The big lie
Contract cheating, the activity supported and promoted by essay mills, is a huge and malign presence in the higher education sector worldwide. There is a big lie at the heart of the exploitative essay mill business that somehow this is all about providing a service for students and is not at all about cheating.
Essay mills always say they want to work with universities but their business model is founded on making profit from corrupting the assessment process. The people who run the essay mills are cynical and manipulative, preying on vulnerable students and exploiting their anxieties for profit. Although they usually do advise students not to submit purchased work as their own, it can be difficult to find their anti-cheating notices and their existence and success is predicated on the lie that they are merely providing study support.
In reality these companies exist primarily to do the one thing they claim they are not there to do: to help students cheat. All of them present themselves as if they are providing model answers to help with revision but their primary purpose is actually something they say they should not be used for, i.e. submitting work as if it were your own. These parasitical operations, which exploit those who write essays to order as well as those who pay to be helped to cheat, have no place in our sector.
Helping cheating is a very big business
Professor Phil Newton, one of the leading figures in analysing and challenging essay mills, has shown the scale of the issue in his recent paper ‘How Common Is Commercial Contract Cheating in Higher Education and Is It Increasing? A Systematic Review’, which was handily summarised by the BBC thus:
The survey of more than 50,000 tudents, found 15.7% admitted to cheating since 2014 - up from an average of 3.5% over the last 40 years.
It means about one in seven recent graduates have paid someone else to do their work for them - which could represent 31 million people worldwide.
Essay mills are legal in the UK.
The study, undertaken by Prof Phil Newton, looked at information dating back 40 years and covered 54,514 participants from around the world.
It showed the amount of students admitting to contract cheating, when students pass off a custom-made essay as their own, has increased over time.
The essay mill industry and the growing and corrosive effect it is having on the integrity of UK higher education requires a multi-faceted approach from the sector. The response needs to build on the published research and the steps that universities and colleges are already taking to promote good academic practice by students, to ‘design out’ opportunities for plagiarism in their assessments and to detect and penalise academic misconduct.
In the UK, we do need to tackle these operations which somehow have managed to retain a veneer of credibility despite being fundamentally dedicated to helping students cheat. Recently, guidance was published in October 2017 by the Quality Assurance Agency on challenging the essay mills and aimed to set best practice around promoting academic integrity in higher education, through tackling students’ use of essay mills and other forms of contract cheating. Among the recommendations in the guidance were the need for HEIs to address:
- Clear information for students on the risks of cheating, including academic misconduct being reported to relevant professional bodies
- Support for students to develop independent study skills, including academic writing
- Using a range of assessment methods to limit opportunities for cheating
- Blocking of essay mill sites and action against essay mill advertising on campus
- Smarter detection, including new software and greater familiarity with students’ personal styles and capabilities
- Appropriate support for whistleblowing – to protect accuser as well as accused
- Student involvement on academic misconduct policies and panels.
Proposals to tackle essay mills did not make it into the Higher Education and Research Act in 2017 but the case for legislation remains compelling. New Zealand, Ireland and Australia have all made progress with laws to address contract cheating but further action is required in the UK. There has been some progress recently though in the UK with a recent ruling from the Advertising Standards Authority which investigated two issues with one of these essay mills at the behest of the QAA. Also, PayPal has announced that it is to stop providing services to essay mills which is a really positive development but it is only one step.
We really need legislation to outlaw these profiteering and exploitative essay mills who continue to operate with impunity. As this recent blog noted, these delightful essay mill people have even produced a ranking of where the biggest demand for cheating services is and the greatest areas of subject demand. Very unpleasant.
Banning is not enough
We have to tackle this issue and these companies which somehow seem to present themselves as a part of the education sector despite being fundamentally dedicated to helping students cheat.
The essay mills remain a malign influence in our sector. They are corrupting, cynical and exploitative, preying on vulnerable students and exploiting their anxieties for profit. Although they usually do advise students not to submit purchased work as their own, finding these notices can sometimes be a little challenging and you are reminded of how easy Arthur Dent found it to locate the plans to demolish his house at the council offices in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – they were ‘on
display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard.’’
In reality these companies exist primarily to do the one thing they claim they are not there to do: to help students cheat. All of them present themselves as if they are providing model answers to help with revision but, like cotton buds - where the main use to which they are put is the one thing purchasers are specifically advised not to use them for - their primary purpose is actually something they explicitly say they should not be used for i.e. submitting work as if it were your own.
These parasitical operations, which exploit those who write essays to order as well as those who pay to be helped to cheat, have no place in our sector. However the
case for legislation remains a strong one if we are to stand any chance of reducing their corrosive influence in higher education in the UK.
About the Author
If you enjoyed this blog, take a look at two other blogs we've previously published about Essay Mills and Plagiarism:
Milling Around: Why Are an Increasing Number of Students Trying to Submit Plagiarised Work? - by Sarah Haile, former student
Humans and Technology Must Work Hand in Hand to Beat Plagiarism - by Phil Richards, Chief Innovation Officer at Jisc