Contract cheating: universities' hidden problem
An investigation into the scale of the UK's essay mill industry
On a Monday evening in March 2018, an email from Tom Parker appeared in my Gmail inbox. "This email is in regards of your application for 50% Discount offer. I would like to Congratulate you that you are one of the 50 people who got accepted for the offer," it said.
I had no idea who Tom Parker was and had no memory of applying for the 50% discount offer. Moreover, the offer that Tom Parker talked about was assignment writing. Yes, Parker works for Writo Mania, an essay mill.
"Essay mill" is a term for a business that sells an original piece of writing which is written based on an order. Some freelance ghostwriters work for them, and students are their primary customers.
I was researching this, talking to several essay mills via their web chat, but I never gave my email address and always used my browser's incognito mode. I still don't know how they got my details.
Despite my concerns, I went to the website that Parker had suggested: writomania.co.uk. It claims its website is the best assignment writing help online in the UK.
Suddenly, a member of the website team with the username JP Morgan said "Hi!" on the web chat pop up. “Need academic help?” Morgan asked.
“Nope, I am a journalist, writing about this kind of business. Can I interview your boss?”
“Yes, sure, you can visit our office. Click on the contact us to see the address,” he answered.
“Is it AB25 1HF? To whom I can talk?”
After waiting for his answer for about 3 minutes, he said, “How about I get you an interview, I mean, I can get you all of the answers you need?”
I thought it was a very kind of him, but no, he was offering a service. He asked me to pay £500 to get my questions answered.
“Nothing is for free,” he said. I refused the offer.
On the website, Writo Mania stated that its address was at 1 Berry Street, Aberdeen. At that address, there is an office building called Regus, but no such company called Writo Mania in that building. The receptionist said she had never heard of the company. The address that they put on the website is fake.
On another day, I came back to the website, pretended to be a student who wanted to buy an essay and asked them about the price. I got a special price on that day, £180 for a 3,000-words-essay and £400 for a £12,000-words-dissertation.
Compared to the other essay mill websites that I had visited, that price is quite low. According to 11 essay mill price lists, the lowest price for a 3,000-words-essay is £143, and the most expensive one is £550. For a 12,000 words dissertation, the cheapest charge is £325, and the most expensive is £3,000.
It is not hard to find the essay mills. Their promotions are too prominent. They are reaching the students through social media spam, Google ads, comment spam, YouTube ads, personal email and even using influencers to promote their service. They are so open now.
I tweeted something which contained the word 'assignment'. It wasn't long before one of the essay mills accounts then replied to the tweet with their promotion.
A master's student from the University of Manchester told me that some essay mills approached him through his social media accounts, from Instagram to LinkedIn. He never used words like 'assignment’ or ‘essay’, but he often used his university’s name as a tag.
It is so easy for a student if they want to buy an essay or dissertation. They only need to come to the website, talk to the customer service, send the assignment brief from the university, pay, and wait until the assignment is done. There is no need for a face to face meeting or giving personal details. Everything will be done on web chat, email, or phone.
Universities in the United Kingdom classify the using of ghostwriters in the assignment as contract cheating. The term was invented by Thomas Lancaster and Robert Clarke from Birmingham City University in 2006.
Contract cheating happens when a third party completes work for a student who then submits it to the university as their own. Based on Lancaster’s research, the third party can be an essay mill, a ghostwriter, or a member of the family:
"It is incredibly hard to detect, as students are paying for work in order to get something original."
When a student orders an essay from the essay mill, who will write the piece for them? This kind of work only can be done by an intelligent person who is familiar with research and academic writing.
On their websites, essay mills said that the writer would be a professor or PhD student. It depends on how hard the essay is and what grade the student wants to achieve.
"I was a ghostwriter, eight years ago," a lecturer from the University of Birmingham, who prefers to be anonymous, told me.
It was 2010 when he signed a contract with a company called Prospect Solution. At that time, he was pursuing a master's and thought that being a ghostwriter was an easy way to get more money.
From its website, Prospect Solution looks like a writer recruiter website, not an essay mill. However, the ghostwriter said that questions and briefs that he received, from a mailing list, were always an essay or dissertation or even thesis question.
“I used to be a student, and now I am a lecturer, so I have enough knowledge to identify it,” he said.
When he applied for the ghostwriter position, he had to send his writing example alongside with his passport and other personal documents. He also needed to fill a questionnaire and sign a contract.
Every day, he received at least two emails that offered work. He had to log in to the website then if he wanted to take the job. He showed me that until now, he is still receiving the emails.
He also showed me an invoice and payment document that he received. He got £175 for writing two 2000-word essays and only needed three hours to finish one piece. He said that it was the only invoice he ever received.
"I just felt it wasn't right; then I stopped," he said.
Now, he is running a business offering proofreading—a service that only edits the language that the students use. It is mostly used by international students who don’t speak English as their first language.
Based on his experience, he said that contract cheating is a severe problem in UK higher education and it is hard to detect. “The use of this service is so massive, but it is hard to prove,” he said.
Even though his website clearly states that they only do proofreading, he keeps getting some writing requests.
“This year, there were around 30 requests to write, one of them was a PhD thesis from a student here in the UoB [University of Birmingham], but I rejected them all,” he claimed.
“What did you do then? Did you report them to the university?” I asked.
“No, I don’t want to destroy their future.”
Hiding behind the "essay example" mask
Some essay mills are open about their business, but some of them are hiding behind the terms 'academic support' or ‘essay example’. Essay UK is one of them. It is part of All Answer Ltd, a Nottingham based company which was incorporated in 2003.
UK Essays claimed that they have 3,500 writers who qualified to a minimum of degree level. Many of their writers are also teachers, lecturers and industry professionals.
On its website, UK Essays clearly states some available services, from essay to dissertation writing service. However, it refused to call itself as an essay mill.
“UK Essays is not an essay mill. UK Essays is a company with 14 years' experience, we know this industry better than anyone else, and we know this industry's customers better than anyone else,” said Daniel Dennehy, Chief Operating Officer All Answers Ltd in a press release in February last year.
Dennehy argued that most of the time, their customers are not dishonest cheaters but the struggling students who get insufficient academic support from their universities:
“The essays we provide are a springboard from which our customers can develop their own, 100% original piece of work.”
I tried to talk to their customer service via web chat. I asked them one question: “If I buy an essay from you, can I submit it for my assignment?”
Debbie, from customer service suggested to me to use it as an example and rewrite it on my own. “All of the work we produce is designed for use as a model answer and research tool – that is, it should never be submitted directly as that is unethical,” she said.
But, then she also said that the work they’ll do is 100% original. It means I can submit it directly as my assignment.
Some essay mills also hide behind the ‘proofreading’ mask. On the website, they pretend to be a proofreading business, but then through the web chat, they offer the writing services.
EditAsk is one of them. “EditAsk is a well-known online UK based company, which provides services such as editing, proofreading and several other academic services for students all across the country,” the welcome page on the website said.
At the bottom of the webpage, there is a disclaimer which clearly states that they don't condone or encourage any form of cheating, copying or plagiarism.
However, when I opened the website, a customer service person approached me on the web chat, and proposed a writing service to me. They offered £183 for a 2,000 word essay and £730 for 12,000 words of dissertation.
The ex-ghostwriter says he receives at least two orders from the organisation he used to work for every day. That means there are at least 60 requests every month, or 720 in one year. And this figure is only from one company.
According to my requests under the Freedom of Information Act, 323 students were expelled from universities because of contract cheating in five academic years, from 2012 to 2017—an average of 65 cases per year.
However, of the 123 universities who answered the questions, only 36 kept records on contract cheating. The majority of them—69—have zero records about this unfair practice. And the rest of them have no specific records about contract cheating.
Thomas Lancaster who has researched contract cheating since 2006, said that universities who said that they don't have any contract cheating cases, look very bad in regards to their reputation, not the opposite.
"Every university in the country has had contract cheating take place there. They just haven't detected it, haven't taken a case forward or haven't recorded it," he said. "All students know this goes on and if a university says otherwise, it means it's being ignored," he added.
The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) thinks that the undetected contract cheating represents a risk to the public.
“There are clear, significant risks to the public if students are graduating with an award gained after having used contract cheating services, as graduates may be practising with inadequate professional skills."
In October last year, the QAA published guidance for universities and colleges on identifying and tackling contract cheating. Lancaster was one of the advisory team. The guidance covers not only how to detect the contract cheating but also how to prevent it.
For prevention, QAA suggested that HE providers block access to essay mills from university networks and consider 'authentic assessment', with a mixture of assessment methods where possible.
'Authentic assessment' refers to assessment methods which are more reflective of how students will use the knowledge they learn.
“Providers should consider using a mixture of assessment methods, controlled and 'uncontrolled', written and oral, clinical, presentations and portfolios, as well as group and peer assessment,” the guidance said.
Then, for the detection, there are three main things that the HE providers can do. First, considering the use of vivas for checking authorship of submitted work.
Second, use active searching to see whether students are trying to commission someone else to do work. And the third, using linguistic analysis tools to complement text-matching software.
To see a summary of the guidance, watch this video:
The University of Sussex had expelled 31 students during the last five academic years due to committed contract cheating. This figure is the third biggest after the Keele University and Middlesex University.
“We go well beyond sector standards when it comes to academic integrity, which has helped us to substantially increase the number of cases we have been able to identify,” a University of Sussex spokesperson said.
They are now considering how they can implement a whistle-blowing policy regarding academic misconduct that is not open to abuse and that protects all parties.
There is one QAA recommendation that they refuse to follow. They have decided not to block access to 'essay mill’ websites from computers on campus. Instead, they plan to investigate using a ‘pop-up’ warning based on internet searches of keywords from a university-owned computer on campus.
The guidance is just a recommendation, so, it is not compulsory for the university to completely follow the advice.
“From my current experience, it's hard to get some universities to address any of the recommendations from the guide at all,” Lancaster said. The guide has only been released for a few months, but some universities have a review process.
“That means it will be more years before they look at this and it's not guaranteed that they will do anything then.”
Lancaster e also mentioned one of the recommendations which suggests training all staff about contract cheating. “I've offered to help with this, but universities aren't keen to make this training compulsory, and many don't seem to have the skills to deliver it,” he said.
Besides the University of Sussex, I tried to contact seven universities including the University of Birmingham—where the ex-ghostwriter teaches—asking for their comments about the QAA's guidance, none responded.
"Every university in the country has had contract cheating take place there. They just haven't detected it, haven't taken a case forward or haven't recorded it."