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”.

Contract Cheating and Essay Mills 2017 Findings Part 1 – Academic Integrity and Contract Cheating Terminology

This is Part 1 of the 7 part series examining Findings From Plagiarism Across Europe and Beyond 2017

One of the main challenges to emerge from the Plagiarism Across Europe and Beyond conference from an understanding point of view related to problems with the terminology used across the field. Therefore, I’ve selected a discussion of the issues as a slightly unusual place to launch this blog post series reviewing the conference findings.

The Lack of Terminology

There were several occasions during the conference when the lack of a consistent terminology caused problems. Contract cheating was noted to not be a common term in the Czech Republic and some presenters substituted ghostwriting. The panel discussion noted that the term ghostwriting was rather flawed in this context, since this automatically assumes that work produced through contract cheating is of the written form. Many disciplines do not use essays and reports, or rarely use them, but contract cheating is equally applicable to a student requesting a musical composition, a set of PowerPoint slides or the source code for a computer program.

One member of the audience thought that contract cheating had only recently become known about in Canada and was not aware of the volume of research and practical advice on the subject. The pre-conference programme had made it clear that there were multiple sessions on the topic at the conference, including two of the keynotes. This suggests that there is still much more work to do to spread the message about this form of academic misconduct.

One presentation used the term “contract cheaters” to refer to the writers providing assignments for students. To me, the “cheaters’ have always been the students receiving the work, so that terminology is difficult. I’ve tended to use “workers” to describe the writers, particularly as this term does not preclude non-written assessments. There are further complications when the person or company paid to complete an assignment is not the same person who completes it and I’ve identified many such examples during my research. The term “academic writer” was also noted to be used by people in the trade, although that rather lends the profession legitimacy.

The Use of the Term Exams

The term “exams” also proved to be difficult. I’d observed this causing problems during the SEEPPAI research I’ve been involved with and based on some discussions, it seemed that the same different interpretations were happening with some delegates at the conference. I interpret exams (or examinations) as being the tests taken by students, usually in a controlled environment. It seems that some countries say exams when they want to represent the entire set of assessment making up a module or course, even if this is solely graded through coursework. My talk also showed an example where a student said they were attempting to outsource the completion of an exam for them. They were actually asking for the production of a set of PowerPoint slides.

Further Developments

I may have inadvertently further added to the overall confusion. I presented a session that looked at contract cheating when applied to an examination setting. There are many such examples when this terminology is valid, for instance when a student hires a third party to complete an online examination for them.

I suspect that it’s getting to the point where a full taxonomy of terms relating to academic integrity and contract is needed. Older papers may even need to be reworked in light of a fresh annotated bibliography that has such an agreed taxonomy in place.

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 – Examining The Changes That Have Been Made To The Marketplace For Bespoke Essays

10 In 10 Contract Cheating Series – Part 1

Welcome to the first in a new 10 part series looking back at contract cheating.

It’s now 10 years since I delivered the first conference paper and presentation on contract cheating, so it seems like a perfect opportunity to look back at some of the developments in contract cheating that have happened during that time period.

To kick this off, I was very happy to deliver an extended presentation at the Coventry University Conference, looking particularly at the question about how and why contract cheating sites, essay mills and ghostwriting services have increased their visibility during this time period.

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

As my first talk in front of a new audience, there was an interesting and lively discussion, with several people wanting more details about contract cheating, its prevalence and the type of students involved (all areas which I didn’t focus on during this talk). There were also questions regarding the legalities of contract cheating services. Unfortunately, most companies position their services so that the service they are offering is legal.

The talk looked particularly at the marketing behind the sites which has led to their increased prominence, all areas which I plan to look into in more detail in other parts of the 10 in 10 contract cheating series.

Exploring The Role Of Indian Workers In The Contract Cheating Market For Essays And Assignments Video Post

There is evidence that workers from India are included in the set of people helping students to commit contract cheating. Although this isn’t an area that we’ve drawn particular attention to in our research, we have been asked by the media to comment on the Indian connection many times in recent years, including in this 2016 article from the Hindustan Times and in this 2016 article from the International Business Times.

The Indian market is one of a number of economies where students can find a writer, programmer or worker willing to complete their work for them. From an economic point of view, a worker of this type can be employed for a price that is cost-effective for the student, but also provides a reasonable wage for the contractor. There are also workers available with a high level of English language ability for written work and technical skills for computing work.

I explore some of the issues related to the international supply of workers, including those workers from India, in this video.

In the video, I also look at an example of a request observed on an outsourcing web site of a student asking to have a statistical assignment completed for them. This falls within the group of assignments which can be completed without necessarily having a perfect knowledge of English.

Out of the 20 people who bid to complete the work for the assignment, 15% of them (3 out of 20), stated in their profile that they were from India. This was the most common country represented, although countries worldwide, with a slight dominance for Asia and Africa, were visible.

One of the Indian bidders had completed 37 projects on the site, of which the majority looked to be Computing assignments. This does demonstrate a subset of workers from India who are using contract cheating as a source of income.

Of course, this example covers only of one assignment, quickly selected, and one worker. A more in-depth analysis would be needed to explore further trends. But, it does appear that the media attention is warranted and there are Indian workers contributing to help students to cheat – just as there are other nationalities doing likewise.