We live in a society of instant gratification. From TV shows to taxis, your favourite restaurant food to a new pair of shoes, everything is just a click (and a bit of cash) away. And in the past few years, it appears that essays have become the latest addition to the list of things that can be acquired when you want them.

The rise of so-called ‘essay mills’ – services that write custom-made essays in return for money – have reached such a level that just a few weeks ago over 40 university chiefs signed a letter to the education secretary calling for them to be banned.

The move follows research that revealed more students are turning to the services than ever before. In August, an investigation by Swansea University found that the number of students who admitted to cheating at university rose by 15.7% in 2014-18, and two of the biggest essay writing services claim they are providing work for more than 20,000 students a year.

Those who submit these essays are ‘contract cheating’ – they’re breaching the contract they sign as a student to only submit work they themselves have produced. Essay monitoring software like Turnitin has long been capable of rooting out standard plagiarism – where students copy published work in their essays – but the technology needed to detect contract cheating is only just starting to be rolled out.

Turnitin announced earlier this year that they’ll be introducing ‘Authorship Investigation’ to monitor a students’ writing style over time and flag up any irregularities, but its effectiveness has yet to be tested.  

Still technically legal

Despite this crackdown on the practice, essay mills remain legal in the UK, although Universities Minister Sam Gymiah has insisted that outlawing them remains possible.

It seems baffling that the services are still allowed to operate, but essay mills defend their services by asserting that customers are never told that they should submit the work they buy to university as their own. However, the message is far from clear if you don’t do your research.

Clicking on one of the first search results for ‘essay writing service UK’, I’m faced with the usual aggressive marketing tactics; “Struggling with work? Get it right the first time and learn smarter today”, “INSTANT PRICE”and “PLACE AN ORDER”. The site tells me that I can order a ‘perfectly written’ ‘fully-referenced’ essay that will be completely plagiarism free. Prices include £126 for a 1,000-word undergraduate level essay at a 2:1 level, to £868 for a 3,000-word Master’s essay that will get you at least 70%. Dissertations are typically priced at over £1,000. Everything is deliberately vague; there’s nothing that technically says these essays should actually be submitted. But to get the exact clarification takes some digging.

A small link at the footer of the page directs me towards the company’s fair use policy. Here, the essays from the previous page have magically transformed into ‘model answers’. There is an explicit statement that the essays should not be submitted to university as your own work, and that to do so would be plagiarism. Customers should simply use the model essay as inspiration and guidance for their own work, which should be 100% original and formed from ‘your own ideas and perspective’. These clarifications, however hard they are to find, cover the essay mills’ backs and the difficulty of marrying completely original work with a pre-written model answer is the students’ problem to figure out.

A grey area

Of course, it’s likely that the vast majority of students would know that submitting an essay they haven’t written as their own is against the rules, even if they haven’t read the small print. But there are some grey areas where students would perhaps be not so sure – third-party essay proofreading services, for example. These agencies aren’t writing anything for you, they’re just checking the spelling, grammar and punctuation, like getting your parents or a friend to give your essay a read before you submit it. However, if the essay is partly graded on the quality of your spelling and grammar, surely bringing in the professionals to sort this out for you is a degree of contract cheating to some extent?

The main problem is different university departments have differing stances on this. Dr Oliver Johnson, Academic Skills Advisor from the 301 Skills Centre, told me how hard it is to pin down a university-wide definition of acceptable practice. “At one end of the spectrum, you’ve got a Philosophy student who is actively encouraged by their tutor to talk to other students about their essays, to share what they’ve written and get feedback on it. That’s seen as part of the discipline of philosophy; it’s supposed to be discursive.

“At the other end of the spectrum you have the Law school where they have a really strict blanket policy that any piece of work submitted by students should be their work and their work only, and having it read by other students or parents is not acceptable.”

The mixed messages can be confusing. At the time of writing, a large advert for ‘Student Proofreading Services’ hangs on a wall opposite the university tram stop (from a building not owned by the university and not under  their control). How many students would know whether taking up the offer is acceptable or not on their course?

Differing definitions

It’s not only a university-wide problem, but a global one too. Definitions of plagiarism differ around the world, depending on the academic style of a country’s education system.

Sheffield SU’s International Students’ Officer Rex Béchu said the fact that definitions of plagiarism can differ so widely across the world means that international students are more likely to experience unintentional plagiarism. For these students, expulsion from university will often also mean deportation, so the risks are huge.  

The message is clearly that third-party services are a no-go. But while these services remain legal and are able to freely advertise to students, the university surely also has a duty to make students aware of the risks – and the alternatives.

Dr Johnson tells me that the closest the university has to a proofreading service is the Writing Advisory Service at the English Language Teaching Centre, where those who are writing in English as a second language can get a specialist writing tutor to go through their work and pick out recurring issues. And, of course, the team at 301 are there to help students develop the skills they need to do proofreading and essay writing themselves.

But whether these alternatives tackle the reasons why students turn to essay mills and other third-party services in the first place is debatable. While confusing definitions of plagiarism play a part, so does the increased pressures students are under nowadays, and the commodification of degrees. With students now paying over £9,000 a year for a degree, do some feel entitled to the good grades they feel they’ve paid for – regardless of how they get them?

There are no easy answers here, but while essay mills remain legal, more transparent definitions of plagiarism and adequate support to help struggling students are surely needed.

Image via pexels.com

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