Contract Cheating and Essay Mills 2017 Findings Part 6 – Which Students Are Contract Cheating And What Does This Mean For Assessment?

This is Part 6 of the 7 part series examining Findings From Plagiarism Across Europe and Beyond 2017

As Tracey Bretag said at the opening conference keynote, it is just not possible to set an assessment for which cheating is impossible. Despite that, there is still much good practice to be considered when setting assessments to benefit the students who engage with it.

Highly unusually, I think that this is the first conference I’ve been to in a while where I didn’t once hear the term “authentic assessment”. With that said, several of the recommendations from conference speakers support the ideals of authentic assessment in all but name.

Which Students Are Contract Cheating?

Several studies presented at the conference showed progress towards answering the difficult question regarding how many students are contract cheating, or if certain groups of students engaging in the practice can be identified.

In her opening keynote, Tracey Bretag settled on the figure of between 6% and 10% of students having contract cheated at least once. That figure remained mainly consistent across the conference. Tracey did note that there was no significant difference in the cheating figures between the universities that Australia defines as elite and non-elite. I suspect that the same would be true in the UK, even though the figures that UK universities choose to report to the media can differ substantially.

Veronika Kralikova surveyed over 1000 students in the Czech Republic and found that over 8% of them had contract cheated. Veronika also observed a gender difference, with 5% of female students saying that they had contract cheated, but 15% of male students stating this. She also found that 34% of the students said that they knew someone else who had contract cheated, suggesting that this isn’t an activity that students keep quiet about.

Several other groups of students likely to be susceptible to the temptation of contract cheating were also identified in Tracey Bretag’s presentation, with numbers based on a survey of 14,086 students on courses at universities in Australia. 814 of these students said that they had carried out one or more behaviours classified as cheating on a wider scale.

15.8% of the overall survey responders were international students, but 33.0% of the cheating group were international students.

13.1% of the overall group were engineering students, but when looking at just the cheating group, this figure rose to 24.6%.
It does need to be stressed that the cheating behaviours do not just cover contract cheating and also include areas like hiring an exam impersonator or cheating in an examination, but the overall figures do suggest that there could be issues to overcome regarding contract cheating that are specific to the engineering discipline.

The identification of engineering is interesting, as many of the listings of the subjects where most contract cheating is found, including some of my own studies, identify the areas taught in a Business School as most at risk. Business was not singled out in Tracey’s presentation. However, there is still analysis to be done. It may be that Business has been a red herring, with the contract cheating numbers appearing high simply because there are a lot of students taking the subject. It may also be that engineering numbers are bolstered in this study due to examination cheating. The full analysis will be interesting.

There may also be an overlap between the international student group and the engineering student group.

Tracey also verbally noted that the highest cheating levels seemed to be related to groupwork, with a possible overlap to engineering. Contract cheating and groupwork is an important area to consider regarding assessment design. I’ve previously suggested that well-designed groupwork can make contract cheating difficult, since this can be structured to require group complacency with contract cheating. However, I’ve also observed outsourcing requests on agency websites where students are just sending their section of a piece of groupwork to a third party. To me, that isn’t groupwork at all, it’s just standard assignments which can be completed individually.

Further, I recall a presentation at the Western Australia Forum for Contract Cheating where the presenter talked about whole groups of students agreeing to outsource their tasks as a collective. And, in that case, groups largely consisted of international students. This means that just assigning groupwork, on its own, is not a solution for contract cheating. More research into how to develop successful and authentic groupwork assignments in the age of contract cheating is needed.

What Assessments Are Susceptible To Contract Cheating?

Why students cheat and plagiarise is a long-standing question, but the answers do support types of assessment that may work better than others.

Tracey Bretag presented the results of a survey of more than 14,000 students in Australia that was used to identify which types of assessments they were most likely to outsource. The top three were: (1) assignments with a short turnaround, (2) weighted assignments and (3) continuous assessment. Hannah Sketchley, representing the National Union of Students in the UK, gave supporting results from her investigations, where “high stakes assessment” was of concern. From a practical viewpoint, I can see that, but from a pragmatic viewpoint, I also know of students who complain about overassessment when there are too many assessment points in a module. That may also support the high ranking given for the likely outsourcing of continuous assessment.

Indeed, in my presentation I discussed the growth of sites designed to complete every assignment on a course or module for a student and such sites appear highly targeted at students with lots of small assessments. It will be interesting to see what the recommendations are that will rationalise two concerns that seem to be polar opposites.

The issue of assignments with a short turnaround continues to be of concern as there is no evidence suggesting any benefits to students here. I’ve shared many examples I’ve shown of student assignments being completed by third parties in a matter of hours and Phil Newton has analysed turnaround times by individual writers to show that they can deliver work quickly (and may even like the faster turnaround times as they can charge a premium price). Phil shared an interesting observation from an essay mill that now defaults to a three-day turnaround on the site. This suggests that essay mills have decided that fast turnaround this is the best way to market their offer.

The results from Tracey’s survey were not all doom and gloom. She also identified the three factors that students said would make them least likely to outsource an assignment. These were: (1) reflections of practice, (2) viva and (3) personalised and unique. I’ve long since advocated on the increased use of vivas within higher education assessment. They are not perfect, but can work well if used in a controlled manner. The other ideas are worth considering. Many essay mills offer reflective writing, although it may be that students choose not to order this.

Personalised assignments are another good way to increase student engagement, but like the other assignment types, they are not foolproof. I’ve observed many examples of students outsourcing project reports and dissertations, getting this back a chapter at a time and returning the comments of their supervisor to their hired writer. There are whole sites that market themselves solely as dissertation and capstone project suppliers. I’ve seen lots of examples of dissertation outsourcing at MBA level and have also observed requests at PhD level. Other safeguards still need to be in place here.

Teddi Fishman suggested a possible variant on the viva which may be worth trying. In this assessment, students give a presentation based on the topics they’ve learned about in the module. The twist is that they don’t know what will be on the presentation slides until they arrive in the assessment room. If anyone does test that one out, please let me know how well it goes.

Contract Cheating and Examinations

One suggestion that is often made when contract cheating is discussed is to simply use examinations again. That may be a partial solution in some cases, but it’s not a complete solution. I was pleased to see that I was not the only person presenting on the challenges posed by examinations. This topic found its way into several other presentations.

In the survey of over 14,000 Australian students reported by Tracey Bretag, she found that 0.2% of students had got someone else take an exam for them. Of the students getting someone else to take an exam for them, only 10% has paid money. By contrast, 0.5% of students said that they had taken an exam for someone else, of which 16.7% received money. I do think that some caution needs to be applied to those figures, as many seem to use exam as an interchangeable term for assessment. If correct, the difference between these figures has to be of interest.

Tracey’s team also surveyed over 1000 academics working at Australian university. They found that 5% of staff had observed impersonation in examination, a number that is much higher than I would have anticipated and has to be of alarm.

Bob Ives presented his work in progress regarding cheating in Moldova and Romania. Both countries were said to have substantial problems with examination cheating, including through impersonation and through the use of unauthorised materials in the exam.

I was also introduced to a site I haven’t seen before,, where individuals in India post about bribes they’ve (had to) make. India has often been in the news regarding exam cheating and unsurprisingly the site contains several hundred examples of bribery relating to exams, including examples of bribe payments being required to pass driving tests, engineering certifications and even to qualify as a medical doctor. It’s a site I need to explore further.

My own presentation showed several examples where people attempted to outsource their examinations, including university students and people taking professional exams. Tests taken on a computer looked to be particularly susceptible here. Students were seen using several novel ways to communicate with people outside an examination hall, including instant messenger services like WhatsApp. If communication like this is successfully happening, some changes regarding examination security are necessary.

I also discussed the availability of other technology, particularly the hidden earpieces that were found to be prominent during our SEEPPAI research and allow someone outside an examination hall to whisper answers to a student inside it. A question was raised regarding how such exam cheating technology works, so cheating devices is also an area that I feel needs to receive more widespread communication with the academic audience.

Assessment Recommendations

The same principles regarding good assessments repeated themselves in several different ways during the conference. One of the main ones has to be to stop essay writing being a main part of the requirements for an academic qualification. These are assessments that are susceptible to contract cheating and are “bread and butter” to writers for contract cheating services. As several presenters expressed in different ways, if a writer can turn out multiple essays on multiple subjects a day, then these can’t be essays that are worth writing or reading. But yet, such essays still seem to be being purchased and they still seem to pass.

Hannah Sketchley said that there was a need to co-design assessments with students. It’s not the easiest thing to get right, particularly to also comply with quality processes, external expectations and professional body requirements, but this is certainly a direction to strive towards. A similar recommendation to redesign assessment to remove high stakes components also came from Wendy Sutherland-Smith. Wendy has been attempting this but she also noted that this approach had heavy resource implications which may not prove sustainable in the long term.

Teddi Fishman summed up the challenges posed by contract cheating and assessment well at the keynote that closed the conference. Teddi advocated that “we must require our students to be active participants in their own learning”.

Contract Cheating and Essay Mills 2017 Findings Part 5 – Emerging Issues in Contract Cheating

This is Part 5 of the 7 part series examining Findings From Plagiarism Across Europe and Beyond 2017

There are always new emerging issues that relate to contract cheating and academic integrity. This post is my attempt to capture some of those ideas that don’t fit too cleanly with the other themes.

Addressing Contract Cheating Beyond The Academic Environment

Early in the opening keynote, Tracey Bretag proposed the use of the term outcomes instead of penalties when discussing academic misconduct cases. I’ll try and remember to use that terminology.

Phil Newton discussed his investigations regarding the legality of contract cheating providers. This continues to be location dependent.

Phil did discuss interesting findings from Rebecca Awdry that say a lot about public perceptions of contract cheating. Rebecca found that the majority of people think that it should be illegal for companies to sell essays to students. Perhaps more interestingly, they also thought that it should be illegal for students to buy essays and assignments. If such a development happened, this could make contract cheating into a criminal offence. Government legislation was also suggested as a solution by student advocates from Australia in research findings presented by Wendy Sutherland-Smith.

Trudy Somers suggested that contract cheating might need to be presented as a fraudulent activity. I don’t want to attempt to get into a legal discussion as this was said from a United States viewpoint, but there may be issues here with student loans having being obtained fraudulently if a student is found to have contract cheated. There may also be issues with the future credit scores of students. This seems like something worth warning students about if they are considering getting a mortgage, or even a loan for a new car, later in their life.

Student advocates also thought that students do not know enough about the possible consequences of contract cheating. Wendy Sutherland-Smith presented the results of research with advocates in Australia. One of their recommendations was that students need to be made aware about the risks posed to their wider professional registration. It certainly seems that the discussion with students regarding contract cheating posing more than just an academic outcome is worth having.

Other Academic Integrity Challenges

Some other challenges were discussed at the conference which I think are worth flagging, even if they are only tangentially related to contract cheating.

Much has been said in the past about a race between students and academics to get around any safeguards put in place to preserve academic integrity. One such example is the move away from “copy and paste” plagiarism to contract cheating, since word for word copying is detectable. There are also many more players getting involved in this race now, since helping students to cheat is seen as big business.

I’ve presented many times on the development of technology designed to enable cheating in exams, ranging from the sophisticate contract cheating like processes with third parties completing an examination for a student, all the way down to the simple micro-sized notes printed onto a fake water bottle label.

Some students have been looking at ways to defeat plagiarism detection software and have resorted to various types of article spinning and essay spinning. One of the most developed of these methods appears to be the use of translation software, an area which I’ve presented on and which was presented at the conference by Rui-Sousa Silva. There are various methods that students can use here, including using Google Translate to take an essay written in a foreign language and translate it into English, to taking English text and translating it through a chain of languages back to English, then ending up with text that is rather different than the original. I wouldn’t be surprised if many essay writers for contract cheating services weren’t using techniques like this to quickly supply work that gets around the “no plagiarism” guarantee that many essay mills advertise.

Rui believes that the patterns left behind by the machine translation can be detected and presented some initial ideas at the conference. There is a wider problem for linguistically able detectives to research here, as my foreign language skills are not at that level. Rui’s ideas do depend on knowing that something is amiss with the writing, or that the written ability does not match the spoken ability of a writer, but this is not possible in all situations. One thing I did discover that I wasn’t aware of is that Turnitin does now offer the detection of translation plagiarism in its software, but this isn’t turned on in many installations. This is a step in the right direction, even if the algorithms don’t perfectly solve this problem yet.

Translation is not always perfect, whether this goes through a machine or is completed by hand. I also noted that at the end of my talk, where a quote I gave to the media had become scrambled through translation and may even have been suggesting the opposite of what I intended. The quote was actually there to introduce a wider question about student cheating and smart drugs. These drugs are the (usually prescription) medication that students and professionals can take to stay awake, increase concentration levels and work more efficiently – that is, if the promotion behind these substances is to be believed.

I’ll discuss more about these substances, which appear under a variety of classifications including smart drugs, study drugs and nootropics, another time, but there is a wider question to be answered. This questions asks does using smart drugs gives a student an unfair advantage over another student that could be considered as cheating. Research is starting to emerge on this subject with much to suggest that the drugs do provide an advantage to some, but the cheating issue remains unanswered.

I’m pleased to say that the conference organisers quickly picked this topic up as one of the conference themes for Plagiarism Across Europe and Beyond 2018 (using the term “mind stimulating drugs”). That means that there will be plenty of opportunities for the academic integrity community to research and address the smart drugs issue.

Contract Cheating and Essay Mills 2017 Findings Part 4 – Detecting Contract Cheating

This is Part 4 of the 7 part series examining Findings From Plagiarism Across Europe and Beyond 2017

Mixed views continue to exist across the sector as to whether we should be trying to detect contract cheating. I have always felt that this is a duty of academics to protect the value of assessments for other students, but I can see why views vary here. There should be a deterrent factor as part of the risk of being caught. But I was interested to hear the views from student advocates at the conference, as presented by Wendy Sutherland-Smith. Advocates felt that students wanted to see people who were contract cheating get caught.

This blog post focuses mainly on technology. Before anyone shouts of me, I should establish that we’re not yet in a position where we can assume that technology can detect contract cheating. However, we may perhaps be able to use technology to identify work that may be unoriginal, with the onus then being on a human to make a judgement. This is analogous to how software that identifies similarity between texts can be used as part of a plagiarism detection process.

Stylometric Analysis

Two conference presentations focused on software and techniques designed to identify the author of different documents. This is something of a trend right now, as I know of two further groups in the UK actively working on this (and I’m sure that there are other people working on this who I’m not aware of). Further, at the conference I found out about a current tool used for plagiarism detection that already has this built in. I also know about one of the largest software providers in the plagiarism field who is actively working to add writing style analysis to their software.

From the conference presentations, two quite different approaches were proposed.

Patrick Juola runs a company that aims to automate authorship attribution and proposed an approach that sounds simple on paper. He suggested collecting assessment submissions from students throughout their course. Their most recent document is then compared with the one submitted immediately prior using an automated process to see if both documents have been written by the same person. If not, there is cause for concern.

This is an approach that certainly sounds like it could have some merit, but this does also need to be supplemented by details of exactly what measures are being compared.

Rui Sousa-Silva looked at how authorship attribution software could be used by people who saw a document that they thought may have been written by someone other than the student submitting the work. He gave several examples using Wordsmith Tools. Here, an investigator would compare the suspect document with other work written by the student. This way of thinking about authorship did provide more detail, but I do still feel that a lot more training would be needed to help many staff feel comfortable with relying on this type of software, as well as understanding of the software by all involved with academic conduct investigations.

I made limited progress on the use of stylometry for both plagiarism and contract cheating detection in the early to mid-2000s, mostly working with students. Although a few results found their way into talks and papers, I was never able to devote sufficient time to this. So, it’s good to see other people taking up the mantle. There are still issues to overcome with ensuring the reliability of these stylometric approaches, as well as ensuring that student assignments are widely and systematically collected.

Other Approaches To Detection

Tracey Bretag presented results from a survey of academic staff from Australian universities based on how they had detected contract cheating. The most common responses given were detection by knowledge of the student’s academic ability (71%) and knowledge of their English language ability (62%). Both of these approaches are valid but can be difficult when anonymous marking is used.
Tracey also found that 49% of academics were alerted to contract cheating through text matching from similarity detection software, such as Turnitin. This is an interesting result from several perspectives. First, it supports some of my previous research looking at the use of Turnitin to detect contract cheating. Second, it casts doubt on the claim of many essay providers that they are providing a plagiarism free assignment. This does suggest that, even as new approaches are introduced, the use of software designed to detect plagiarism is still essential.

In research with student advocates presented by Wendy Sutherland-Smith, she also found suggestions for the use of software, particularly to identify students. One suggestion was keystroke analysis, a technique with some overlap to writing style analysis. I also noticed a suggestion of eye detection. Whether this involves tracking the eyeline of a student to ensure that it’s focused on assessment tasks, or whether this involves iris scanning to ensure that the correct student is sitting examinations and submitted work is not clear.

Perhaps all of these different approaches for detecting contract cheating have some merit?

Contract Cheating and Essay Mills 2017 Findings Part 3 – Contract Cheating by Academics

This is Part 3 of the 7 part series examining Findings From Plagiarism Across Europe and Beyond 2017

An area that has, as of yet, received little attention in the literature has been contract cheating by academics. I’ve touched on this on several occasions and this also its way into talks at the conference, but it’s generally a subject that may more closely fit with research integrity conferences. Although I don’t recall seeing much work on contract cheating going through those conferences either.

Research Integrity

The wider issue of research integrity did come up in the keynote by Jeffrey Beall, where he discussed the market in predatory journals. He presented a model of how some academics used predatory journals to gain promotion. The model was simple. The academic plagiarises a paper, submits it to the predatory journal, pays the fee and the paper gets published. A wider discussion looked at how the plagiarised paper version could be generating using article spinning software (an area I discussed in relation to student plagiarism in my paper on essay spinning). Once the plagiarised paper is published, the academic then adds to their publication count which they can use towards their next promotion. I’ve observed versions of this technique with contract cheating suppliers involved, particularly to get the paper written.

A presentation by Muhammad Shahid Soroya about the promotional requirements for academics in Pakistan emphasised how this model can be successful. Muhammad discussed how many academic requirements have been standardised across Pakistan, largely to around inconsistencies and corruption. One of these related to promotion, with academics required to get 10 papers published to become an Associate Professor and 15 papers to become a Professor. Papers published quickly, even for a fee, could prove to be financially advantageous to an academic in this situation.

A related issue in Romania was raised by Emilia Sercan, who worked as a undercover journalist to expose plagiarised PhD theses, seemingly a necessity for promotion for many positions in the country. She said that 14.63% of PhDs awarded by military universities were plagiarised, including some from high profile public officials. She also identified some of these PhD holders who had become supervisors, with their own students found to have plagiarised. Following the investigations, public access to the PhD archive was said to have been restricted, possibly suggesting that there was no desire to identify any further plagiarised theses. Although this investigation did not relate specifically to contract cheating, a separate presentation by Strike Plagiarism stated that Romania did not consider the use of essay mills a threat, despite these being said to be cheap to use. This does leave an open question regarding whether or not contract cheating services could be being used to support PhD completion in countries such as Romania.

Fake Authorship

The related area of fake authorship emerged in several discussions at the Plagiarism Across Europe and Beyond conference. Most notably, this observed as either a financial or reputational transaction.

Jeffrey Beall talked about a move by authors to sell authorship on their papers. I’m assuming this is usually as an additional author, but I’ve also observed contract cheating services offering to write journal papers who I presume are offering the whole publication. Jeffrey also talked about authors who were gifting authorship, presumably as a form of bribery designed to pay dividends down the line. In some ways, this is not much of a stretch from forms of publication that happen with the names of large research teams involved. There may be the need for a discussion to see where the dividing line should be drawn. I know of people who do some (perhaps intense) copy-editing of research papers in return for an authorship credit, so this is not an easy area to define.

Another conference discussion covered a related area, where author names are added to a paper without their knowledge. This is presumably done to increase the kudos of the paper by having a bigger name associated and to hence improve the odds of publication. I’ve heard of variants of this technique, including things as sophisticated as setting up fake email accounts and profiles for the additional author, as well as recommending fake peer reviewers to ensure that the paper gets published without the added author becoming aware of the deception.

Academic Views on Contract Cheating

As part of a survey of academics working at Australian universities, Tracey Bretag and her team collected data from more than 1000 people. Some findings from that research are of concern.

Most of the academics surveyed were said to not take contract cheating cases forward. This suggests elements of “turning a blind eye” to the problem.

Two figures are of more concern. 0.5% of academics said that they had provided unfair materials of students. More analysis will be needed to confirm what that means, but it could include supplying assignments to students. Further, 10.0% of academics said that they had contract cheated themselves as a student. It is not clear is that means that they purchased assignment solutions themselves, or if they provided answers for other students, but neither of these are good reflections of academia, particularly as this is unlikely to be a topic that many academics would choose to boast about.

Phil Newton did note his wider research about the teaching of academic integrity principles to teaching staff in the UK, with none of the major textbooks used to show lecturers how to teach covering academic integrity. If this finding is typical of the rest of the world, it may be that a major rethinking of the curriculum used to teach academics about delivering high quality education are needed.

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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