I’ve written here quite a few times now, including most recently here, about the need to tackle the essay mill industry which represents a growing threat to the integrity of UK higher education – as this 2016 report from QAA noted. The report argued 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 argued that legislation should be explored to make it an offence to provide or advertise cheating services such as those provided by these essay cheat companies.
Proposals to tackle essay mills did not make into the Higher Education and Research Act and addressing this problem does not appear to be high on the agenda for the nascent Office for Students. 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.
New guidance was published in October 2017 by QAA on challenging the essay mills and aimed to set best practice around promoting academic integrity in higher education, through tackling students’ use of essay mills and other forms of contract cheating. Among the recommendations in the guidance were the need for HEIs to address:
- clear information for students on the risks of cheating, including academic misconduct being reported to relevant professional bodies
- support for students to develop independent study skills, including academic writing
- using a range of assessment methods to limit opportunities for cheating
- blocking of essay mill sites and action against essay mill advertising on campus
- smarter detection,including new software and greater familiarity with students’ personal styles and capabilities
- appropriate support for whistle blowing – to protect accuser as well as accused
- student involvement on academic misconduct policies and panels.
Now things, I am pleased to note, have gone a step further with a recent ruling from the Advertising Standards Authority which investigated two issues with one of these essay mills at the behest of the QAA. The ASA was asked to look at whether one particular ad was misleading, because it did not make sufficiently clear the risks associated with submitting purchased essays and the references to the press coverage that UK Essays received misleadingly implied that they had received positive coverage or endorsement from those press outlets.
It seems that a website from the essay mill UK Essays featured text that stated
“… GUARANTEED GRADE, EVERY TIME We’re so confident you’ll love the work we produce, we guarantee the final grade of the work. Unlike others, if your work doesn’t meet our exacting standards, you can claim a full refund … LOVED BY CUSTOMERS & THE GLOBAL PRESS UKEssays have lots of press coverage from all over the world confirming that a 2:1 piece of work produced by us met this standard … We were the first company in the world to offer you guaranteed 2:1 and 1st class work”.
Additional information about the service was included on pages titled ‘WORLD CLASS GUARANTEES’ and ‘UK ESSAYS IN THE PRESS’.
Some of the commentary from the ASA ruling on the purpose to which purchased essays could be put makes enlightening reading:
The page titled ‘WORLD CLASS GUARANTEES’ stated claims in relation to a refund guarantee, for example, “We so firmly believe in getting you the grade you order, we guarantee if we don’t, we will give you your money back”, “Our Money Back Guarantee is firm proof of our confidence…”. The same page also contained claims in relation to their anti-plagiarism checks, such as “Every piece of work we deliver comes with a dedicated plagiarism report using Viper, our bespoke plagiarism scanner … our Viper Plagiarism Scanner will scan against online resources, as well as our own database of previous work, to check for any similarities. We’re so confident that our work is plagiarism free, if the work we produce contains plagiarism we’ll pay out a £5,000 guarantee”.
We considered the ad gave an overall impression that consumers would be able to submit the purchased essays as their own, particularly because of the anti-plagiarism and grade guarantees. We considered that consumers would understand from the website that they could purchase an essay of a particular grade that was plagiarism-free, and that they would be able to make a claim under the refund guarantee if they submitted the essay and did not receive the grade ordered, or if the essay was found to be plagiarised.
We noted UK Essay’s comments that information on their ‘Fair Use Policy’ page drew to consumers’ attention of the risks of submitting the purchased essays as their own, which explained that the act of doing so would, in itself, constitute plagiarism, even with minor alterations. However, we noted consumers would only be aware of the Fair Use Policy if they scrolled down to a link at the bottom of the website, which we considered consumers were likely to overlook.
Because we considered consumers would expect from the ad that they could submit purchased essays as their own that would meet the ordered grade without risks, which was not the case, we concluded that the ad was misleading.
Some different kinds of misleading statements were offered via the quotations deployed in relation to the services offered by this company:
In addition to the quotations taken from an episode of BBC’s Fake Britain programme – including “I’d see this as a market of 65%, which is a 2:1. Just as UK Essays promised”, “The themes are well reviewed. An excellent writing style”; and “We opt for a week-long turnaround…. In fact, it arrives in just three days” – the web page ‘UK ESSAYS IN THE PRESS’ also included quotations taken from different articles published on other press websites, including the Telegraph, the Guardian, the Sunday Times and the Daily Mail…
We noted that the language and tone of the quotations, as set out on the web page, were positive in nature. Because of the manner in which the quotations were presented on the web page, we considered that consumers were likely to expect from those quotations that UK Essays had received positive reviews and coverage, in relation to the nature and quality of their services, from each of the media outlets referred to on the page.
However, we noted that the articles and features from which the quotes had been taken either featured the services provided by UK Essays in a factual manner or were related to essay writing services in general and referred to UKEssays as a means to illustrate how similar essay writing services operated with comments from both UK Essays’ representatives and opponents of such services. One of the articles which UK Essays quoted from was an opinion piece written from an anti-plagiarism perspective. We therefore did not consider that the way in which the quotes were presented were reflective of the tone of the articles and features from which they had been taken.
Because we considered that the manner in which the quotes were presented was likely to give an overall impression that UK Essays received positive reviews or coverage from the sources referred to, and that was not the case, we considered the references to the press coverage in the ad were misleading.
These selective quotes would shame the promoter of a doomed West End show and would be funny if the topic weren’t so serious.
Another earlier post on this reported on the position of the CEO of UK Essays
Mr Dennehy strongly denied that UK Essays was facilitating cheating when questioned by The Telegraph, adding that his company provided “valuable services to overworked students”.
This individual also commented on my post saying that his company wanted “to work with universities” but as I observed at the time it seems hard to imagine ways in which universities could work co-operatively with companies which charge students large sums to help them undermine the integrity of assessment processes and ultimately devalue the standard of this country’s higher education.
The essay mills remain a malign influence in our sector. They are corrupting, cynical and exploitative, preying on vulnerable students and exploiting their anxieties for profit. Although they do advise students not to submit purchased work as their own (even if the advice is well-hidden – you are inevitably reminded of the location of the plans to knock down Arthur Dent’s house in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), in reality these companies exist primarily to do the one thing they claim they are not there to do: to help students cheat (the cotton bud analogy).
These parasitical operations, which exploit those who write essays to order as well as those who pay to be helped to cheat, have no place in higher education. This ruling though is a step forward and it is to be hoped that this is a positive move towards reducing their corrosive influence in higher education in the UK. QAA are to be commended for chasing this down.