Amina was straight to the point when she asked me to help plagiarise work for her Master thesis at Roehampton University in London. She promised to pay good money for it and supply me with more work from students who needed similar favours.
I initially thought that Amina was only looking for someone to proofread her essay, which is what she had told my fellow student when she got my number.
There are plenty of seemingly legitimate companies online that specialise in this type of service. They can deliver an essay within days but generally charge around £70 per page, which is what lead Amina to look for cheaper alternatives.
On ukessays.com you can order, what they advertise as, custom written essays and dissertations on basically any subject you wish. You can select what level you want your essay to be written for, ranging from undergraduate to PhD. You can even choose the grade you wish to acquire. All depends on what you are ready to pay.
There has been a surge in companies like this in recent years and the British Higher Education Institutions are concerned that there may be an increase of plagiarism in the UK.
The Independent reported earlier this year that during the past three years more than 45,000 students at 80 institutions have been found guilty of academic dishonesty. Because all students who cheat are not caught, and for the obvious reason that students are unwilling to admit to having cheated, the real number of plagiarism in the UK is likely to be much higher.
Oxbridge essays is a company that advertise themselves as “UK’s largest and leading provider of guaranteed Upper 1st, 1st Class and 2:1 essays and dissertations, custom written by academics from leading UK universities.” They claim to have around 70 clients at any given time who wish to purchase custom written work. It can be anything from 1 500 word essays to 20 000 word dissertations.
According to Oxbridge essays, their writers earn between 30 – 60 pounds per 1 000 words. Some of their more experienced writers supposedly earn up to £450 per day. Once a writer is accepted to the company and gets the log in details, he or she will be able to see all the available jobs and place bids to get them.
Oxbridge essays choose writers for different assignment depending on qualifications and the price he or she is willing to do it for. This means that earnings are likely to be lower when many writers place their bids for the assignment.
Plagiarism checking software
Most universities use so called plagiarism-checking software like Turnitin, which is the market leader. The software will pick up any electronic source from which material is copied, even if it is in another language. Jude Carroll, a former Principal Lecturer at Oxford Brookes University and the author of The Handbook for Deterring Plagiarism in Higher Education, says that this type of software has completely changed the way in which students use cut and paste. “Without accrediting their sources correctly, they will inevitably be picked up by the software.”
Carroll says that is usually not a question of cheating when students get caught this way, it is more commonly a lack of knowledge of how to properly use and reference sources. “Software is a really useful tool that has enabled universities to give students formative feedback and have good discussions on how to use sources.”
However, software cannot detect when students use commissioning sites to buy custom written essays which they then hand in as their own. This is one of the reasons there has been such a steep rise in commissioning sites like UK Essays. According to Carroll: “The rise and use of plagiarism software is almost completely parallel is the use of commissioning sites.”
Custom written essays
Although there is nothing illegal about what these commissioning sites are doing, they are largely seen as unethical and are usually reluctant to give any kind of interview about their line of business.
UK Essays has written on their website that “the custom essay writing industry receives unjust negative press on the grounds that it promotes cheating. In fact, it does nothing of the sort. Rather, it is an invaluable aid to academic study, providing a model answer which will promote your own study and enable you to further your own research.”
However, most of these sites guarantee that their essays are 100 percent original work and that they wont be resold to other buyers after purchase. Some sites even advertise that they check their essays against plagiarism software like Turnitin, which makes it obvious for students that this is work that can be handed in as their own.
Whether Amina had acquired her Master thesis from me or from a company like UK Essays, she would have been guilty academic dishonesty on a very high level. If caught, she probably would have been expelled from her university and maybe even fined. Since serious plagiarism like this will go on her academic record, it can also ruin her chances of being admitted to other universities.
Why do students cheat?
What makes a student like Amina willing to risk her entire academic career by trying to purchase work to hand in as her own? In her case, English is not her first language and since her use of it is very poor, she felt obliged to resort to cheating in order not to fail the course.
Some commissioning sites claim that language difficulties is one of the most common reasons to why students decide to buy custom written work, and that international students make up the bulk of those who use the service.
But as Carroll says, it is very difficult to determine who is buying what. “It is true that foreign students make up the majority of those who are caught cheating, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they cheat more, only that they are more likely to get caught. It is sometimes very obvious when a student who is struggling with the language turns something in that is written in almost perfect English.”
There is a trend, according to Carroll, that students spend less time on assignments than ever before. It is common for students to have part time jobs that distract time and attention from their studies. Some students might feel it is necessary for them to work while studying due to increased tuition fees and higher costs of living. Buying custom written work may then seem as a viable option to get through their studies.
The online availability of custom written essays certainly adds to the temptation to cheat. It is not difficult to find people, even on sites like Gumtree, that are willing to write your essay in exchange for cash.
I spoke to one person who advertises his services on Gumtree. He was prepared to write me a three-page essay to be handed in within two days for a sum of £120. He asked me to send him previous work of things that I have written so that he could copy my style and make it less obvious that I was handing something that was not my own.
Steve Greenfield, the Director of Academic Legal Studies at Westminster University, says that the only way in which students can be caught cheating this way is if the tutor is looking at the style of his or her writing. “Students who resort to this kind of method are usually those who are struggling, and when he or she turns in an essay that is all of a sudden very good, there might be reason to be suspicious,” he says.
In those cases the tutor should go back and look at previous work the student has written in order to compare. In some instances the student might be asked to defend the essay in front of academic staff, in which case it usually becomes obvious whether or not the student has actually written the work himself.
According to a report from the Plagiarism in Statistics Assessment released in 2007, it is likely that the growth of academic dishonesty is connected to the fact that universities generally admit more students to their classes than before. This not only results in less hand-to-hand tutoring and personalised feedback, but also makes it more difficult for tutors to catch students who buy custom written work and hand it in as their own.
How can plagiarism be prevented?
While some advocate that commissioning companies like UK Essays should be banned in the UK, it is highly unlikely that it will have any positive effect since companies like these can easily register in another country.
So what then would have dissuaded Amina from trying to purchase her thesis? If Amina felt confident she had the necessary skills to write this essay with satisfactory result, she probably would not have decided to plagiarise and risk getting caught.
Carroll believes that focus should be shifted from catching cheaters towards “improving pedagogy, teaching students the necessary skills on how to do their assignments and making sure that they perceive the work as worth doing. Students will always be better at cheating than universities are at catching them.”
Amina sent me a brief of the work she wanted me to write for her. It was obvious that it was not only her English that was very poor, but also her general writing. She did not know how to use punctuation and capital letters, which made me wonder how she had got admitted to her university in the first place.
One explanation might be that universities consciously relax their admission requirements in order to fill classes with more students and thus make more money. Students like Amina are then left in a predicament; either they write their own assignments and fail because they lack the necessary skills, or they hire someone to do it for them, which leaves them with a slimmer risk of failing.
According to Carroll, Postgraduate students generate a lot of money for universities, but since there are not nearly as many domestic applicants to fill the courses for most of the universities, they turn to the market of international students.
“Postgraduate studies is a big sector and there are over a 100 institutions competing on a very tough market. There is evidence that universities are carefully calibrating their admission requirements to balance up marketing positions, she says.”
Roehampton University was not interested in commenting on any of this, or explain how a student with such poor English skills had been able to get admitted to postgraduate course at their university. Neither were they the least interested in trying to find out which one of their students who had tried to pay me to write her dissertation.
While universities may carry some responsibility, the ultimate choice of cheating lies with the student. Amina will never learn the skills she needs to get a degree by cheating. If she fails because she is getting too low marks on work she has written herself, she will at least have the opportunity to do it again. If she fails because she is caught cheating, she will not get that opportunity.
P.S. Amina is not her real name