Cheats shouldn’t prosper: time to tackle the essay mills

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There have been a number of stories over the past few years of senior university leaders and prominent politicians being found guilty of plagiarism in their degrees.

Universities have clear regulatory frameworks designed to prevent plagiarism and other forms of cheating and do work extremely hard to prevent and detect it in order to meet the critical need to maintain academic standards and the integrity of their degrees. While there is software (Turnitin) which can detect plagiarism, the biggest issue now is the essay mill industry which produces essays and even dissertations and theses to order. It is extremely challenging, and there are now dozens of companies which exist to profit from student anxiety and desire to cheat, and there are plenty of individuals willing to provide essays as this recent BBC story shows.

The Nottingham Post also recently carried a story which painted a local essay mill in the most positive of lights, arguing that it was providing work which was aiding graduate retention in the city. The company goes to some lengths to justify its business model based on helping students cheat:

 

The company admits its USP can be controversial but stresses that it does not help students to cheat.

Chief operations officer Daniel Dennehy said: “It’s an alternative way of learning where you learn by example. You can go into any university bookshop and find model essays but we’re offering something that’s more tailored.

About two million people each month visit the company’s website, which also offers free resources, including advice on essays and referencing.

Some 20,000 students each year use the paid-for service. For example, students can pay £337 for a 2,500-word undergraduate tailored essay to 2.1 standard, delivered within a week.

A researcher from a network of 3,000 freelancers will write each essay, with the Nottingham team checking it before sending to the client.

An “alternative way of learning” also known as cheating.uk-essay

The QAA produced this report in 2016 on the growing threat to UK higher education from essay mills. The report argues for a

multi-faceted approach that builds on published research and the steps that universities and colleges are already taking to promote good academic practice by students, to ‘design out’ opportunities for plagiarism in their assessments and to detect and penalise academic misconduct.

It also argues that legislation should be explored and that

companies selling advertising space should reject approaches by sites selling custom essays, and search engines should limit access to these sites.

Although legislation might seem an unlikely prospect there is a proposed amendment to the HE & Research Bill from Lord Storey and Baroness Garden of Frognal intended to make it an offence to provide or advertise cheating services such as those provided by these essay cheat companies. This is good news but addressing this will be challenging. All of these companies which support cheating by students present themselves as if they are providing model answers to help with revision but like Cotton Buds (where the main use to which are they are put is the one thing purchasers are specifically advised not to use them for) their primary purpose is actually something they explicitly say they should not be used for i.e. submitting work as if it were your own.

Banning such companies may not be a realistic possibility, but we do need to tackle these operations which somehow have managed to retain a veneer of credibility despite being fundamentally dedicated to helping students cheat.

But there are many excellent reasons to hope for the demise of such companies, either through legislation or through other means:

  1. They are fundamentally based on corruption and are concerned with helping undermine the integrity of assessment processes, reducing faith in our higher education system.
  2. Cheating introduces major risk in terms of those seeking professional accreditation – in the case of health professions this may make it literally a life or death issue.
  3. The essay mills are exploiting students’ (particularly international students’) anxiety and uncertainties about assessment.
  4. The cheating companies’ business models are essentially concerned with profiting from vulnerable students.
  5. The essay mills are drawing in academics and graduates in need of employment into supporting corrupt behaviour but providing essays for student cheats.
  6. Cheating enables individuals to misrepresent their achievements and devalues higher education degrees.
  7. We end up with leaders who think plagiarism is legitimate.

The most striking recent example of this final point is the case of the chancellor of a Spanish university which announced a crackdown on plagiarism who himself has been accused of copying others’ work:

Fernando Suarez, who heads the King Juan Carlos University in Madrid, is accused of repeatedly copying other people’s work without giving credit.
On Thursday, he was removed from his chairmanship on a national education commission.
Mr Suarez has said he is the victim of defamation and harassment.
The permanent commission of the conference of Spanish university chancellors said on Thursday that Mr Suarez was leaving due to “information published about presumed plagiarism”.
He has been accused of copying other historians’ work and that of his students, over a period of up to 10 years.
One article published under his name was said to consist of 70% copied-and-pasted words from another person’s book.

big-office
Essay mill (probably)

Back to the leader of the Nottingham-based essay cheating company:

But he also admits there is nothing to stop those who do not state their intentions from submitting the provided essays and said he wants to work with universities more to police it.

He added: “We explain how to use the service, which is to read and understand it, and then go away and still produce your own work.

“We’re not here to help students cheat. We have a lot of graduates who have gone through all the hard work and wouldn’t want to come to work knowing they’re going to help other students cheat for their degree.”

This is utterly unconvincing. Companies like this are profiting from students cheating. This is their raison d’être. The approach they take makes it very difficult to detect, but the sector has to find a way to deal with this corrupting activity. Legislation is not the only way forward – we do need a multi-faceted approach as the QAA suggests including:

  • educating students better about the importance of submitting their own work
  • improved study skills provision
  • ensuring more assessments are designed to prevent plagiarism opportunities
  • working together across the sector, with the QAA and other agencies, to take on the cheating companies profiting from our students
  • ensuring university regulations specifically address essays procured in this way, including listing companies to be avoided, and stressing the punishments that will be fairly and rigorously applied to those who cheat.

Let’s make 2017 the year we tackle these cheating companies and ensure they don’t profit from our students.

20 thoughts on “Cheats shouldn’t prosper: time to tackle the essay mills”

  1. Adam Choonara says:

    If the ‘essay mills’ want to help universities police this, then they could upload their model answers to turnitin and this would identify any subsequent inadvertant submission by a student.

    1. Francesca T says:

      That’s a great idea! Should be (relatively) easy to make it a legal requirement as well

      1. There are only a handful of UK model answer companies. Most are not based in the UK, so making this a legal requirement on its own merits would not work, as 99% of the websites you see online are not UK companies so outside of UK jurisdiction.

        All this would achieve is push demand to these companies outside of the UK. Making what is already a difficult to police industry almost impossible to control.

        Adding more layers to this idea is the way forward in my opinion. Regulation between us and universities is the direction I would look to go.

        Regards
        Daniel Dennehy
        http://www.ukessays.com

  2. emmadw says:

    Though that would only work if the University in question is using Turnitin, not another similarity checking tool.

    1. Without getting into the details – fooling turnitin is relatively trivial – you could give me a submitted essay and I could give you a copy that would have a score of zero or even a lowish score to look reasonable.

  3. This problem extends to the writing of scientific papers, where people who make a significant contribution are not listed as authors, or even acknowledged.

    We recently published an article, with this abstract:

    When a scientific paper, dissertation or thesis is published the author(s) have a duty to report who has contributed to the work. This recognition can take several forms such as authorship, relevant acknowledgments and by citing previous work. There is a growing industry where publication consultants will work with authors, research groups or even institutions to help get their work published, or help submit their dissertation/thesis. This help can range from proof reading, data collection, analysis (including statistics), helping with the literature review and identifying suitable journals/conferences. In this opinion article we question whether these external services are required, given that institutions should provide this support and that experienced researchers should be qualified to carry out these activities. If these services are used, we argue that their use should at least be made transparent either by the consultant being an author on the paper, or by being acknowledged on the paper, dissertation or thesis. We also argue that publication consultants should provide an annual return that details the papers, dissertations and thesis that they have consulted on.”

    The full article is available at http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11948-015-9710-9

  4. For those with an interest in such issues, there’s an interesting project going on to tackle ‘contract cheating’ in Australia – link here: https://cheatingandassessment.edu.au/

  5. Faculty lectures should obtain consent from confident students to make their essays available, anonymously, to other students for pedagocic purposes: I know from experience that many lecturers do not provide good student exemplars of academic writing. Students learn good practice from each other and faculty must faciitate this by encoraging the sharing of good practice. Widening participation means that not everyone can write academically. No wonder people resort to essay mills which can help them, it’s not only about cheating (which is wrong), but also about playing catch-up with those lucky enough to have had an academic upbringing, and that’s simply not fair.

    1. Spot on, Julia. Cheats should be detected and appropriate penalties levied, but institutions also need to ask themselves some hard questions about whether they are providing the necessary support to ensure all students have the skills and the confidence to reach the academic standard expected of them. Focusing these anti-cheating efforts entirely on sanctions seems a rather too convenient brushing under the carpet of more challenging problems in the sector.

  6. Samson says:

    I am not sure all essay mills do help people to cheat. But it depends with the model. A student who goes to the essay mills for even the smallest of task deserves some punishment. The world is tough. Balancing between school and work is even tougher. What do you do when you don’t want to spend another $ 5, 000 on a failed subject. Wouldn’t you rather get a modelled answer?

  7. Martin Seviour says:

    So pleased to read that someone in your position is actually prepared to take on these companies who line their pockets by preying on vulnerable students, telling lies about what we as academics do and pretending that they are only supporting students rather than actively encouraging dishonesty.

    I have a very personal connection to this since the essay mill you mention in Arnold is at the end of my street and I pass it every day on my way to and from work. After a long day at work trying to give students the confidence to express their own ideas and comment on others’ ideas in their own words it makes my blood boil to think that the people inside the ‘mill’ are deliberately undermining the work we do and devaluing the education and qualifications we provide.

    The Arnold company is featured in this episode of ‘Fake Britain’ which you may have seen.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qEIyDNMn12U

    I say lets get together and discuss a common strategy to fight these people!

    Cheers

    Martin Seviour
    Nottingham Trent University

  8. Paul Greatrix says:

    Thank you Martin. I do hope we can develop an approach to tackling this. The view from the Lords, although the amendment was withdrawn, was positive on finding ways to address these companies. Let’s hope we can make some progress now.

    1. Paul, very interesting article. I work for the business you mention in your post (www.ukessays.com).

      Our company has always been about helping students learn not cheat. We have a very clear perspective on how our model answers are to be used.

      In my opinion the HE Bill and amendment that was put forward was a start in trying to resolve the issue, unfortunately it would not have worked. All the proposed legislation would have done is push demand overseas and further out of their sphere of influence, making what is already a difficult to police industry almost impossible to control.

      Our solution would have been to regulate the industry to enhance control over it and mitigate potential harm. Then you gain influence over something, rather than lose it. Demand won’t go away, but you begin to control some of that use.

      I am more than happy to talk to you about this in more detail, if you wish. Our aim has always been to work with Universities rather against them.

      Regards
      Daniel Dennehy

      1. Paul says:

        Thank you for the comment Daniel but whatever you may say about your intended aims it seems to me inescapable that your company is fundamentally concerned with making money by helping students cheat. Legislation would have a positive impact I think if properly framed but is only part of the solution. I find it hard to imagine ways in which universities could work co-operatively with companies which charge our students to help them undermine the integrity of our assessment processes but if I think of one I’ll let you know.

      2. Evelyn Gray says:

        If you really wanted to work with universities then you would send your so-called “model answers” to the university department of the student you’re “helping” so that they can check the eventual submission against the model. I suspect this will never happen as every single one of these “model answers” is being submitted as if it were the students’ own work (as you well know), and you would lose ALL of your business if your policy was seen to truly stand against cheating. This faux naivety really doesn’t wash.

  9. Feun says:

    I’m a big opponent of these servers and would imprison all of their founders and students who use them both. This is all outrageous! Unfortunately, it is difficult to compute such students. For example, tools like plagiarism checker Unicheck https://unicheck.com/ is unable to detect when a student employs a ghostwriter to complete a new assignment. But I believe that tool like Emma https://emmaidentity.com/ will cope with it. This uses machine learning and artificial intelligence to study the innards of each author’s writing style and attributes authorship on their basis and able to analyze and understand the way people write. I hope such programs will appear and they’ll overcome this terrible phenomenon

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