Three ways to stop students using ghost writers

Busting ghost writers is a tricky business. Ian Grainger//shutterstock.com

You might not believe in ghosts but you should believe in ghost writers. According to recent research, many students have only a sketchy understanding of what plagiarism actually is. Some engage in dishonest practices to get their work done. A quick internet search reveals a number of opportunities to procure essays on a range of topics, and at reasonable prices. But when students take credit for work that is not their own it devalues academic qualifications and reduces the confidence we can have in the ability of graduates.

A 2010 study by the business lecturer Bob Perry examined the extent and reasons for academic misconduct among 355 undergraduate and 122 postgraduate students at one school in one academic institution. It found that 14% of undergraduates and 6% of postgraduates in the study admitted that they had looked for essays online, and seven students admitted purchasing and submitting these essays. While this was clear evidence of the use of ghost writers in one department, a sector wide examination would be necessary to determine the full extent of the problem.

I’m not convinced university lecturers can always detect the ghosts. Commonly used software such as Turnitin looks for similarities to other published sources and so cannot “catch” bespoke written pieces produced by someone who is not the credited author. The notion of a lecturer challenging a student who they suspect may have used a ghost writer is good at first glance, but it is not always practical.

It’s possible that the lecturer may judge a submitted piece to exceed a student’s capability or demonstrate a fluency in the English language that is not apparent in their verbal communications – and suspect them of plagiarism or employing a ghost writer. But when these concerns are communicated to a student, no matter how they are expressed, they may sound a lot like “I didn’t think you were that smart”, or worse “I thought you were stupid”. Those are not things I want to say to my students.

So if we believe some students use ghost writers but we can’t determine whether they have or not, then what can we realistically do about it? Here are three suggestions.

1. Preventative measures

First, adopt methods that help ensure the authorship of the work. The time-honoured tradition of the oral examination in which the student demonstrates their understanding of the content of their work may catch out those who have paid for an essay. But it would take a significant amount of time to organise and then mark the performance of hundreds of oral examinations, making this solution largely impractical for those who teach large cohorts.

Alternatively, as Perry suggested, university lecturers could design the ability to use a ghost writer out of their assessments. I can envisage this taking a number of forms. For example, greater use of practical projects could be made, in which students undertake relevant tasks, such as designing and running a charity event as part of a business module. But there may not always be sufficient time, opportunity or resources available for all taught material to be engaged with in this manner.

2. Do away with traditional essays

Second, stop using individual written assignments altogether and replace them with assessment methods that are less amenable to ghostly assistance. Group assignments in which students work collaboratively to produce an essay, report or other output may be a viable choice – the hope being that the social pressure to conform would discourage students from using ghost writers.

Group work may provide a way of avoiding ghost writers. AstroStar//shutterstock.com

The students’ goals also play a role. Research I have been involved in has found that students who said they were most interested in learning favoured being put into a group with students they did not know, while those who were primarily interested in getting high marks wanted to pick those they knew. With that in mind we might be able to dissuade students from using ghost writers by convincing them that the best way to learn and gain high marks is to work together in the production of their assignments.

Still, written examinations may be the best alternative to stop cheating – although some students struggle with exams, and research has shown that students’ performance in coursework can be significantly better than in unseen exams. So swapping coursework for exams may put some students at a disadvantage.

3. Student and teacher collaboration

Third, and this is my preferred option, teachers could take a more hands-on approach to the production of students’ work. They could design assessments so that students’ work is a collaborative co-construction of the student and educator. A good example would be a final dissertation or research project that students produce under the supervision and guidance of their tutors. If lecturers spend time helping students to develop their ideas, construct their arguments, and direct their research then they can also have some assurance that the final piece is the result of a joint effort between the lecturer and student. The obvious difficulty would be finding the time to make this work.

These solutions aren’t perfect, and some may be more appropriate in different contexts than others. But the ghosts are already in the machine, and if universities want to be confident in the credibility of their graduates then they’re going to have to do something about it.