined in 2011-12; in 2012-13, 30 students from 15 institutions were penalised.
More than half the offenders hailed from outside the UK. Some argue that the high fees paid by international students and the need to write in English (if this is not their first language) create greater incentives to cheat.
Chasing plagiarists can be ‘too much effort’, Carroll says. In any case, she is unsure if her institution would back her up if she uncovered cheating
Wiss reports that for a significant number of All Answers’ customers, English is a second language. She claims that “many of these struggle to put their thoughts and ideas across, or to interpret their course material and lectures. I believe this is why they choose to use a service like ours.”
In Lancaster’s experience, both domestic and international students use essay writing services, but he believes that a particularly serious and related issue is the matter of students paying for the translation of an essay written in a foreign language before handing it in, a practice that can obscure plagiarism. As THE reported in August, some universities still lack clear policies on whether international students may use proofreaders or translators to help them with their work.
The damage contract cheating can inflict on society is clear. Graduates emerge from university with huge (and in some disciplines, potentially dangerous) gaps in their learning and knowledge. Lancaster even discovered one student who had attempted to outsource an assignment on nuclear engineering. One of the scholar’s presentations on the subject asks: “Do you want to live within five miles of this person?”
But there is also a more specific form of damage to the university. You need only one student to go “to a job and not be able to do it” for an employer to “write off” other graduates of that university, Lancaster argues. He believes that employers have long memories and will warn other companies that certain alumni are not to be trusted. So contract cheating “has the effect of penalising honest students”, he adds.
Given the ethical issues, who agrees to work for the sites? The companies advertise themselves as employing graduates with good qualifications: an anonymous essay writer who wrote for THE in August says he is a recent Oxbridge graduate who was asked to provide evidence of his qualifications and samples of his writing when applying for the job. Some companies claim to employ staff with at least 2:1 degrees, interview potential candidates and ask them to complete trial assignments.
Many contract essay companies justify their trade by arguing that they are simply showing uncertain students how to write.
“Many students just want to see how it’s done,” says Wiss, who also claims that the “vast majority” of All Answers’ customers do not hand in their purchased essays.
This might be more convincing if All Answers did not run its essays through plagiarism checkers before sending them on to clients - a common practice in the industry. Why do this unless customers want to hand them in? Wiss claims that this is to make sure that its writers are “spending the time they are paid for on the project and not cutting corners”.
In line with many in the business, All Answers tries to blame universities for the rise of the essay mill. Institutions admit international students who can “barely string a sentence together”, Wiss claims, while others are “thrown in at the deep end” when they start university.
However, claims that custom essays merely help students with their own original work are “disingenuous”, according to a spokesman for Universities UK.
“Such essays often cost several hundred pounds, will specify the grade they require [2:1, 2:2, etc] and are purchased invariably to meet clear deadlines,” he says.
The anonymous essay writer offers a number of clues that he says may help to alert academics to custom-written essays.
Essay writing agencies generally require writers to submit their work in a standard format, he explains, often including a contents page and chapter headings, regardless of length.
“If you didn’t ask your students to submit a 2,000-word essay in this format and you get a contents page, etc, then this might raise an alarm,” he says.
Ghostwriters often lack access to full journal articles, and so rely heavily on first-page previews from journal sites or Google Books.
“Really probe the references, because this is the weak part,” he advises.
Jude Carroll, an education consultant at Oxford Brookes University and a plagiarism expert, thinks academics should not be afraid to be aggressively “investigative” if they smell a rat. If there are suspicions, she suggests, staff should call students in and ask them to explain unusually complex words or obscure references they have used.
The “biggest worry” for academics who have such suspicions is that they lack proof, she says - but that is no excuse for inaction.
“There’s no support for the argument about proof. Students can’t question academic judgements. You don’t have to be [100 per cent] sure, you have to weigh the balance of probabilities - and be at least 65 per cent sure,” she thinks.
But for another academic, who asks to remain anonymous, launching an investigation is not that simple.
“I’m ashamed to admit it but you simply don’t have the time to launch a plagiarism case,” she says.
One colleague, the same academic recalls, had to “almost google every line” of a suspect essay and make several trips to the library to ascertain whether her fears about a piece of work were genuine.
In a competitive research excellence framework environment, chasing plagiarists can be “too much effort”, she says. In any case, she is also unsure if her institution would back her up if she uncovered cheating. Universities have a “real anxiety about the litigation culture” and are “anxious” about academics exercising their judgement.
When offenders do get caught, Carroll says, the punishments for handing in contracted essays are “highly variable”. She finds this worrying because penalties are a major determinant of how likely students are to cheat.
“I believe students should be thrown out” if caught, she says. “It’s fraud.”
However, according to the results of THE’s FoI request, most students who cheat in this manner can expect to remain on their courses.
Of the 59 students who were caught handing in bought essays in 2011-12 and 2012-13, just 13 were expelled. In one case at Newcastle University, for example, an international student suspected of handing in work purchased from the site Essays.uk.com was given a “final written warning” but no other punishment.
Many believe that academics’ first line of defence against custom essays is to set assignments that are difficult, if not impossible, to outsource. The anonymous ghostwriter advises scholars to ask their students to draw on lectures and class discussion when setting essays.
“This is something that is either less visible or invisible to the ghostwriter,” he explains, and therefore much more difficult to achieve.
Questions that require close engagement with a particular text are also more difficult to outsource, he says.
“Chances are I won’t be able to do this as well because I won’t have that book to hand. If asked to, I have a problem.”
He also cautions against sending out lecture notes in electronic formats or putting them online, because this only makes it easier for ghostwriters to give the impression of having attended courses.
However, the Equality Challenge Unit points out that students with disabilities might find taking notes during lectures difficult or even impossible, and some departments require academics to provide lecture notes to all students for this reason.
Some essay questions appear time and time again, making them easier for contract writers to complete, so one obvious piece of advice from plagiarism experts is to avoid setting assignments on predictable topics such as “women in Dickens”.
Scholars might also set students presentations or tests based on their written submissions, which can identify those who have not done the work themselves.
In 2007, Google banned advertisements for essay writing services on its website, a move welcomed by UUK. Couldn’t the government introduce a blanket ban on the companies?
A spokeswoman for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills suggests that this would be impossible under current law.
“Whether a student and/or ‘writing service’ have committed an offence would be for a court to decide and depend on the individual circumstances of the case,” she says. “There is no action BIS could take to address this.”
Another drastic option is suggested by the tale of a US professor, recounted by Lancaster, who set himself up as a contract essay writer to test the waters, only to find one of his own assignments out to tender. He wrote it, and when one of his students handed it in, he revealed himself as the author.
Wiss maintains that All Answers is “very keen to work with universities to provide a service that can’t be abused in the first place” - but only if universities agree that the company is “a legitimate source of academic help”.
The UUK spokesman declines to comment on this and says: “More should be done to clamp down on these essay companies.”
He adds that the body does not have any specific proposals to tackle the problem (although suggestions are welcome).
So there does not appear to be any systematic solution to essay mills on the horizon, and responsibility for detecting and dealing with the issue continues to rest with individual academics and their universities.
“If academics really want to catch these essays, they are going to have to spend more time engaging with their students’ submitted work,” concludes the anonymous essay writer. Some may be left wishing that they had more time to do just that.
Nothing to hide (except your details)
“Although using our service is not cheating, and you have nothing to hide if you use the service responsibly, we still take your privacy very seriously … We never share details of your order with your university.”
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My Uni Essays
“Universities sometimes warn students against using companies like ours, which goes back to the days when the custom essay industry was underhand and untrustworthy. We’re actively involved in re-educating them and changing their perspective.”
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How to exorcise the ghostwriters
- Set students short tests or presentations based on their essays.
- Ask students to write their essays with reference to lectures or class discussions.
- Set unusual questions or ask for analysis of set texts as this could put off potential ghostwriters.
- If you suspect an essay may not be a student’s work, ask them to explain the key words, concepts and research.
- Check references: ghostwriters often do not have access to full journals or books, so may be able to reference only the preview pages of online articles.
- If an essay seems overly formatted, for example, with a contents page and chapters, this could be because of a standard format used by essay companies.
- Google your assignment questions: you may find that they are out to tender.
- Click here for more on preventing plagiarism.
In his parents' mind he is a total success: their son, the masters student at Cambridge. In his mind, he is a cheat. Because what mum and dad do not know is that late at night their 24-year-old son writes essays for other students for cash. He has made £2,500 so far on 10 assignments of between 1,500 and 16,000 words.
"It's an ethical battle I'm finding very difficult to win," he says. "I am constantly thinking 'what happens if someone finds me out?'. It would come as more than a shock to my friends and family."
It started when he picked up a flyer for Oxbridge Essays in a Cambridge college a few months ago. He had already seen the essay mill's adverts in the student press.
"My motivation is that I'm paying for my studies and that I'm an overseas student," he says. "The cost has frankly been overwhelming. I'm £40,000 in debt and that's with scholarships worth £10,000.
"But I know that what I have written will often be submitted just as it is by the student who commissioned it. It's a worry and a risk, but also sad that my studies have to be supported in this way."
Oxbridge Essays offers custom-made undergraduate and masters essays, and even PhD theses, for between £80 and £21,250. A 12,000-word essay would earn the writer £600, for example. The company says the work it provides is guaranteed to be the standard of a first or a 2:1.The company, which was started two years ago and is based in Shillington, Hertfordshire, says it "provides model examples of academic research that are intended to be used by clients as inspiration for their own work".
"Our services could only be construed as cheating if model work was handed in by clients as their own - something we strongly discourage," its website says. But why then are stylistic considerations so heavily emphasised in its guidelines for essay writers, ask its critics.
The firm will not disclose how many students buy its essays. But it cannot be doing too badly. This year it had the resources to advertise three scholarships of up to £5,000 to present or former postgraduate students prepared to write masters and PhD essays.
And Oxbridge Essays is just the start of it. There is www.Oxbridgewriters.com, which started in December, and www.Oxbridgegraduates.com.
All of which, say Oxford and Cambridge, contribute to plagiarism at best and cheating at worst.
Oxford University says there were 16 cases of suspected plagiarism investigated between March 2006 and 2007. There were 11 in the same period the year before. Cambridge has investigated approximately 30 cases of suspected plagiarism by undergraduates and postgraduates this academic year. The year before, there were about five.
This is more to do with a heightened awareness of plagiarism than the growth of essay mills, says Dr Laurie Friday, secretary of the board of graduate studies at Cambridge. But essay mills are none the less an increasing worry. Until now, the two universities have relied heavily on the intimate nature of their teaching to detect any hint of academic malpractice.
"We cling to the fact that we teach students so closely that we know them quite well," says Friday. "The chance of them doing things that we don't know about or disapprove of seems small. But that's not to say that we have denied it goes on."
Cambridge's board of graduate studies met in February to discuss Oxbridge Essays. It decided to make it clearer to students in its admissions brochures that they are expected not to buy from or be employed by essay mills.
In the past 18 months, all faculties have created their own statements on plagiarism for their subject handbooks. Some teach the statements to students.
The university is creating a website explaining what counts as plagiarism to go live this month and will also hold a plagiarism awareness day. "It is really, really hard to say how much of a problem Oxbridge Essays is," says Friday.
"The cases of suspected plagiarism that we know about are mostly graduates and are more likely to be masters than PhD students, although we do have a job to do with PhD students on this, too. With graduate students we have a much more international group. But this is by no means confined to overseas students. It is more likely to be graduates because our undergraduates have very little coursework that counts towards their degree apart from unseen exams.
"We have expressed strong disapproval of Oxbridge Essays and the scholarships it offers. It is clearly an offence to submit any work that has been bought from an essay bank or ghost written. If we detect this, we will use our disciplinary routes.
"We see Oxbridge Essays as a deliberate attempt to undermine the academic integrity of this and other universities.
"If a graduate of ours is found to be writing for them, they are bringing the university into disrepute. If a student gets a better class of degree than they deserve, then their employer is defrauded and may think lower of Cambridge University. It is really hard to exercise control over our former students though. We have to try to have control over the students we have now.
"Our masters and PhD students can only take on a certain number of hours of employed work. PhD students, for example, are allowed to take on six hours per term for payment. We expect that to be academic-related work and that doesn't include Oxbridge Essays," Friday continues.
"We don't want our students to be staying up all night writing essays for other people. They have better things to do. It is simply a waste of a good education. We are here to develop students' intellectual capacity. If they buy essays off the peg, they are wasting their time and money."
Turning to turnitin
Cambridge signed up to turnitin, plagiarism detection software, for about £8,000 a year this month. Oxford did the same at Christmas for £8,200.
Oxford's proctors have proposed new regulations making it a disciplinary offence for any student to use Oxbridge Essays. This will be submitted to Congregation, the dons' parliament, because it is a proposed amendment to one of the university's statutes.
Oxford students will also soon have to sign a statement that says they have consulted the university's new plagiarism website with each written assignment. "We see plagiarism as an educational problem rather than a discipline one," says Professor Elizabeth Fallaize, pro vice-chancellor for education at Oxford.
"It is really about educating students on refereeing and other areas. We know that a lot of our plagiarism cases are foreign students whose first language is not English and perhaps have an anxiety about writing in English. We try to address that.
"It is so sad that a student should be prepared to undermine a degree in this way."
Patrick Leonard, academic affairs officer at Cambridge University's student union, says essay mills such as Oxbridge Essays make a mockery of higher education. But he says they cannot be held entirely to blame. "Oxbridge students are writing these essays because they want extra money. If they want extra money because they need it, then the university and government have a problem to address."
To which Fallaize says: "We are in a deficit budget. We are trying everything we can to help students with their finances."
And Friday agrees: "I have huge sympathy with students who say they need the money, but we can't afford to pay all students to have a scholarship."
And what do those who own the essay mills say?
Just another source
Barclay Littlewood, co-owner of www.oxbridgegraduates.com, believes he is providing a useful service which shows universities that they teach students in the wrong way. "Our message is clear to all students. Come and use us, but use us properly like any other source and then go and write your own piece," he says.
"[We do it] to ensure that essays are phased out of the UK academic system and universities are held to account for the substandard skills they have been teaching students for far too long.
"We aim to highlight the flaws in a system that no longer works in this information-rich age. [Universities] must realise that the mass grading of intellect through essays and the promotion of academia, at the expense of teaching real practical skills that will help prepare students for the workplace in the UK, is nothing less than tantamount to profiteering and fraud."
'The only people who'll know are you and us'
The website of Oxbridge Essays boasts: "The principal advantage of working for Oxbridge Essays is financial. A next-day top 1st essay earns a writer £800. A few such pieces and one's student-loan look [sic] much smaller!"
Lucy Tobin, who is a student at Oxford, called the company for Education Guardian to ask a few ethical and practical questions about what it would be like to work as a secret essay-writer.
Oxbridge Essays: Hello, Oxbridge Essays.
Lucy Tobin: Hi, I'm a student at Oxford, and I'm interested in doing some work as a writer for Oxbridge Essays. I just wanted to find out more about it. How does the process work?
OE: Sure. Once you've completed the application and signed our legal document, we add you to our email list and then every day you'll receive emails with details of the work available, fee and time frame. If you're interested in an essay, you reply and your bid will be compared with all the others we receive, so it may be two or three or could just be you. Your bid's success rate is based on the level of your Oxbridge qualification, if you're an undergrad, or doing a masters, or a second degree, for example, plus your experience writing for us. For the average writer, about 50% of their bids are accepted, but for someone who is highly rated in our eyes, because of the high quality of their past work, it's more likely to be around 70%. What do you study?
LT: I'm halfway through my degree, I'm studying English literature.
LT: What's the pay like?
OE: It depends a lot on the time period involved, and the length. But let's take an average ... Say for an undergraduate essay on English lit that needs to be 2,500 words, which you had six days to write - for that you would get about £100. But it ranges - a next-day essay can be £600-700 ... For, say, a dissertation, it can take up to 15 days and you'd get much more money. If they feel confident doing so, we also encourage people to write on subjects related to theirs, so there's more available and that's a way to earn more money.
LT: OK. And how many essays does each of your employed writers usually write?
OE: It's hard to say exactly. We have about 600-700 people writing for us.
LT: Would the essays be used entirely as an essay by the paying student - would the paying student hand in my work?
OE: No, it's model research that you're writing. The essays can't be handed in, we make that clear. Have you looked at our website? Have a look at the Write For Us section. What's your name? Are you at Oxford?
LT: Kelly Robson. Yes, I'm at Oxford. But it's making me think ... how ethical is the whole thing?
OE: That's a judgment you have to make. It's up to you to decide.
LT: Sure. But is it completely anonymous? Could I get found out? I mean, I don't think Oxford would ...
OE: No, your information is absolutely confidential. Over the year we've been running, we've never had a single writer who's had a bad experience. The only people who'll know you work for us are you and the people in the office here, unless you tell anyone else. We've written to both of the universities a few times, and they've said there are no regulations against people working for us. Obviously, they're not happy about it ... but there's nothing they can do. The service we offer is not illegal.
LT: But can't they find out through the emails you send? Especially if they're going to be sent to my university email account?
OE: That's highly illegal, and it's a misconception that they can do that. You've got privacy laws. We'll need a verification email from your Oxford account to prove that you go to the university, but that can be a blank message. It just has to be sent from that account. After that point, you can use your private email. You have a Hotmail or Gmail account, right?
LT: Yes. One more thing I wondered, though. Do academics write for you too?
OE: Yes, some junior academics from Oxford and Cambridge write for us. Also people working in the City, graduates, undergraduates. If you go on the website, fill in the forms, we can go ahead from there.
LT: OK, thanks for your help. Bye.
OE: No problem. Bye.
I did sign up to the company in order to find out more about the way it works, but I would never work for it. I have to work hard to write my own essays for my degree, and I don't want other students to get off so lightly - or to have the temptation of plagiarism.