Contract Cheating and Essay Mills 2017 Findings Part 2 – Inside The Contract Cheating Industry

This is Part 2 of the 7 part series examining Findings From Plagiarism Across Europe and Beyond 2017

A lot of presentations at Plagiarism Across Europe and Beyond discussed the wider essay industry as some part of their presentation. That has provided me with the opportunity to collate a lot interesting information for this blog post.

The Size of the Contract Cheating Industry

How big the essay industry is tends to be one of those questions that regularly repeats itself, particularly as this always seem to be a growing market. I’ve previously pulled together some existing estimates and added my own.

Phil Newton shared the figure that there are over 1000 English language essay sites. However, this does not necessarily mean 1000 different companies, as many sites are the same company, just with a different front-end to them. Similarly, as I’ve shown in my marketing research, some of these sites are not even essay mills at all. They just transfer potential customers to another site and receive a commission.

Veronika Kralikova completed a similar study for sites marketed at students from the Czech Republic. She found over 100 such sites, most of which were said to be locally run. Again, it’s not clear if this means that there were 100 unique companies or not. Veronika did say that the sites were easy to find. This compares similarly to the SEEPPAI research I’ve been involved with in SE Europe, which also found that markets were heavily localised.

Veronika also tried to work out how many people were using those sites and collected together log files of accesses from her university network between January and March 2017. For the most used of the sites, she found an average of 58,000 visits per month. That will include duplicate visits but the number is still astonishing. It would be interesting to see similar numbers collected from other university networks.

Neither of the figures referring to the number of essay mills reflect the fact that most contract cheating does not go through traditional essay mills at all. My own work has looked heavily at the use of agency sites, such as Freelancer, as well as student connections with ghost-writers through classified adverts and private tutors. More interestingly, Tracey Bretag’s research looking at student use of contract cheating services in Australia found that only 10.4% of students who had contract cheated said that they had used a professional service. By contrast, 60.2% of students said they had relied on a current student or former student. That may not be surprising, as these are people familiar with the material, and, where the assignment details do not change from year to year, also familiar with the exact assessment. A study in the Czech Republic used different groupings, but found that 40% of students who had contract cheated had used a professional service, whereas 60% had used friends and family.

Tracey also found that only 13.2% of students said that they had paid money for the assignment or assignments they received. With friends, family members and significant others supplying much of the work, this again looks believable, although the payment figure may hide agreements of other forms that carry value for both parties, for instance as previous examples of contract cheating being undertaken for bedroom favours have shown.

The Writers Behind The Contract Cheating Industry

Some of the most fascinating research into contract cheating that has emerged, or has started to emerge, has looked at the ghostwriters who are keeping the essay industry afloat. This was discussed in several talks, as well as in the main contract cheating panel discussion.

I mentioned my work looking at the sales funnels used by contract cheating providers and noted that very little of the money paid by a student to a big company would end up with the eventual writer. This was supported by Chloe Walker’s ongoing research in Kenya, where she provided some case studies of the people employed in contract cheating provider roles. She gave one example of a writer who moonlighted in the evenings after completing their main job, usually returning two essays per night for $2 or $3 per essay. She also discussed a former full time writer who previously worked in the industry for one year, typically working 15 hour days. That writer was said to usually receive between $5 and $25 per page, although it wasn’t made clear how many pages were written in a day.

Those figures show some disparity, but my own experience suggests that the lower figures are more common, particularly for writers working in a developing economy or having work supplied through a large company.

There was some discussion about whether these wages represented exploitation, with no consensus reached. It is a difficult argument to sum up in a short space. $25 per page, if true, is more than many companies charge and more than UK and US essay writers make. I can remember the same discussions happening back when I used to discuss contract cheating for program source code, potentially an even cheaper task as the worker does not need to be able to speak English.

Financially, Chloe said that workers in Kenya are keen to find a position working in the gig economy. Some of the numbers are alarming. 35% of youths in Kenya are unemployed. 40,000 people are said to be employed as digital workers, with 20,000 of those people in Kenya employed as “academic writers”. That is a substantial figure, particularly if the essay industry is able to supply enough work to keep all of those people busy. The vast number of people working in the industry can only drive prices (and wages) down.

Where there likely is more exploitation is due to a lack of job security. Workers in the contract cheating industry are easy to replace. By its nature, the work is also unpredictable and seasonal. There could be weeks with no orders and other weeks with 50 orders. The situation is comparable with the wider gig economy jobs in the UK, like driving an Uber, to working on zero hour contracts serving drinks in a bar. Although many workers do seem to treat contract cheating like a career, it’s hard to consider this line of work as one.

Some writers have managed to work out how to turn the contract cheating industry to their advantage. I’ve spoken to several who have acquired high paying regular clients, particularly writers based in the UK and US. At other conferences, I’ve heard about students who identify a writer, sometimes before they go to university and then refer that same writer to their friends and contacts.

Shiva Sivasubramaniam also discussed the findings from his work with international writers, but who had been educated in countries like the UK and US. He suggested that these people had not been able to find jobs and so had been driven into this line of work, using some of the skills from their degree studies. Alas, I doubt that this is the type of entrepreneurial spirit that universities are hoping that their students will develop. I’ve seen Shiva’s wider work and he’s also identified strong marketing techniques used by this group of international writers, including developing their own writing networks.

There is still much more work to be done to look at the ghost-writers behind the contract cheating industry. A discussion of concern suggested that there may be academics working as ghost-writers, particularly those who are hourly paid and could be considered to be on the university version of zero hour contracts. A presentation from Strike Plagiarism discussed wider research in Europe where academics had been found associated with essay mills. I certainly know of cases involving PhD students who have worked as academic writers, but the suggestion of full academics is taking this to another level. There is more work for us to do as a sector here.

The Quality Of Purchased Essays

There’s been a fair amount of research in recent years looking at the quality of work provided by ghost-writers and essay mills. Although recent research has suggested that there have been some improvements, there is still a lot of disparity from company to company and writer to writer.

Veronika Kralikova purchased an essay from two of the main essay mills in the Czech Republic. In each case, the same essay topic was requested with a payment of $107 for an essay with a three-week turnaround time. The results were mixed, with one of the essays said to be “very bad” and the other said to be “average”. This ties in with wider work looking at the quality of purchased essays which suggests that the buyer should beware.

The Marketing Behind The Contract Cheating Industry

An area related to the size of the essay industry looks at the marketing of contract cheating services. How the sites and individuals promote themselves is something that I’ve found continues to change. Many presenters provided examples of media stories in their talk providing publicity to essay mills. Others presenters gave examples of advertisements that had been seen around campus, many of which were creative.

Wendy-Sutherland Smith disucssed a large essay mill operating in Australia. In response to recent media attention, the site now advertises that they will wipe all details of their clients after their essay purchase is complete, thus removing any risk of the client being caught. Tracey Bretag an interesting example with messages sent directly to students using the logo of the university where she works as part of the marketing message. The use of this logo could be seen to provide some legitimacy to the essay providing service. I showed several cases where students had requested assignments and exams and providers went directly to the student to make offers, often at a competitive price.

Several people showed examples of marketing aimed at specific types of international students. Tracey showed an advert in Chinese, making the aims of that advert obvious. I’ve seen similar styles of adverts in other countries. Shiva Sivasubramaniam discussed some of his findings when working with ghost-writers in Asia. He noted a market where graduates would return to their home country after completing a degree at a Western university and set up as a ghost-writer. They would then market directly to students that their home country, benefiting from the advantage of knowing that market well and possibly even steering the student towards a degree course that they knew they could assist with.

Social media marketing was mentioned several times during the conference, both as a method used by companies to find essay buyers, as well as by companies to employ new writers. Chloe Walker turned the idea of Facebook marketing on its head and discussed how she’d used Facebook advertising to recruit people to participate in her study of contract cheating in Kenya. She used similar search profiles and advertisements to those used by the essay industry itself. A useful idea would be to consider if it’s possible to conduct similar research in other geographical areas and academic disciplines.

Chloe showed several adverts for writers, including one summing up why this might be a good business to move into. Its headline simply promised, “You will earn a lot if you take up online academic writing jobs, Kenya”.

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Article by Thomas Lancaster

My name is Dr. Thomas Lancaster, and I am a Associate Dean in Recruitment at Staffordshire University in the United Kingdom and a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. My background is in the Computer Science discipline. My best known academic research relates to student plagiarism and contract cheating. Please browse around the blog and the links, and feel free to leave your thoughts.
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