10 Contract Cheating Research Observations From The Past Decade That Have Shaped What We Know About Student Cheating Behaviour

10 In 10 Contract Cheating Series – Part 10

This is the final part in a 10 part series looking at how contract cheating has changed since the term was first publicised in a research paper and presentation in June 2006.

As I’ve explored throughout this series of blog posts looking at a decade of contract cheating, the world in which students are using assignment writing services and consultancies has changed substantially. Although it often seems that the push for universities to seriously tackle contract cheating is media driven, there have been substantive pieces of research completed in the contract cheating field.

This post identifies 10 research findings which are of particular interest to researchers now and which should inform the next decade of work in this area of student cheating.

 

Finding #1 – Once Students Have Begun To Cheat, Many Such Students Continue To Do Cheat Habitually

One of the most interesting findings in the first contract cheating study that Robert Clarke and I published, was that very few students cheated as a one-off activity. We noticed the behaviour that students had successfully made several requests to outsource their work, sometimes with multiple assignments for different subjects being completed at the same time.

Recent media reports looking inside essay mills have also noticed the same group of students appearing again and again. Other media reports speaking to essay writers have also stated that there is a personal continuing business relationship between the writer and the student.

The traditional academic research into student cheating suggests that student cheat due to desperation, because they don’t know how to complete the work, or because they don’t have enough time. All of those issues may be enabling factors for student cheating, but it appears that once students have found that cheating has granted them academic success, they will continue to cheat. There are cheating networks now, where students refer other students to writers. The growing awareness of these essay writing services around students is leading to their continued growth.

 

Finding #2 – Workers Can Be Commissioned Quickly To Complete Assignments For Students

One proposal to combat contract cheating that has been made is for the assignment details to be released to students very late, so as to give them little time to secure a worker.

Melisa Wallace and Philip Newton investigated how long the likely turnaround times on visible contract cheating sites and found a group of people ready to take on an assignment with either a week’s deadline or even 24 hour’s deadline. They even found that over 10 such workers would be available to choose from for each such assignment. For workers for whom academic writing is their living, being responsive to market needs is important.

Other essay mills also regularly advertise that same day turnaround for assignments is possible. They can do this as they have access to their own army of freelance writers, usually consisting of far more people that they actually need. They people are trained to turn assignments around quickly, following the formatting and layout norms for that academic discipline.

Our own observations of contract cheating agency sites have seen requests to hire workers in advance, so that these workers are online and available at the time that assignments are released. This is particularly the case for take home examinations.

The recommendation has to be that “just in time” release of assignment details is not the right option and may actually create more problems with allowing students to do their best work in this area.

 

Finding #3 – Essays And Assignments Can Be Purchased Cheaply And They Can Be Of High Quality

There is a traditional viewpoint that original essays purchased from third party sources will be of low quality, particularly since the essay provider has not vested interest in turning out high quality report. Several studies of around ten years ago went along with this viewpoint, showing examples of work purchased at premium prices, but received marks around the pass threshold, involving some failures.

The more recent studies about the quality of student work have counteracted that viewpoint.

A study by Lisa Lines saw the purchase of multiple essays from different providers, at both undergraduate and postgraduate level. Although the marks awarded for completing essays with the same title varied across providers, she identified essays receiving exceptional marks (above 90%), with few failures. She also found that the work at undergraduate level was generally better than the work at postgraduate level and that the providers who charged more generally returned higher quality essays.

During our own research, we’ve seen examples of essays, reports, programming assignments and other pieces of work produced by different academic writing firms and directly commissioned from writers. The standard has been variable, but the work from major providers also seems to have improved in recent years. This is likely largely due to increased education between firms and writers about how high quality academic work should be presented. It also appears that there may now be more internal checking included in the academic commissioning process.

It also seems that the quality of the work is dependent more on choosing the correct writer, rather than the amount being paid. It is possible to commission writers directly through contract cheating agency sites. Working with a motivated writer, perhaps through setting them a question that differs from run-of-the-mill assignments, can be engaging for them. Direct communication with a writer can also keep the prices down.

Although I don’t have a budget to directly commission work from writers and assess how good this is, I am certain that a high quality 2000 word assignment could easily be purchased for $100 USD or less (and earlier in this series, I’ve demonstrated that offers exist to complete work for as low as $20 USD).

 

Finding #4 – The Business Academic Discipline Represents The “Bread And Butter” For Contract Cheating Providers

During our early studies, we identified that most assignment requests on the EssayBay site were from the business discipline.

That finding has been supported many times since. Several academics in the discipline have told me that they believe that there is a real problem in business. I’ve also spoken to a writer for an essay mill and he was very quick to tell me that business assignments and term papers ranked at the top of the more requested list.

I often joke that we are turning out people equipped to work in business, as they understand where they should invest money. But clearly, contract cheating in any discipline is not a behaviour that we want to encourage.

In the assignments we’ve seen, requests for MBA work and MBA dissertations are appearing with alarming frequency. These are often needed as a professional qualification, can be taken online and don’t appear to have the same level of supervision as other types of qualification. When Neil Wellman and Julia Fallon seriously investigated cheating in an MBA module that they were responsible for, they were able to identify consistent cheating rates of around 30%. The students estimated that around 40% of the work on the MBA was purchased, although that number could not be verified. One student even confidentially admitted that he had given the assignments to their cousin to complete the work.

It may soon get to the stage where MBA holders have to be able to demonstrate that their qualification is, indeed, a reputable one.

 

Finding #5 – Ghostwriters Now Look At Completing Work For Students As A Reputable Career Move For Them

Another interesting research strand that has begun to emerge has been looking at the people who are completing work for students, the techniques that they use and why they engage in this behaviour.

A key finding, backed up by my own investigations into the people bidding to complete work for the students, is that this is purely a financial arrangement. The work can be well paid, particularly in economies where the cost of living is lower. There is a lot of work available. The hours and working arrangements can be flexible. As I’ve outlined in previous talks and post, academic writing work is now seen as so lucrative and in demand that people will pay to get access to writing work opportunities. There are whole communities set up to help academic ghostwriters perform better, work more efficiently and avoid the fines imposed by essay writing agencies.

Several sources have found ghostwriters who are in this field for revenge. Shiva Sivasubramaniam, Kalliopi Kostelidou and Sharavan Ramachandran identified a community of international writers with qualifications from western universities, but who had resorted to academic ghostwriting due to a lack of work experience. A media investigation found a UK based tutor who had been unsuccessful at gaining an an academic position, so was now supplementing tutorial work by writing assignments for students. My own research has seen plenty of workers on outsourcing websites offering to complete academic work and advertising academic qualifications up to PhD level as their credentials.

I have spoken to online writers and found a mix of ethical views towards completing student work. Many writers say that they are happy to complete academic work for students, as they see this as fulfilling a market need, but ethical boundaries vary. One writer said that they were unwilling to help prospective nurses, for example, but would happily turn out several business essays a day if sufficient work was available.

Christopher Harris and Padmini Srinivasan went further and created a fake website offering homework help services. They found that most workers on a micro-outsourcing site were willing to allow their answers to be submitted by students for academic credit, most significantly when the worker was from India or Bangladesh. They also found that the size of the payment made to the workers did not change their ethical views on this topic or whether they would accept work offered as providing contract cheating opportunities. These workers were either already willing to support student cheating, or they were not.

The growth of individual writers advertising contract cheating services on social media and the more aggressive and the targeted nature of this advertising suggests that workers are now seeing the benefits of setting up their own direct provision of essay writing services. There are all kinds of involved marketing methods that students can now use to attract students. I predict that the number of people who are using academic writing as a major source of income, or looking at this as their career, will only grow further.

 

Finding #6 – Contract Cheating Detection Software Has Still Not Proven Successful

One of the biggest surprises to me during the 10 years of contract cheating research that I’ve been involved with, is that no-one has made substantial progress towards the problem of writing software to identify when contract cheating has taken place.

My own research publications have identified several possible models for this, ranging from suggesting stylometric analysis to look for a student writing style that differs from what would be expected, to developing intelligent systems designed to monitor the requests posted on contract cheating websites and attempt to alert the owners.

I have seen some initial findings of promise, including some unpublished work suggesting that there are elements of student writing styles that can identify them, even with a small writing sample. But, there has not been interest shown by funding bodies to take this work to the next level and no computer scientists or linguists have taken this on as a personal project to challenge them. Likewise, none of the major plagiarism detection services have looked to add this type of detection to their services, preferring instead to stick with releasing traditional text matching software.

One surprising result that I have found during my investigations with Robert Clarke is that running requests for assignment help found online through Turnitin can sometimes help to identify the source, particularly where academics reuse the same assignment briefs year after year. Likewise, student work can often throw up indicators that all is not what it seems, particularly through small percentage matches to external sites. Not all ghostwriters provide work that is as original as they advertise and several students have been caught out when their writer was found to have taken shortcuts.

Contract cheating detection would be an excellent area for PhD students to get involved with. There’s scope for multiple PhD projects in this area as there are many different approaches that can be investigated. There is a timeliness for this work and so opportunities to make an impact during and beyond the PhD. This ties in with trends of national and international interest. My own PhD developed software to solve the more traditional problem of detecting plagiarism, but I would be keen to work with PhD students looking to develop methods, metrics and software for detecting contract cheating.

 

Finding #7 – The Real Money In Contract Cheating Is Made By The Third Party Subcontractors

Very early on in our contract cheating research, we identified the pattern of certain accounts that were requesting that vast volumes of assignments were completed for them. These were often across different academic disciplines, involved multiple years of study and even covered assignments from several universities.

What we identified were third party subcontractors, essentially people or businesses who took in orders from students and then themselves used an outsourcing process to find workers to complete the assessments.

Over the past decade, that third party subcontractor model has become more commonplace, with many of the larger essay writing companies using a similar process. The main difference here is that the continued outsourcing process is often kept private inside those sites and only seen by registered writers.

For smaller companies, for instance those single-person companies operating within a local area, or targeting students at a particular university, cheap outsourcing to traditional agency sites such as Freelancer still exists. Sometimes, this can be done by individual writers who simply do not have the capacity to complete all of the orders that they’re receiving at busy times of the academic year. During the continued student work outsourcing process, the latest observations are that these third party subcontractors often have a group of regular workers that they use, continue to manage and put their assignments through, all protected through the privacy and escrow payment process in place at these outsourcing websites.

Writers have indicated that as little as 10% of the money paid by students to essay sites may end up with writers. The real money in the essay industry is clearly taking in the orders, not completing the writing. Likewise, the students who are now identified as going directly to writers rather than through other companies have also clearly identified how to get the best return for their academic writing investment.

 

Finding #8 – Over 50% Of Students Are Willing To Buy Essays If The Price Is Right

One of the most interesting of the contract cheating studies that I’ve read about over the past decade was an investigation by Dan Rigby and team into how much willing students would be to pay to outsource their assignments. They completed this study using standard proven economic theories.

They identified that over 50% of students would be willing to buy original assessments from ghostwriting services, with a clear reduction in numbers if the risk of being caught went up. Increased numbers would commission work if the quoted price was lower or the likelihood of receiving a top grade was higher.

It is still difficult to ascertain exactly how many students have used contract cheating services, as only a small number of students get detected and taken through formal disciplinary processes. I’ve seen small scale estimates suggesting that this number could lie anywhere between 1 in 100 and 1 in 2, depending on the students and discipline. I suspect that the real percentage of students who have tried using contract cheating services is closer to 10%, although this will vary between cohorts and academic disciplines. In any case, the number of students contract cheating must be sizable, as the latest estimates suggest that a minimum of £100 million (GBP) a year of business is working its way through these sites (although my own studies suggest £20 million as a more immediately believable figure).

 

Finding #9 – International Students Are Particularly Susceptible To Taking Advantage Of Contract Cheating Opportunities

Much media attention has been paid to the likelihood that international students are involved with outsourcing their work. A Freedom of Information Act request in the UK found that international students were three times more likely to be caught cheating than home students. A media investigation in Australia went inside an essay mill aimed at students from China and found that many made prevalent and repeated use of this service.

When Dan Rigby and group investigated which students would be willing to pay for assignments, they found that around 75% of students with English as a second language were willing to buy assessed work, as opposed to 50% of the general student body.

When non-international and international students work in teams together, there have been several online discussions where the non-international students have reported pressure from the international students to use academic writing services. There are many indications that suggest that the use of contract cheating providers is common across that group.

We need to be aware that international students are particularly susceptible to the marketing of contract cheating services and identify how to best support those students and ensure that they do not end up tempted to use essay writing services.

 

Finding #10 – All Assignments Are Cheatable When Students Are Inclined To Cheat

If we can dream up an assignment, students can find a way to either cheat on that assignment, or to give themselves an unfair advantage.

I’ve often given talks and heard academics talk about their “unbeatable” assignment. For instance, they require students to complete work in stages, each of which receives feedback and is sent back to the student for improvements.

Assignments like those are just as easy to outsource as any other. We’ve seen plenty of examples online of students securing workers to complete their project work, with the workers being sent the feedback comments as they come in. If anything, this makes the workers life easier, as they get the benefit of the feedback intended for the student.

What we can do is avoid setting the type of standard repetitive essays that are many writers bread and butter. The writers eagerly await the essays on standard themes that they can turn around in a few hours. Many of the more challenging and unusual assignments are harder for students to find a worker to complete for them.

 

Contract Cheating Research Must Continue

Although this is the final post in this series on contract cheating, you can be assured that coverage of this problem will continue on my blog, through my teaching and learning presentations and as part of my wider media and research work. The problem will not go away. New cheating developments will continue to emerge, as a small group of students continues to look for new ways to earn qualifications that they do not deserve.

Do take a look at the other parts of the 10 in 10 contract cheating series and let me know about any areas of student cheating that you’d like me to focus in on, or to direct other researchers in the academy integrity field towards.

As always, I’m happy to be contacted regarding keynote speaking opportunities, research collaborations, training sessions and other consultancy opportunities around the field of contract cheating.

A Decade Of Contract Cheating – Ten Years Of Contract Cheating Keynote Presentation

10 In 10 Contract Cheating Series – Part 9

This is post 9 in a 10 part series looking back at contract cheating over the past 10 years and how what we know about this type of cheating has developed.

Many of my feelings about contract cheating over the past decade have been captured in a keynote presentation I gave at the Western Australia Forum for Contract Cheating, which was held at Curtin University in Perth Australia.

It’s all pleasing to see the messages behind contract cheating being taken seriously and the sheer interest in this presentation was incredible. Participation included many major contract cheating researchers from Australia and the message that contact cheating was not something that we want to see clearly resonated. There was also media interest in the presentation.

I used the keynote presentation to position contract cheating within a wider context, including looking at the similar cheating behaviours that existed before widespread use of the Internet. I also considered the messages that we need to think about in the future world of fair and accountable assessment of academic skills.

You can see the slides for the contract cheating keynote presentation on my SlideShare account. They are also embedded below.

The video recordings form the full forum are available here (including my keynote). There were some really interesting presentations of work in progress, including looks at how to profile students in danger of contract cheating through their marks, the legal issues of contract cheating, how cheating groups had been set up to “defeat” business simulation assignments and even the pre-workshop discussion I gave for Curtin University staff.

You can also see a Storify discussion of the social media discussions around the contract cheating forum here.

Definitely a worthwhile event and hopefully the first of many in that part of the world. Future contract cheating events certainly have my full support.

Take a look here to check out the other parts of the 10 in 10 contract cheating series.

A Decade Of Contract Cheating – The Impact Of Twitter On The Essay Industry

10 In 10 Contract Cheating Series – Part 8

This is the eighth in a 10 part series looking at how contract cheating has changed since the term was originally introduced in a research paper and presentation in June 2006.

 

The Role Of Social Media In Contract Cheating

As I’ve explored elsewhere on my blog, within my teaching and in other talks, understanding social media is now a core part of many jobs. For students, social media is part and parcel of their life.

We’re working with a generation of people who are always switched on to the Internet and wider online developments. We’re also dealing with a set of social media properties that are in flux. Where once Facebook may have been the order of the day for students, now alternatives exist that are visual from the outset, such as Snapchat and Instagram and many students engage with emerging social media that academics have barely begun to consider.

As I discussed in the video, examining the marketplace changes in how contract cheating services are promoted, essay writing services have now begun to develop full sales funnels and processes to encourage students to use their bespoke writing provision. As has happened in so many other industries, social media is now a key part of that sales funnel.

This post looks particularly at the enhanced role that Twitter now holds in helping students to cheat. I’ve chosen Twitter as I’m an active Twitter user, but you’ll find similar examples of contract cheating marketing developing on Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube and other social media networks.

In this post, I’m going to look initially at the traditional types of accounts that exist on Twitter for essay writing services. I’m going to follow this by looking at the changes in the market and the emerging ways in which Twitter is being used to market services that provide essays and assignments.

 

The Established Essay Market On Twitter

The are many examples of contract cheating services with Twitter accounts. The image below selects just three services from around the world that are typical of traditional social media marketing.

EssayWritingAccountsOnTwitter

These accounts are all used in what I would consider to be a standard social media marketing manner. They tweet information of interest to students, provide details of their services and show positive proof to customers such as testimonials. The frequency of tweets varies.

One of the essay mill Twitter accounts has 5,950 followers. The other two selected have 854 and 905 followers. These are not untypical sizes for the number of followers, although there are many Twitter accounts for essay writing companies with fewer followers.

Using a quick search for the word “essay” in Twitter accounts and manually filtering these to accounts aimed at writing essays for students, I quickly identified 28 such company accounts, including several presenting their services as consultancy. However, a search for “UK essays” identified 41 such accounts, with very little overlap between the two lists. Some of the UK accounts are clearly local adverts for international companies. For instance, I saw one account with UK in its name, but with pricing listed in United States Dollars.

There are many other search terms that need to be considered to build up a full picture about the scale of Twitter cheating. This includes searching for terms other than essay, looking for localised accounts and finding subject specific accounts. The sample searches used also do not identify the accounts of individual writers, who may be taking business directly from students who wish to bypass established companies.

From this brief analysis, I would be surprised if the number of Twitter accounts aimed at offering assignment completion services to students was below the high three figures. A number above 1000 does not seem outside the realms of possibility.

 

Contract Cheating Help Requests Answered On Twitter

This image below shows an example of a request (which may or may not have been serious) for essay writing help on Twitter and shows the public responses that were quickly made.

WriteEssayOnTwitterThe image only captures replies that were made in public. There’s no telling how many private offers were made, or no indication if the student took any of these offers up.

It is interesting to look at the range of sites offering bespoke essay writing services. There are large companies represented, as well as smaller writers, most likely working on their own.

The student also rejected one offer outright (likely from a friend) due to concerns about the grade that would be received.

Some of the responses are personalised. Offers look like they may have been automatically generated (perhaps based on a keyword analysis of the original tweet).

I identified one company that sometimes looks out for students tweeting requests for essay help or comments that indicate that they are struggling with their essays and then retweets them.

Although they do not retweet every day, when they do this, they look for as many requests for essays to retweet as possible. For instance, on a representative day in 2016, they retweeted 8 different people who were receiving offers to write their essay – all tweets made that same day. Those people then received anywhere between 2 and 9 different visible contract cheating offers on Twitter, with a mean number of offers of 5.25.

Some of the tweets were sophisticated, including discount codes and offers to enter into private negotiations regarding pricing.

It is also interesting that a wide range of different accounts participated in making the cheating offers and they were not just the same accounts repeated each time.

 

Tweeting Completed Assignment Details

Several essay writing companies now tweet out details of assignments.

The image below shows an example of recent tweets by one such company, all of which are the start of longer text providing details of the assignments.

TweetedAssignmentDetailsClicking on the links leads to a page on the website of the essay writing service, where more details of the assignment are visible – as well as the option for a student to submit a request for a similar assignment.

The company indicated has made 16.6k tweets. Almost all of these follow a similar format to that shown in the image.

Google has indexed 33.2k pages from that same site.

It is not clear if these are the assignments that this company has produced for students, or if these come from a wider database. However, the site itself indicates that they have 18K completed orders, with 80 orders in preparation, a team of 50 writers and 3 live chat operators. The latter number, indicates the focus that this site has on marketing (supported by a live chat that opened soon after I accessed the site). It suggests the competitiveness of this market and the need to provide personal attention in order to generate essay and assignment orders.

Some sites are most sophisticated with their automated Twitter marketing. For example, I’ve seen examples where all the tweets are accompanied with images and direct buy buttons to provide even more ways for students to directly buy their assignment from that service.

 

Twitter Accounts Aimed At Recruiting Writers

Although there are many Twitter accounts now aimed at advertising different essay mills and encouraging students to visit these essay writing sites, a new trend is the emergence of sites aimed at recruiting and supporting essay writers.

This should be of little surprise. The essay industry and large and growing, so a continual stream of new writers is needed.

The image below shows an example of one such account with 2024 followers.

TweetsAimedAtEssayWriters

Many of the tweets link to the company Facebook page, which is presumably where many discussions take place. The page is private and presumably restricted to registered writers. The mix of tips and success stories is there to motivate workers.

Their site claims that they have completed 23,260 writing projects. Despite the labeling of the site with the word “essays”, it is not clear if these are all academic in nature or not.

The company concerned seems to operate the sites where it generates orders separately. That model is not uncommon.

There are other such collections of writers that exist to provide the human resources needed by other essay writing companies. They then just plug into this large pool of writers without needing to manage their own workforce. It’s not clear if the company presented here also provides such a service.

The social media promotion aimed directly at current and aspiring writers is growing. There are whole online communities devoted to this, as well as detailed guides and support services helping workers to get accepted with the major essay writing providers.

 

Twitter Accounts Aimed At Generating Commission Payments

The world of affiliate marketing is an interesting one. Essentially, companies pay people commission to send customers to them.

Many services aimed at doing assignments for students now offer an affiliate scheme, for instance, by giving a referrer a percentage of the value of any completed sales. There are whole sites set up now that appear to be reviewing different essay writing providers, but instead are actually being paid when students click through the positive reviews and place an order.

The image below shows an example of a site that has moved that affiliate model onto Twitter, and taken it one step further, by focusing on discounted offers made available to students.

EssayWritingCouponsTwitter

This particular account is relatively small, with 89 followers, but shows another emerging development in the student assignment industry.

The tweets all link to different essay and term-paper writing services. Not all of them contain a coupon code giving students a discount, but presumably all offer an affiliate commission if the student goes on and places an order.

As is common now when advertising essay providers, the advertising of the work as being “plagiarism-free” is prominent.

 

Will Twitter Continue To Enable Contract Cheating?

The sophistication of essay writing service advertising is growing. Enhanced marketing funnels, both to find student customers and to identify new writers, are emerging.

This article has only really scratched the surface on the ways that Twitter is now being used to aid in student cheating. There is much scope for further research in this area, including identifying Twitter accounts, collecting quantitative data and even automatically analysing the language used in tweets to see how successful the marketing methods used are.

Due to the huge amount of money in this industry, with estimates of tens of million pounds of businesses going through essay services every year, the attention paid to contract cheating marketing will only increase. The sites that are missing aspects of their marketing used by their competitors will be looking to develop this.

I can see a future where companies start to combine together the different Twitter marketing strategies that have been identified in this post. For instance, a Twitter account operating on a referral model and generating commissions, but tweeting higher quality content, could be successful. I can also foresee similar trends moving to other social media services (the world of Facebook and contract cheating is a whole detailed article in itself).

Twitter accounts aimed at publicising the problems and potential poor quality of essay writing services, such as the one in the image below, are beginning to appear. But, these accounts are not prominent.

AntiEssayWritingOnTwitter

The particular account shown seems to tell the story of a financial disagreement between a student and an essay writing service, with several emails displayed in images. The student was threatened with the work being sent to their department and asked to send more money. It is not clear what the end result of this case was, but highlights a danger of students using contract cheating services.

There are also other academics, myself included, who tweet stories relating to contract cheating and who play a role in balancing the heavy marketing push of such services on Twitter.

It is clear that Twitter marketing for contract cheating services will continue. There are several reasons for this.

Anyone can market their own essay writing services on Twitter. Or, they can promote the services offered by other companies. And, this social media marketing can be completed without them spending a penny. This is why Twitter marketing is proving so attractive to assignment providing services and academic ghostwriters as the world of contract cheating continues to expand.

 

This article is part of a series of posts looking at the developments in contract cheating over the past 10 years. Take a look at the other parts of the 10 in 10 contract cheating series.

A Decade Of Contract Cheating – What Shape Is The Bespoke Essay Industry In Today?

10 In 10 Contract Cheating Series – Part 7

This is the seventh in a 10 part series looking at the changing world of contract cheating that has emerged since the term was first publicised in a research paper and presentation in June 2006.

 

How Big Is The Essay Industry?

Although the term contract cheating was originally introduced to define the behaviour where students purchased assignments online from sites aimed at computing contractors, the term has since become synonymous with a much wider range of cheating. None of the contributors to contract cheating are more visible now than the burgeoning industry of essay writing and assignment production services, which state that they will deliver bespoke assessments to students, which can be submitted to beat any text matching software designed to detect plagiarism.

In this post, I want to look at how the current shape of this ever-changing essay industry and some of the mechanisms through which this can be estimated.

There are many estimates out there about just how big the essay industry is, including those circulated by the cheating industry itself.

The most common figure I’ve seen in 2016 has been that the essay industry raises £200 million GBP of annual revenue. That’s based on figures quoted by UK Essays owner Barclay Littlewood, dating back to interpolation following a 2006 interview that he gave to Guardian. I tend to use the phrase “tens of millions” for media work, but I have also spoken about the £200 million GBP figure, which has no doubt helped to lend it some credibility.

Other estimates are still alarming, but fall below £200 million GBP. In their 2014 paper “The Essay Industry“, Owings and Nelson calculated a bottom-line figure of $100 million USD per year (£75 million GBP based on the exchange rate in September 2016). This estimate was based largely on observing the turnaround time of essay orders. They also suggested that the $100 million USD figure could be higher still. In several places in the paper, they used cautionary and toned down their estimate. Although I do not completely agree with all of their assumptions regarding market capacity and standard pricing, if their interpretation is to be believed, a higher worth for the paper mill industry can be suggested.

In 2016, David Burton of Essay Writer told the Daily Telegraph the industry was worth £100 million GBP a year. This is a lower figure than Barclay Littlewood is associated with, but one that still looks credible.

An overall range of between £100 million GBP and £200 million GBP is certainly believable based on these sources.

In a June 2016 interview with the Daily Telegraph, one firm claimed that the average purchase from them was for £350 GBP. Although many buyers pay less than this, the average is no doubt increased through cross-sells, further editing to a sold essay, where requests are for large documents such as dissertations and where assignments are needed faster than standard turnaround times.

Using the £350 GBP average purchase price as a base line, for a business worth £100 million GBP per year, this would indicate that over 250,000 essays were sold. For a business worth £200 million GBP per year, this would indicate sales of over 500,000 essays.

Those estimates of the scale of the essay industry may be low. They focus solely on the revenue generated through traditional essay mill style writing services.

As previous work has indicated, students also use other services to have original work produced for them, such as private tutors.

They can also outsource their assignments to agency sites, such as Freelancer and Fiverr.com and potentially pay much lower rates than £350 GBP per essay.

So, if the financial figures are to be believed, the overall money in the essay industry is likely to be higher than stated above. The number of essays sold is also likely to be substantially more.

But how realistic are these numbers? In this article, I also want to consider other data available on the Internet that can help to understand the changing shape of the essay writing industry.

 

How Many Sizeable Essay Mills Are Out There?

One question that can be asked is, how many major essay mills are there that are currently trading?

There are some websites that provide lists of known essay mills. But, the quality of these lists is questionable.

A quick check of standard essay mill lists reveals many sites that are no longer functional. It shows other sites clinging to outdated design principles. This suggests that these essay mills have been largely abandoned.

There are essay sites listed that just sell collections of previously written essays. Each of these essays may have been outdated or may have been sold multiple times. As these did not strictly fall within the contract cheating definition of producing original work, it would not be sensible to consider these further.

One site found on a list of essay services still offered to fax orders for original work to students. Presumably, orders from this site would then need to be retyped, or could be handed in with tell-tale footers identifying the essay writing service. That also showed that outdated lists were not useful to consider.

Having rejected the use of current online lists of essay mills, I instead developed a two stage search process.

Stage 1 – I used multiple search methods to generate a list of around 1000 candidate essay mills.

Stage 2 – I analysed the reported traffic to the site (the number of recorded visitors) to produce a manageable list of essay mills that I considered sizeable.

More specifically, I completed Stage 1 of the essay mill identification process using the following methods:

Google search – using a privae incognito search and standard terms like “buy essay” and “write essay” to identifying high ranking matches. Paid Google Adwords matches were ignored. To expand the data, the term “USA” was also added to searches, although when searched for on the UK version of Google these still showed a heavy bias to UK domains (.co.uk etc). The term “essay” was kept here, even though often alternatives, such as “assignment” may be more appropriate now in many disciplines.

Well-known sites – I included sites that I was aware of that had received a large amount of publicity through the media or through offline advertising. Notable out of this process was that UK Essay, often considered the most prominent site to the UK media, did not rank at all for the Google search terms used.

Review sites – Some high ranking search engine matches turned out to be for review sites, those sites which seem to provide comparative reviews of different essay mills to help students to make a sensible choice. In reality, these sites tend to focus on the commission payments available when a student clicks through the review and places an order. The review site list was useful though. Following the links from the review site through a manual crawling process identified several further candidates essay mills for the main pool.

Similar sites – Sites generated using the above list were augmented by searching for them using similar site services. In particular, SpyFu and Alexa.com to look for sites aimed at the same target audience.

The Stage 1 search process used cannot be considered exhaustive, as not all search terms were analysed and some sites likely rank well only to specific audiences and may be targeted through geographical location or academic subject area. Other searches ended when their seemed to be no further likelihood of useful returns. For instance, Google searches revealed small and outdated sites, linked to sub-pages on larger sites, or listed sites that did not supply bespoke essays. Likewise, the similar site searches ended when these did not seem to be yielding any fresh results. Further, no attempt was made to focus on sites relying on paid traffic, or to use social searches or video searches to identify suitable parts of the essay industry.

For Stage 2 of the process, I took the filtered and manageable list of results from Stage 1 and analysed these through Wolfram Alpha to identify if the sites had sufficient traffic to be considered. Wolfram Alpha uses several factors to estimate the number of expected site visitors. These include looking at the overall volume of traffic on the Internet (a massive number) and the Alexa rank of the site in the question. This is a not a completely foolproof process, as some sites may have just referred traffic to another site. However, this process left exactly 20 sites of different sizes to be considered – a manageable number.

 

Analysing Visits To 20 Sizeable Essay Mills

The table below shows the 20 websites identified as sizeable, sorted from the most visits to the most visits.

There is a substantial difference in size between the sites, with the front-runner, UK Essays, supplying 78.7% of the total hits per month and 83.0% of the total unique visitors. UK Essays also had a much higher Alexa rank than the other sites identified. However, it does need to be stressed again that other high performing sites may be missing from the analysis, particularly including the equivalent of UK Essays in various non-UK markets.

hits per day visits per day Alexa rank
ukessays.com 230000 160000 30707
ultius.com 12000 6100 476259
oxbridgeessays.com 6000 5000 653796
essay.uk.com 5500 5000 665702
AustralianWritings.com 8000 2900 811333
NinjaEssays.com 8600 2900 819205
superiorpapers.com 3900 3600 905436
affordablepapers.com 4700 1200 1508607
unemployedprofessors.com 2700 890 1967075
grademiners.co.uk 2100 1100 2045010
speedyessay.co.uk 1100 1100 2231936
essayavenue.co.uk 1900 640 2703989
essaylab.org 720 720 3194829
smartwritingservice.com 1600 320 3859536
essaytigers.co.uk 500 500 4138470
essayempire.co.uk 720 360 4475596
rushessay.com 1700 140 5547748
buyessayonline.org 430 140 6233956
bestessay.com 220 220 6510717
royalessays.co.uk 36 36 8520884
 totals 292426 192866

Not of all of the traffic indicated will be from prospective customers. It may also include workers, for instance writers for the company aimed to find out what writing jobs are available and return the results.

 

Analysing Historical Changes To Online Essay Mill Visits

Rank2Traffic.com is a useful web property to visits to find out how the size of sites have changed over time.

The graph below, from Rank2Traffic.com, shows the past 7 years traffic history for UK Essays, including noting a substantial growth of the number of people accessing the site using mobile devices. UKEssays7YearsData

The data suggests that UK Essays has seen substantial growth since 2012. There are also noticeable traffic peaks in recent years around December and June time, presumably coinciding with UK coursework deadlines. Note that the Rank2Traffic.com data shows hits per month, compared to hits per day in the Wolfram Alpha data above and the traffic estimation methods used.

Basing further analysis solely on the shape of the graph, this suggests around a 10 times increase in overall UK Essays traffic between mid 2012 and mid 2016, or a 5 times increase if only desktop traffic is taken into account.

UK Essays itself claimed a 10% increase in business year-on-year in a June 2016 interview with the Daily Telegraph. They also claimed that they had 50 full time staff, including 20 people working in quality control and a full team of offsite freelance writers. This suggests a booming business, albeit one where the percentage of visitors to the UK Essays site who are buying original assignments is also declining. The large increase in the number of visitors using mobile devices may also be contributing to what appears to be a reduction in conversion rates.

One large group of essay writing sites attempting to attract affiliates suggests that the traffic they send will convert at 8%. That seems high, but may be true for that particular audience (the so-called warm traffic who have already been convinced to buy an essay by the referring site).

UK Essays themselves suggest that they had 16,000 paying customers in 2015. It is not clear if repeat customers are included within this calculation, or if there are further orders that need to be added to that total. This should equate to them making around 50 sales per day in 2016 if the business growth is consistent with what they have stated in previous years. Comparing this figure to the 160,000 visits per day estimated by Wolfram Alpha suggests that their conversion rate is 0.031% – a much lower conversion than the 8% suggested elsewhere.

I suspect that the conversion rate on a standard essay mill lies somewhere between the figures, but this is most likely nearer the lower end than the upper end, particularly where traffic is not pre-sold and closely targeted.

It may be interesting to consider that, even if conversion was only at 0.031% across the 20 sites selected, the traffic levels stated would indicate 21,823 sales per year across the 20 sites in the sample.

A standard price of £350 GBP per essay through this route would also suggest total business revenue of just £8 million GBP per year.

Both of the figures for the number of essays sold and the amount of revenue going through the industry are still substantial, but they are way below the values typically quoted in the media. It may be that the media figures are being inflated to make the industry seem more substantial than it is.

 

Thoughts About The Size Of The Essay Industry

The figures and estimates used in this article are crude and allow elements of this post have a scientific grounding, the estimates cannot be considered complete or scientific.

There is scope for a more thorough and scientific analysis of the shape of the essay industry.

For this to be more complete, this needs to analyse the different routes that students can use to get assignments produced for them and the typical size of orders through those routes. The pricing models used in the essay industry are varied and my feeling is that this will show a sizeable low end and higher end market for essay writing services.

A more complete method of estimating the number of large suppliers of essays is also needed, bearing in mind that many smaller websites are really just shells of larger websites (that is, they may be advertising the same supplier, but under a different name for marketing purposes).

Even my crude analysis indicates a lower bound of the size of the essay industry of £10 million GBP per year. Adding in the long-tail of essay orders through other routes, a value of £20 million GBP per year sounds likely and a value of £50 million per year would still fall within sensible scientific boundaries. But estimates of £100 million GBP per year and £200 million GBP per year look unlikely (and the idea that the business was at £200 million GBP in 2006 looks ludricious.

I’m happy to stick with my preferred quote that the essay market is annually selling “tens of millions”.

 

This article is part of a series of posts looking at the developments in contract cheating over the past 10 years. Take a look at the other parts of the 10 in 10 contract cheating series.

A Decade Of Contract Cheating – The Growth Of Essay Outsourcing To Fiverr.com

10 In 10 Contract Cheating Series – Part 6

This is the sixth in a 10 part series looking at the changes that have surrounded contract cheating since the term was first publicised in a research paper and presentation in June 2006.

 

The Agency Site Model For Contract Cheating

When I first published and presented on contract cheating, the wider research centered around the agency site model, a visible process of auction, where students gave details of the work that they wanted completing and third parties bid financially to complete the work for them.

The agency site model is still visibly in operation, although it is now only one of a large number of ways that students are using to outsource their work.

In many cases, the agency site process is not as visible as it once was. Some requests for students to have essays written and assignments completed for them are now private, so that only the student can see the offers that they are receiving.

Essay mills have also started to use the agency site model. They solicit work from students at a set price, usually based on the number of pages, then use an internal competitive auction process, whereby their workers compete to be the lowest bidder and to “win” the opportunity to complete the work for the student.

Extending beyond the traditional work looking at Freelancer.com, Rentacoder.com and other agency sites, I’ve started to look at some of the more hidden services that students are using for contract cheating.

 

The Joys Of Fiverr.com

I’ve mentioned Fiverr in several of my talks and indeed first recorded a video looking at the ease of contract cheating through Fiverr.com back in 2012.

Since that time, the amount of cheating going on through Fiverr.com has grown substantially.

Like many other agency sites that students are using for contract cheating, at the face of it, Fiverr.com operates under a legitimate business model. Fiverr is a site where workers advertise services that they are willing to complete for $5 USD and up. When the site first launched, all Fiverr services were $5 USD each, but changes to the market have led to sellers being able to charge more to add further components to the order or to provide faster delivery.

Many of the offers available are useful or humorous. You can hire someone at the other side of the world to sing Happy Birthday to you over the Internet, or get a graphic designer to develop a new business logo. But offers for academic work are also visible across the site.

A search of Fiverr.com for the term “essay writing” shows 821 different offers matching this search term. An example showing the first screen of returned search results is included below:

fiverressays

All of the top matches are clear examples of contract cheating, with advertising like “I will professionally write your essay“, “I will offer academic writing services“, an offer to “do math” and the statement “I will write a 600 word history related essay“. On Fiverr.com, as begun to be the case elsewhere, niche advertising of subjects and specialities is visible. The image provided by one advertiser promises 2 1/2 hour delivery.

A more detailed analysis of the 821 results also shows some offers of the related areas of proof reading and essay tutoring. Despite this, it is clear that most of the 921 results are from individual writers and writing agencies. A quick look at the more detailed adverts for the 12 sellers shown in the image shows offers of “plagiarism-free work” and several with substantial numbers of previous reviews (the highest being 296 reviews). This suggests that the volume of contract cheating going through Fiverr.com is substantial.

821 providers is also likely to be an underestimate of the capacity available to help student cheating that is available on Fiverr.com. Other searches, such as a look for “term papers” provide further results, as do requests for “assignments“, as well as more specialist subject terms like “computer programming“. As with many contract cheating providers, there are also offers to provide PowerPoint slides for student presentations, to attend online tests and exams on behalf of the student and even services aimed at time-stretched academics and researchers.

 

Beyond The Surface Of Contract Cheating On Fiverr.com

As well as the visible adverts for contract cheating services on Fiverr.com, the site also operates an alternative approach using the agency model that was prominently seen in my earlier contract cheating research.

Buyers on the site can put in a request for a task that they’d like completing. They get a series of personalised offers sent back to them. Observations suggest that these are for much lower prices than traditional essay mills would charge.

I decided to put the deeper contract cheating opportunities available on Fiverr.com to the test.

In 2015, I took part in a contract cheating investigation with the Fake Britain TV programme, shown on BBC1. One of the essay writing firms also has this conveniently archived on their site. although it’s not appropriate for me to link to it from here.

The TV programme contracted out a variant on one of my previous assignments (a 1500 to 2000 word literature review) to see how easy this assignment would be to cheat on. After a £275 payment, the TV programme received a professionally formatted document. This process took just three days. And, as the quote from me which was used on TV attests, I saw this as a good piece of work and worth a mark of around 65%.

I also ran the literature review through Turnitin. There was no evidence of unoriginality, which is the benefit of hiring a third party writer. There were a few small indications that this was produced by a non-native English speaker, but in the world of anonymous marking and where imperfections in work would be expected, this would not be likely to raise any alarm bells.

That particular assignment of mine is now retired (and actually already had a few differences to the ones I’d used in class to make it more TV friendly). I’ve never reused assignments anyway. What I have done is to follow student behaviour and use Fiverr.com to get price quotes for completing the same assignment. Like students requesting work do today, I deliberately provided only an overview of the assignment, along with a request for academic sources and that the work should be plagiarism free. I also used the offers already visible on the site to suggest what I thought would be an appropriate price point ($20 USD). I also asked for a three day turnaround to model the time taken by the TV investigation.

Even as a long-standing researcher in the field, the results I received back still surprised me!

 

16 Direct Contract Cheating Offers

Requests for custom orders on Fiverr.com are sent out directly to likely workers. These workers then have the opportunity to provide a custom quotation (a pricing bid) to complete the work. Some workers go further and also provide an associated pitch about why they should be chosen. As you may expect, a lot more information about the prospective hire can also be viewed, including their profile page, previous review comments and the details of the standard services that they advertise they are providing.

The number of custom responses provided is limited to the first people to reply. I believe that the maximum is 15 custom offers. One worker actually provided me with two offers (with different pricing depending on how quickly I wanted my custom paper back), so I consider that 16 personalised offers from 15 providers. Although I didn’t monitor exactly how long it took to receive the offers, all of the slots were filled within a few hours (not a huge surprise to me due to the essay writing capacity visible on Fiverr.com).

The 16 offers received had fees ranging from $5 USD to $50 USD, with an average (mean) of $25.59 USD. 9 of the 16 offers (56.25%) came in at exactly the $20 USD price point that I’d suggested.

The turnaround times offered were between 1 and 3 days. 5 of the 16 offers (31.25%) also included free revisions in their pricing, with 2 of the 16 (12.5%) offering unlimited revisions. Although the other providers did not complete the revisions field, the escrow system in use at Fiverr.com means that the worker does not receive the money until they have delivered a satisfactory service, so an element of protection and an expectation of revisions already exists.

The providers who responded were spread around the world, with their stated countries including Australia, India, Pakistan, Kenya and the United States. Those largely match the expected demographics of essay providers as seen in previous studies. Although the majority of the unique bidders (6 out of 15, 40%) stated that they were in the United States, this also has to be viewed with caution. Advertising a US presence could also be seen as a good marketing ploy and there appear to be ways to get Fiverr accounts approved at the same time as hiding a real country of origin. In one of these US advertised cases, the associated English did not seem to me to be that of a native speaker.

4 of the 15 bidders (26.7%) provided personalised text along with their offer, focusing on the pricing or assignment details. A further 2 out of the 15 bidders (13.3%) filled in that field, but the text did not clearly relate to the project (for instance, one of these was offering to provide web content, rather than academic work). This likely shows workers who are quickly bidding for a large number of opportunities.

One area that may be of particular concern is that 2 of the 15 bidders (13.3%) making personalised offers also said that they would provide the Turnitin report for their work. There is a black market operating that provides access to Turnitin and which adds another big selling point to the arsenals of custom paper writers.

A closer examination of the profiles of the bidders revealed several with excellent credentials. On average, they had 21.4 reviews for previous work, including one provider with 136 reviews and claiming to hold an MBA. Another advertised their specialisation as writing medical and nursing papers. One provider advertised themselves as working in academia in a research field. Another pushed their use of up-to-date sources (as older sources can ring alarm bells in some academic fields). A further worker offered to send samples of the academic work that they were currently completing for others, something that may be of concern to anyone currently hiring them and expecting anonymity.

Only 12 out of the 15 unique bidders (80%) advertised essay writing work on their profile. The others bid for the work but did not already offer it. This suggests that the number of workers available to write essays on Fiverr.com may be much higher than those who are actively advertising to do so.

 

Should Fiverr.com Be Of Concern To The Academic Communities Interested In Contract Cheating?

This initial look at the contract cheating taking place on Fiverr.com has revealed another large section of the contract cheating market that has quietly begun operating.

Several of the people bidding to complete the literature review for me looked suitable for hire, having good credentials, proof of having delivered to previous customers and low price points (a fraction of the amount paid to an essay mill in the previous study with Fake Britain).

Although I have not had the work completed, the indicators are that there are several writers able to produce high quality work. It may also be the case that the writers students are able to directly connect with here would otherwise be working as the backbone of an essay mill.

A big lesson here is that the contract cheating industry is continuing to evolve. Although some companies charge relatively high prices and can profit off the back of students, there are other emerging technologies that connect students directly with writers and agencies for much lower costs.

There is no easy way to detect contract cheating using Fiverr.com, so this is where continued work on preventative approaches to contract cheating is needed.

 

This article is part of a series of posts looking at how the contract cheating world has changed over the past 10 years. Take a look at the other parts of the 10 in 10 contract cheating series here

 

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