Cheating with essay mills: an extension of students asking each other for help?

Maybe I could pay somebody else to do it. Essay writing via Geo Martinez/

Given the sophisticated detection tools to stop cheating, it’s unsurprising that the Channel 4 Dispatches documentary turned its attention to the migration from copy-and-paste internet plagiarism to cash-for-drafts “essay mills”. Universities seem relatively blind to this “contract cheating” in which students pay somebody else to do their assignment, but the scale of the business is sobering.

Having felt that I have been the occasional victim of professionally-authored student assignments, I recently explored the market as a mystery shopper. Others have documented a range of available services, but just an hour of searching found me 25 websites that were suitable suppliers for a postgraduate essay I had just set. There is even a phone app for the mobile plagiarist.

Sceptics have suggested that these sites are volatile, fraudulent, or different faces of the same organisation, but that was not my impression. Their online chat and telephone advice was distinctive, articulate and patient. Their follow-up contact was vigorous. Moreover, their service is engaging: front pages feature fresh (usually female) students clutching books or folders (never computers) and often dressed for graduation.

Slick approach

The business processes are impressive. Typically you specify your needs, the package is listed internally and contract writers bid for it (regular customers can request favoured authors). For a 4,000-word, merit level, education masters essay in 48 hours, a typical offer was £440. I could commission a 12,000-word masters dissertation (including fieldwork) in 30 days for £860. Authors are carefully recruited, perhaps postgraduates or unemployed faculty. Sometimes they justify their work by referencing disillusionment with a broken and unsupportive education system.

But is their work any good? Evidence is largely circumstantial. Glimpses of job tickets suggest customers return, and sample texts are of respectable quality. The qualifications regulator Ofqual did fund research consultants to solicit A Level English and history essays, which were then marked by experienced assessors who concluded that some fell significantly short of the grade As requested. However, the assessors were told that these were contract-commissioned essays and it is hard to believe that this knowledge did not influence their grading. Such findings are therefore less reassuring than the education community believes.

Students who have used these services are, understandably, reluctant to share their motives. Staff and student experiences around more conventional plagiarism have pointed to a number of important themes driving this. However, innocently misunderstanding the nature of authorship or the conventions of citation can hardly apply to the extreme case of submitting someone else’s writing for your own assessment.

What goes through a student’s mind

Although there must be awareness of personal misdemeanour in these cases, that should not imply that the student is not thinking things through. Consider the following diagram.

Framing cheating in the culture of educational practice. Author provided

The starting point is a student’s engagement with study – the vertical axis on the diagram above. This will vary across different continua. For example, from more to less understanding of the studied material. At the same time, lifestyle choices may place a student anywhere on this axis between freewheeling with lots of time for study, to a lifestyle full of commitments that constrain study time.

The essay-writing websites present this pressure against study as blameless inevitability, casting assignments as irritating demands that compete with learning purposes, rather than actually being part of those purposes themselves. “Today academic writing takes a serious toll on students. There are so many assignments to cope with and so many tasks,” said one website.

The horizontal axis represents the theory that cognition (remembering, reasoning, learning) is “distributed” – not just trapped between our ears, but embedded into all our interactions with those around us – and so student learning becomes thinking that is coupled into the social environment around them. But this social integration is a continuum: one that runs from peer support to personal tuition, contract tuition, proof reading, copy editing and onwards to contract writing. Students, but also staff, may struggle with where on this continuum activity starts to violate the expectations of assessment.

In the diagram, the diagonal “axis of rationality” maps how the student weighs up this encouragement to collaborate with the challenges of how they manage their understanding of the subject and their time. The more you don’t understand or the more life events impede you, the more you turn to others for help. But as the shading in the diagram is meant to imply, there may be genuine uncertainty about when dishonesty starts and when cheating becomes a real option.

Yet there must come a point when a student may overcome his or her doubts enough to go through with cheating and money changes hands. But any degree of unease at this point may be reduced by an academic climate in which learning is celebrated for being grounded in social interaction, whereby students learn through their relationships with those around them. Students may also be influenced by encouragement to cultivate an entrepreneurial mindset. Perhaps, finally, universities are increasingly being drawn towards presenting education as a commodity. Thereby, we may all be playing our small parts in this corrosive growth of intellectual dishonesty.