Samir (not his real name) was an international student on a postgraduate degree at a UK university.
He had returned to university after years in employment and, unaccustomed to academic work and with imperfect English, he struggled with an essay.
He lived alone, away from his family, and had few friends.
In desperation, he searched the Internet for help and approached an essay-writing company.
A helping hand
At first, the relationship between Samir and the essay-writer, B, was pleasant.
B responded quickly to Samir’s queries, offering guidance, feedback and reassurance. He helped with Samir’s data analysis and wrote sections of text for him.
A week after their first interaction, B asked Samir for money to renew a subscription to software apparently necessary for Samir’s essay. Samir refused to pay the full cost but offered to contribute £50, which B accepted.
Samir then submitted the work.
Two weeks later, Samir received an e-mail from B. B explained that he had lost his job and was in dire need of money.
He described Samir as a friend, reminded him of the help he offered in Samir’s hour of crisis, and asked for £1,000.
Samir, who had already spent a similar sum on B’s services, told B he had little money himself and declined to pay. B asked for a lesser amount and observed that he held incriminating evidence about Samir.
Still, Samir declined and asked B to stop threatening him.
B eventually gave Samir an ultimatum of 2 hours, failing which he would inform the university of Samir’s cheating.
Samir believed B was bluffing.
B continued his countdown: “30 minutes to disclosure”. To show Samir he knew who to contact, he sent him a screenshot of the person in charge of research integrity at the university.
Samir ignored the threat.
That evening, B e-mailed the university, explained how Samir had cheated on his essay, and disclosed dozens of e-mail exchanges and draft documents.
Following an academic misconduct process, during which Samir became so depressed that he required the support of a psychiatrist, Samir was expelled.
Under orders by the UK Visas and Immigration, he had to leave the UK. He was also required by his sponsor, who had funded his studies, to pay back £45,000. It was only then that Samir sought legal help.
This case differs from other cases of blackmail I have handled in two ways.
First, B made an initial request for payment of “software renewal”. That is a novel reason. The sum requested was small but its significance may lie in gauging the victim’s susceptibility to further demands for payment. I have had other cases where the essay mill sought payment for spurious reasons, such as “closing down the account”, but for higher sums.
Second, the blackmailer acted on his threat to inform the university. When I asked Samir about this, he said “I honestly thought he was bluffing, and so I just ignored him. I was so shocked when I found out he told the university. Had I known, I would have paid him.”
A proposal for universities
However challenging his personal circumstances, Samir was wrong to use an essay-writing service. Although he did not appreciate the gravity of using the service, Samir was aware that it constituted a breach of academic integrity. Yet, his error pales in comparison to the lamentable conduct of B who, in this case, achieved his spiteful goal of getting Samir expelled.
The incidence of blackmail may increase in the coming months. The rise of ChatGPT and other AI modules, which can produce essays in minutes at no or little cost, may reduce demand for essay mills and lead struggling writers to rely more on dirty tactics to boost income.
To discourage blackmail, universities should refuse “tip offs” of cheating without proof of identity by the reporter and if there is evidence of unconscionable conduct, such as threats and blackmail, directed at the student. Essay mill writers tend to work in the shadows and are reluctant to give away personal details.
This rule should apply to most cases but allow for exceptions. For example, it would be irresponsible to ignore the possible cheating of a final-year medical student as this could pose a danger to the public.
The rule should appear in the university’s regulations or guidance on academic misconduct and be accessible to students and the public. This is not inconsistent, in my view, with a commitment to high standards of academic integrity and a robust stance on cheating, nor is it condoning contract cheating. Universities should explain the perils of using essay-writing services, including the real risk of detection, immediate expulsion from the university without a degree, and damage to one’s employment prospects, but also convey its strong disapproval of any potentially criminal conduct by these companies and the institution’s refusal to become an accessory to extortion or blackmail.
Adopting this approach may well mean that some students will get away with cheating. It may even encourage a few misguided students, comforted by the university’s refusal to investigate anonymous or exploitative “tip offs”, to use essay mills. This is deeply regrettable but, in my view, the benefits outweigh the harms. The key benefit is that the approach should deter essay mills from engaging in flagrantly immoral, possibly criminal, conduct that can cause enormous distress to students, some of whom will already be vulnerable. Without change, it is only a matter of time before a student, mentally fragile and unable to withstand the pressure of blackmail, comes to serious harm.
The author thanks “Samir” for permission to use his story so that others may learn from it. Some other details have been modified slightly to maintain anonymity.