Academic plagiarism used to be a careless “cut-and-paste” job. Students either copied the passages from books without citing them or from their mates’ assignments on similar topics. Today, they employ a more “advanced” tactic. They buy custom-made essays and hand them in as their own.
The rise of this trend is correlated with the steady increase in the number of so-called “essay mills”. These are online services that deliver academic papers of any kind and other assignments for a certain sum of money.
This shadow business doesn’t seem to go anywhere. Paper writing agencies are not easy to police or ban by legislation. And they are offering a service that is in a great demand among high school, college and university students.
Recognition of the Problem
In 2010, an article published at the Chronicle of Higher Education stirred up the academic society. “The Shadow Scholar” told his story of working at a custom-essay company. He admitted to having produced roughly 5000 pages of academic work per year to university students. The anonymous writer earned US$66,000 that year.
In 2015, an international conference “Plagiarism across Europe and Beyond” was held in the Czech Republic. One participant mentioned in his speech that 22% of Australian students in some undergraduate programmes had confessed to ordering or intending to order assignments online.
It was also revealed that the essay mill business was prospering. One website claimed to hit 2 million visitors for 5000 free paper downloads. Another made it possible for the cheaters to interview the writers who will complete their assignments. Some even claimed to hire university professors as writers.
No Quick Fixes
Policing and legislation of essay mills is problematic. While the company selling papers may be domiciled in the UK, its “traders”, the ghostwriters, work somewhere else in the world. The clients, university students, could also live in any part of the world.
The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) produced a report on contract cheating in 2016. The report outlines what is known about custom essay writing services and what should be done to tackle this threat to academic integrity. It emphasizes the importance of promoting honest academic practice by students, provides recommendations for detecting and penalizing academic misconduct and encourages academics to “design out opportunities for plagiarism” in assessments.
It was suggested that legislation should make it an offense to sell and advertise essay mills. In 2017, Lord Storey, co-chair of the committee on education, families and young people, moved an amendment which required banning essay mills. But it was withdrawn. Making this activity illegal doesn’t seem to be a real possibility yet.
Although some optimistic educators may not see these services a serious threat due to their semi-legitimate status, professional and respectable companies manage to retain their positive image. Most ghostwriting providers are faithful to the quality guarantee. They terminate the contracts with freelance writers for improper works. The main rule is to write unique, never-used-before content aimed to cover a specific topic. The quality product is the key to success.
The author of “The Shadow Scholar” doesn’t blame students solely: “I live well on the desperation, misery, and incompetence that your educational system has created”. He criticizes academics for putting much pressure on learners and not providing enough support. According to his observations, he classifies the clients into 3 groups:
- international students;
- struggling learners;
- lazy and rich.
The Responsibility of Universities
The most favorable environment for cheating behavior is the one without a possibility to be caught. Perhaps, here lies a solution to plagiarism issues.
However, hired writers develop essays from drafts. They also follow citation rules for academic writing. Thomas Lancaster, an associate dean at Staffordshire University and one of the UK’s leading experts on essay cheating, says that anti-plagiarism software cannot detect whether the assignments are written by ghostwriters.
Ideally, lecturers should know writing abilities of their students and spot the dramatic changes in style, word choice, and grammar accuracy. But it doesn’t work for undergraduate classes of 500 people. This method is applicable at postgraduate levels when class sizes are smaller and direct engagement with learners increases.
A few ways that can be helpful in conquering “contract cheating” are offered:
- Academics should act as role models for their students and encourage ethical behavior within the school. There shouldn’t be any tolerance policy for scholars who plagiarize.
- Students should be provided with guidelines on avoiding plagiarism and cheating.
- Academic writing courses must be available to each struggling student.
- Universities must promote a culture of integrity and its basic values.
- Institutional moral responsibility should be developed by examining the ways of dealing with student cheating, overcoming academics’ reluctance to report and deal with the cases of cheating, and taking a firm position on student teaching.
If these recommendations are followed well then academic honesty will become fixed and reinforced as the norm.
Unfortunately, academics are weak in the struggle against the companies that help students cheat. Learners keep throwing cash at custom-made papers most of which are extremely expensive. While legislation is unlikely to react to the growing problem of “contract cheating”, the responsibility lies with the university students and their educators.