As a condition of matriculation, all students at the University of St Andrews are required to familiarise themselves with and abide by the University’s Good Academic Practice policy to avoid being accused of academic misconduct. Categories of academic misconduct are broad, and examples include false citations, misconduct in exams, plagiarism, and contract cheating. The latter is expressed in the following terms: “All work submitted for assessment should have been produced by you (or with your group if a group assignment). The use of services or attempting to use services supplied by third parties, such as essay purchasing websites is academic misconduct.”
In a breakthrough study by Swansea University published in August 2018, it is estimated that as many as one in seven recent graduates may have paid a third party to produce their work for them. The resort to a third party is referred to as “contract cheating”, a form of fraud taking more sophisticated ways than copying from the neighbour’s paper. Although the numbers provided by the Swansea University study may give an idea of the extent of cheating in academia, more precise figures would be difficult to obtain due to the stigma around such practices and the stiff penalties if caught.
One of the most popular forms of contract cheating are essay-writing services, often referred to as “essay mills” or “term paper mills.” Found mostly online, thus difficult to control, the number of essay mills have multiplied considerably over recent years as these companies saw a business opportunity that profits from the desperation of some students in the face of academic pressure, coupled with the high price tag on these services that some privileged students can afford.
Nowadays, to attract more student customers, essay mills are using increasingly sophisticated marketing techniques and are actively advertising their services on social media, including Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, or Snapchat. Even when browsing educational content, academic-related websites or research for an essay, it is not unusual to see targeted advertisements for essay mills, preying on students with the help of creative and relatable slogans.
Essay mills also go as far as reacing out to students directly with the help of social media. Students who write public posts on social networks such as Twitter to complain about deadlines or high amounts of academic assignments can be contacted by these companies, who often resort to bots that will automatically reply to particular keywords. Furthermore, in order to convince students, these companies will provide testimonials from satisfied customers, although these can be easily falsified, as well as dubious promises to deliver plagiarism-free work.
With such explicit claims, it would be hard for essay mills to deny that their services are solely for legitimate study aid and not intended for cheating. Although there is little doubt about the questionable ethics of essay mills, these companies are still not illegal in the UK and continue to operate freely.
The debate surrounding the legality of essay mills is currently making headlines in education news as on 27 September 2018, 47 university leaders in the UK, including principal and vice-chancellor of the University of St Andrews Sally Mapstone, signed a letter to secretary of State for Education Damian Hinds, calling for the ban of essay mills. Additionally, a petition has been made to push this issue into Parliament.
In the letter, it is stated that “Essay mills undermine the integrity of UK Higher Education and are unfair to the vast majority of honest, hard-working students.” Although it recognises that legislation is not the only solution to the issue of contract cheating, it would still be a step in the right direction: “Legislation would, amongst other advantages, shut down UK-based essay mills; prevent the advertising of their services near campuses and in public places such as the London Underground; enable the removal of essay mills from search engine findings and prevent UK-based companies from hosting online advertisements for essay mills.”
In some countries, such as New Zealand, Ireland, Australia and 17 US states, laws against essay mills already exist. Their absence in the UK only makes essay mills more prone to extend their influence in the country in all impunity.
Why do students resort to essay mills? “I believe students use these kinds of services due to lack of organisation, time, confidence or even just plain laziness,” Juliette Renaut, a fourth-year student in international relations, stated. She adds that none of these reasons can justify the use of such services. “Essay mills should definitely be outlawed. Even if it won’t fully eradicate the use of contract cheating as some will still find ways to get around it, those who consider it may feel more reluctant to do so.”
Another common belief is that some students resort to essay writing services because English is not their native language or if they have difficulties with academic writing. However, how are students expecting to write better if they transfer the assignment to someone else instead of trying for themselves and learn by working on their own mistakes?
Besides, the fact that money is involved in essay-writing services only reinforces inequalities between students. Fifth-year psychology student Jessica Barclay commented on this matter by stating: “Essay-writing services should be illegal because people who don’t deserve a certain degree would be able to get one anyway simply by having enough money to afford such services. It could potentially lead to them acquiring jobs that deserving people wouldn’t be able to get.” Indeed, despite the risks involved, essay mills can tempt more privileged students to buy their way to a degree while getting the same merit as hard-working students who do not resort to such practices.
Even if many essay mills guarantee that their services are confidential and cannot be detected by a plagiarism software, considerable risks of getting caught do exist. The same advances in technology that helped the spread of essay mills can also give rise to more precise methods detecting their use. For example, as the efficiency of plagiarism software improves over time, it will be able to distinguish between linguistic differences in a student’s essays. Additionally, the essay mill itself can be a liability to students due to their records identifying their clients, whose identity may be exposed in the event of a court order or data breach, or if the shadow writer decides to submit an essay he or she wrote for someone else on a plagiarism software, and prove that its perfect match was, in fact, an unoriginal essay.
Therefore, if caught, students might suffer from severe repercussions. In many UK universities, possible penalties include being suspended or even permanently expelled from the institution. Even if evidence of contract cheating is found after a degree was obtained, it can also be formally revoked at any point in the future and have severe consequences on the former student’s career.
Ultimately, it is the students resorting to essay mills who will hurt themselves in the long-run by not taking up the challenges needed to acquire specific skills and wasting their education by refusing to learn. Even if a student successfully graduates while having used essay mills on multiple occasions, he or she will lack certain competencies that a student is expected to have upon the completion of a certain degree.
Even if the existence of essay mills is a supply and demand problem, legislation may change the context in which contract cheating happens. If the legislation succeeds, conversations surrounding essay-writing services would be about “illegal services” instead of warnings about services who freely advertise on the internet and in the public sphere.
Nonetheless, additional approaches are needed in conjunction with legal ones. In October 2017, the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) issued a guidance document containing suggestions for higher education providers and staff to combat contract cheatings, such as improved assessment, further education about the issue, and detection and processing of contract cheating allegations. Universities and institutions must, therefore, play their part by addressing the underlying issues behind the use in essay mills and provide students with the support they need.
In demanding environments such as universities, it is inevitable that some will succumb to the temptations of cheating. Essay-writing services are not only dishonest towards tutors, professors, and the university, they are also dishonest towards the students themselves resorting to these services, as the considerable risk they take is not worth the brief moment of relief that avoiding an assignment will bring them. Tackling academic pressure can feel more demanding than the easy fix of an essay mill, but the consequences are far more problematic, now and in the future.