It takes about three minutes to order a final dissertation for an English literature degree at the UK Essays website. I pick my country, subject and required grade. I go for a 2:1, choose a length – let’s say 5,000 words – a seven-day deadline, and watch the price calculator hit £687 (or £1,236 for a two-day turnaround). Click “next step” and I can enter my topic before being matched with a suitable writer, who will produce an essay “personalised to my requirements”. It would come with a series of promises. “The work we produce is guaranteed to meet the grade you order, or you get your money back.” It will also be “100% free from plagiarism” – and on time.
All of this would be totally legal and, the owners of UK Essays insist, ethical, too – because what its customers are definitely not supposed to do is submit the work as their own. “Our essays … are the best, most useful study aid in the world,” says Daniel Dennehy, chief operating officer at All Answers, the Nottinghamshire company that owns UK Essays. “They increase any student’s understanding of a topic, which subsequently improves their ability to write an excellent, unique answer of their own.”
UK Essays says it sold 16,000 assignments last year, up from 10,000 five years earlier, written by a network of 3,500 researchers. The company’s “fair use policy”, which requires a click away from the order page, spells out the rules. “Even if you did make minor alterations to the researcher’s work, this would still be considered plagiarism,” it warns. But, Dennehy accepts, “I have worked here for nine years and I am not naive enough to think that all our clients use the work correctly.” He declines to estimate what proportion of his customers are cheats.
The growth of these sites, which are known as essay mills, is now troubling the higher levels of government. Jo Johnson, the universities minister, has appealed to student bodies and universities to help tackle so-called “contract plagiarism”, which he sees as a growing threat to academic integrity. New guidelines, to be published in time for the next academic year, are expected to recommend a new sector-wide policy, and the government has not ruled out beefing up the law.
The intervention follows a report published last summer by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), which maintains standards in higher education. It found that anti-plagiarism policies were variable across universities, and that fraud law isn’t robust enough to legislate against the misuse of essay mills. It also suggested a ban on advertising, and explored the role of search engines, which present hundreds of results to students looking for essays.
The government believes there are more than 100 mills in operation, churning out anything from B-grade GCSE coursework (£106 on UK Essays) to a 100,000-word PhD in criminal law (£82,238). “But our research suggests it’s more like 1,000 sites,” says Prof Phil Newton, the director of learning and teaching at Swansea University and an expert in academic plagiarism. Previous estimates suggest that more than 20,000 students a year in the UK are paying for essays to get degrees. The true figure may be much higher.
“This is a very fast-moving problem, which the sector and legislation has been slow to address,” Newton adds. “When I started researching it in 2009, I couldn’t believe what was available and how little research had been done. On some sites you can even enter your course code and the name of your lecturer and the writer will tailor an essay to that. To the man on the street,” he adds, “it’s very odd that this sort of thing is legal.”
Universities are equipped to detect old-fashioned, cut-and-paste plagiarism. Software such as Turnitin, which claims 97% of UK universities as customers, flags up passages it identifies in existing sources. But it cannot detect an original essay written by someone else. Even when lecturers suspect foul play, it can be hard to know how to act. “I had one instance recently when a student received a much higher mark than expected,” says a senior lecturer at a London university, who asked not to be named. “His work had a level of fluency and sophistication of thought that hadn’t been seen. But I wasn’t 100% sure, because I think he wrote parts of the essay in his own style to throw me off, so I left it. It’s a minefield.”
Opinion is divided over how to respond, however, and whether tighter rules or laws risk driving would-be cheats to the darker edges of the “model answers industry”, as essay mills prefer to be called. Many students have reported being ripped off with shoddy work, or none at all. But there is also concern that contract plagiarism, while obviously wrong, is a symptom of what critics describe as the commodification of higher education.
International students in the UK now pay between around £15,000 and £40,000 a year in tuition fees. Those from outside the EU paid £4.2bn in fees in 2014-15, almost 30% of universities’ income from fees – and almost 13% of their total income.
Universities depend on foreign students with deep pockets, which is why they are fighting government plans to bring numbers down. Dave Tomar, a former mill writer in the US, says this means universities too often sell places to ill-equipped students, many of whom arrive with limited written English or awareness of British academic norms. “The vast majority of students who cheat aren’t lazy, but struggling,” he says. “They have invested so much that they don’t want to blow it by failing.”
In 10 years, Tomar, 37, says he wrote about 4,000 assignments for customers, including hundreds in Britain. Before he quit in 2013, he says he earned $60,000 (almost £50,000) a year; he says writers generally get about half the essay fee. “Whatever their motivations, this is a symptom, not the illness,” he adds from his home in Philadelphia, where he now writes about education reform after the success of The Shadow Scholar, a book about his former life. “We need a broader conversation about how educational systems are failing these students such that they end up in college way over their heads.”
Now a degree is a commodity, no wonder more students are cheating | Poppy Noor
While studying a language at Cambridge University, Claire (not her real name) wrote essays during her first year, and also understood that most of her customers were not British. “You have a UK system reliant on foreign students while, through the backdoor, companies are devaluing the very degree certificates that attract all that foreign money in the first place,” she says in an email, describing the result as “a wonderful downward spiral of devaluation”.
Newton accepts that, in some places, students arrive without sufficient skills to complete good written work. But he says students know when they are crossing a line, and that penalties for plagiarism are generally tough already (cheats at Swansea are expelled). What has changed, he adds, is the increasing accessibility and slick presentation of many of the sites, which appeal to students who might not otherwise resort to cheating. “The easier it is, the more likely it is to happen,” he says.
Not all essay mills, which began to proliferate over a decade ago, do much to put off would-be cheats. OK Essay, which last year removed adverts from London Underground stations near universities after complaints, claims on its homepage to have more than 10,000 customers. “Looking for experts to ‘Write my essay for me’? Choose us and we won’t disappoint you!” Deep in the terms and conditions, the mill says it will not be liable “for the outcome or consequences of submission [of] the paper to any academic institution”. Nowhere does it explicitly advise against it.
Posing as a struggling history student, I call the customer support line for clarification. “If I want to use the essay as my own work, is that possible?” I ask. “I’m not able to tell you whether it’s possible or not. We just write the paper for you and you can use it for what you want,” the agent says. The company says it is based in Sheffield, but there is no address on the website, which also hides its domain registration details. The terms and conditions say the site is owned by Elabama Inc, a company registered in Panama. “So it would be at my own risk?” I ask. “You can just use it at your own risk – it’s what our disclaimer says on our website. It’s meant to serve as example … You can get it, read it, shake it and if you like it you can use it, if you don’t like it you can fix it to [be] like you want it and use it.” When I call back as a journalist, I am given an email address but none of my questions are answered, and despite further calls and emails, there is no response to the suggestion that the company appears to condone cheating.
Claire wrote for Oxbridge Essays, a prominent site with offices in London. “It was clear to everyone involved what was going on,” she recalls. Yet she found the work stimulating as well as lucrative after quitting a “soul-destroying” temp job. “I didn’t worry too much about the ethics at first because I felt bitter about the fact this was the only way I could find work that was interesting and rewarding,” she says. “I got paid £200 for the first one. I was 19 and that was a lot of money.”
In 2013, the Advertising Standards Authority ruled that Oxbridge Essays had breached its code by guaranteeing “that you will receive at least the grade you order”. The implication of the promise contradicted the company’s terms, which prohibit the submission of its essays, the authority found. Philip Malamatinas, who launched the site in 2006, declines to answer questions. Nor does he respond to Claire’s claim that the company knew what was going on. “We work with thousands of students who come to us having been let down by a system designed to penalise those for whom English is a second language, and who typically pay three or four times as much as UK students in tuition fees,” he writes in a statement. “Sadly, our universities are simply too stretched to provide the same level of support to all and as a result, students are turning to private enterprises to subsidise their educational needs.”
Mills are not the only people making a case for model answers. “I think they’re incredibly valuable, especially for international students,” says Alexander Proudfoot, chief executive of Independent Higher Education (formerly Study UK), which represents more than 130 private institutions. He attended a QAA plagiarism forum before the publication of last year’s report. “We’d be happy for there to be a national database of essays. If you made them accessible then the demand for essay mills goes out the window [see footnote].”
Universities blame others for plagiarism. They need to look at themselves
Newton, who also sat on the forum, is not convinced, preferring “to show students how things are structured and what it looks like to write an essay”. Either way, he adds: “When you can give a precise title and specify the grade and the referencing and sources, that’s something very different.” No essay site I approach will explain why, if their work is only intended to be used as a model, they are so keen to guarantee originality, sometimes two days before a deadline, if not to help students elude plagiarism detection software.
Newton believes part of the solution must be a requirement for more face-to-face and practical assessment. Proudfoot says institutions should find resources for essay-writing and critical-thinking classes, as well as tutorial support for students who “find themselves backed into a corner”. Claire agrees. She gave up when the demands of her own studies left her too busy to write for other students. “My dad also told me, ‘You might not be thinking about the wider repercussions of this now, but think about later,’ and I thought – you know, you might be right.”
• The following footnote was added on 6 March 2017: after publication, Alexander Proudfoot asked us to clarify that when he said “the demand for essay mills goes out the window”, he meant “the argument for essay mills goes out the window”.
I get being hungry for work – remember it well. One paid gig and – voila! – you’re a professional writer, you’re on your way! But some jobs bring no glory; they bring only the sinking realization that you’ve contributed to moral decay (OK, they might also bring a little money). Among many other things that the internet unleashed (and, yes, I know it brought good things, too, including this article idea) is a spate of such jobs, making their siren calls as we wait for good news from a publisher.
Perhaps you’ve been scanning the opportunities on various job boards. You see ads for academic writers, companies eager to hire writers – many, in fact – or maybe you see ads that appear to be from individuals looking for research and/or writing assistance. “Great!” you think. You did plenty of academic writing successfully in college and would enjoy learning new things and having varied challenges – a-hem, varied paid challenges. As for being a research assistant, for a professor, you imagine, that would be a perfect writer’s side gig.
But just who or what is behind those ads?
Avoiding the temptation to write for essay mills
Years ago, prior to beginning my stint as a college lecturer, I responded to such an ad with these thoughts in mind, set up an interview, and followed the employer’s directions – right to a student dormitory! (When it finally became clear that he hoped I would finish his senior research paper for him, I skedaddled on home.) Professors draw from their own students for research assistants; they’re unlikely to run ads for complete unknowns. And the companies trolling for writers? Many exist to supply the cheating ambitions of students; in other words, they’re essay mills.
Try typing in “help writing college essays,” and you’ll find them lurking among the legitimate advice offerings and in the surrounding ads. For a fee, some anonymous co-conspirator will take students’ research or class notes and forge them into essays following professors’ specifications. Or, for more money, the mill writer will tackle the research, too. The sources? One anonymous “academic ghostwriter” admits that he (or she) gets by with the snippets offered by Google Books and Wikipedia, a source often disallowed by professors. “I give the illusion of depth,” the ghost explains, “the impression of analysis.” These ghosts’ object is to get the job done quickly so they can move on to the next bid, making serious research unlikely.
Students in the U.S. and around the world buy college application essays, freshman compositions, bachelor’s and master’s theses, and Ph.D. dissertations – no job too big or small. Some of them, found an English Ph.D. candidate who wrote his dissertation on plagiarism, order essays upon receiving the prof’s assignment – clearly, learning to research effectively, write smoothly, and think deeply about complex issues is not on their agenda. As academic ghostwriter David A. Tomar puts it in his confessional but informative “The Ghostwriting Business,” “most people who don’t write would rather knowingly contract malaria than spend a week working on an essay.” Nor can they be bothered, it seems, to string together passages lifted from the internet. Loathsome as that practice is, at least it represents some effort and research, however scanty. (As an instructor, I would still fail the paper.)
For some students, it’s plain laziness; others resort to the mills because of poor writing skills, whether native speakers or not. When poor writing is the case, one trip to an essay mill may commit them for the duration, for what would the professor conclude when students follow a polished piece with one of their own error-laden efforts? And why would they give up a succession of A’s or B’s? Tomar reveals he has “helped” students by writing their essays over a whole semester.
The irony of the situation is that many of these fabrication factories proudly guarantee students “original, plagiarism-free” products. Students needn’t worry about plagiarism detection programs like Turnitin.com or about the professor recognizing the paper from a previous semester. These companies promise made-to-order, single-use papers that can be accompanied by sources, outlines, and whatever else the professor requires. (Is it wise to trust those who help students cheat not to cheat in turn? I wonder. One company reportedly bribed a student for additional payment to avoid having his name revealed to the college.)
More problems with sites who sell essays
Of course, cheating aside, another problem with this picture is that it privileges the well-heeled, the rich students who can afford to purchase their degrees essay by essay. Poorer cheaters are stuck with the free essay mills, which contain badly written, much-used essays. Let’s not waste too much sympathy on any ilk of cheater, though. Imagine instead that the affluent kids are getting original, quality essays (and even they aren’t always good quality). What does that do to the students – rich, poor, and otherwise – who do their own work? How do their essays look stacked up against those written by professionals, if the cheaters are lucky enough to land professional writers? What does this do to the GPAs and the job competitiveness of the hapless, honest students?
Many companies insist that they offer only offer assistance. Their sites may include information on essay construction and citing sources. They explain that they are providing “models” to show students how to create their own essays. Some even warn students against putting their names on these “models” and pledge fealty to university honor codes. These advice notes and disclaimers exist to hook the unwary student and to clothe the company’s occupation in the gown of legitimacy. Despite one such company’s verbiage about its legitimacy, it sells essays to 20,000 students each year, reports Paul Greatrix, author of “Cheats Shouldn’t Prosper.” Think about it: Why would a student shell out cash for an essay-as-study-guide when the library is full of them? And why do these guides have to be on the students’ assigned topics? I sometimes present model essays to students, but I certainly wouldn’t feed them language that might end up in their papers.
Other essay mills make no effort to disguise their nefarious intent. Take Unemployedprofessors.com, for example (yes, really). “Paper? Or Party? The choice is yours…” the site boldly announces, and “We help you play by making your papers go away.”
Rationalizing writing for essay mills
It’s hard to imagine why a writer, likely to be irate if someone stole pieces of his or her published creation without attribution, would be willing to help students plagiarize, let alone professors who – we would hope – value education. Perhaps I’m a purist; clearly, I’m out of touch with some contemporary thinking. Unemployed Professors says it hatched when its founder met a teacher who “didn’t care about her students.” (How easily some stumble off the high road!)
Other academic ghostwriters dredge up different rationalizations. Mill writer and one-time professor Jennifer Sunseri confesses that, “As a former professor, this is the equivalent of prostitution for me.” But “[e]thics be damned,” she concludes. “You gotta kind of look after yourself.” Then there are the academic ghosts who dabbled in law-related careers – helping students cheat is, unfortunately, legal (law and ethics apparently being distinct categories). James Robbins, a former lawyer, uses his earnings to work his way through nursing school. He declares, “I’ll take their money. It’s not like they’re going to learn anything anyway.” Meanwhile, Charles Parmenter, once a policeman and a lawyer, is also curiously unbothered by assisting plagiarizers “If anybody wants to say this is unethical – yeah, OK, but I’m not losing any sleep over it.” Yet another mill writer rationalizes that “[m]ost of the people I’ve done it for dropped out after first year.”
But casting off school isn’t routine. Keeping Robbins company in school are plenty of aspiring nurses who have purchased essays – and business majors, teachers, and principals. Our anonymous ghostwriter draws the line at nurses and a few others: “I stay away from applied fields – it is my only ethical standard as a ghostwriter,” he declares. “I will not help a nurse to qualify on false pretenses. Who knows, it might be my parents who find themselves in their care.”
To be clear, ghostwriting in general is an honorable occupation; aside from this newer version of enabling cheaters, there’s nothing wrong with taking on a writing job that will not feature your name. Opportunities for legitimate ghostwriting are numerous and varied. Celebrities, as well as the common person, hire ghosts to write their stories. Businesses hire ghostwriters to produce company documents. Political figures hire speechwriters – but in each of these cases, the writers go into these arrangements clear-eyed. No one is hurt. However, within the academic subset of ghostwriting, a student’s education and their opportunity to develop ethical sensibilities are hurt, their classmates are hurt by being placed in a mismatched pool of writers, and employers are eventually hurt by employees who simply aren’t as good as they look on paper. And, ultimately, we all are hurt.
Many of these people work their way into high places in our increasingly duplicitous world. And then what? Most fields are, in one sense or another, applied fields. They will be working for us, peopling the jobs that surround and serve us. Take on a writing job that enables cheaters, and you have only yourself to blame if your doctor, lawyer, or financial advisor is an under-educated boob who bought his or her degrees.
In his essay “Bringing Down the Fire,” David Bradley calls writing “his religion,” explaining that we – writers and readers – come to a written work hoping “that we’ll be touched by something, that we will feel a connection with some source of power and energy and understanding.” Creating work that will do that for readers, that will “bring down a little fire to change [his] readers and change” himself is Bradley’s ultimate aim.
We have such an opportunity not only to entertain but to inform, encourage, uplift, and inspire. Why squander it?
Gail Radley is the author of 24 books for young people and numerous articles for adults.
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