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.
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:
- They are fundamentally based on corruption and are concerned with helping undermine the integrity of assessment processes, reducing faith in our higher education system.
- 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.
- The essay mills are exploiting students’ (particularly international students’) anxiety and uncertainties about assessment.
- The cheating companies’ business models are essentially concerned with profiting from vulnerable students.
- The essay mills are drawing in academics and graduates in need of employment into supporting corrupt behaviour but providing essays for student cheats.
- Cheating enables individuals to misrepresent their achievements and devalues higher education degrees.
- 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.
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.