How to combat ‘custom essay’ plagiarism
Most people will be familiar with the custom essay concept – where a student gives a company their essay question and gets an exact answer back which is written from scratch and fully referenced, ready for them to hand in or "use as a guide', as the companies would tell you. The essays are written by researchers who are freelancers on the essay company's books.
By doing the work for students, companies like these are undermining the value of degrees at all levels in the UK; and perhaps the most shocking thing is that they assist students in any discipline – these could be the nurses, doctors or healthcare professionals who we might encounter in the future.
The main contenders
One of the biggest providers of custom essays is All Answers, a UK company that operates two main websites – ukessays.com and lawteacher.net – and quite a number of smaller sites (use SpyOnWeb if you want a list). They are a limited company and their annual turnover is around £5 million. Their flagship site UKEssays.com alone attracted 7.3 million unique visitors over the past year (2.2 million from the UK) and Law Teacher had a further 2.4 million unique visitors (1.6 from the UK alone). All Answers offers students custom written essays, dissertations, coursework, reports – any type of academic writing order – ranging from A-level through to undergraduate, masters and even PhD. and in 2012 they fulfilled 11,470 orders, with around 75% of those being placed from UK IP addresses.
They have also completed a number of PhDs over the years for students, and as you might expect, these involve a lot of work – typically the customer sends over a huge number of books which get mailed to the researcher and the researcher has to write many drafts of each section, wait for feedback from the tutor through the customer and then revise them. A typical price for a PhD would be £20,000 and students do genuinely pay this. All Answers still claim that PhDs are written as a guide to help students complete their own work, despite the fact that they require original research and thought.
The reason All Answers has managed to drive so much traffic to its websites and attract the number of students that it does is because they operate a free plagiarism scanner called Viper which they advertise on a separate website scanmyessay.com and they use this to harvest student essays which they later publish on their various sites. This has enabled them to grow their sites to huge repositories of free student information on which they advertise their custom essay writing service. Scanmyessay.com got 107,000 unique visits over the past year – it is a very popular siteBy using the free scanner, students are giving up the rights to their essay in 9 months time (see the page "scanmyessay.com/viper-use-essay.php'). This is not an uncommon model for free plagiarism software these days - understandably, as use of search APIs is not free so the company designing the software needs something in return.
There are two other main UK competitors to All Answers – Ivory Research and Oxbridge Essays [Edit: Ivory Research have now closed down]. Both have filed public accounts and from these, the writer would estimate between them they process a further 4,000 orders a year. On top of this, there are many websites that claim to be UK-based but are not. As these are run by people in other parts of the World who don't provide any legitimate company information, there's no way of knowing how much business these sites do, but they do command some good search engine positions and no doubt they attract a lot of UK students.
Helping students to cheat?
A large proportion of the students using these services are ESL (English Second Language), i.e. international students studying in the UK. Many of these struggle to put their thoughts and ideas across, or to interpret their course material/lectures. From this, it would not be surprising if a lot of students use the work to cheat, as they would really struggle to reword the work. However, those working at All Answers are obliged to make the case for the legitimate use of the service and encourage customers to go on and use the marking service having rewritten their own work. Although they have previously stated very publicly that they would be willing to work with universities to stamp out dishonest use of their service, this would of course be problematic for the universities in many ways. Further, the offer was as follows: if universities stop telling students not to use them, the only compromise All Answers would be willing to make is to set up an alternative "honest' service that submitted the papers they wrote for students to Turnitin. This would be an optional choice for the student and would be in addition to their "dishonest' service which they would never stop running.
A lack of support
All Answers are certainly not the only body to blame for the size of the custom essay industry in the UK - the universities themselves have a part to play. Many universities can waive the minimum standard of English requirements for international students. Since international students attract higher fees, it is in the University's interest to do this. So many of All Answers' customers are studying for a degree but struggle with the English language (evident when they email the company). It raises the question of how much additional support international students are given at their universities where they are struggling to understand their course or structure their coursework because of having English as their second language. The writer's experience is that this is extremely limited due to budgetary constraints. The fact of universities taking on more international students with language constraints and providing little additional support has been one of the biggest driving forces behind the growth of the custom essay industry, in the writer's opinion.
Detecting plagiarism in custom essays
The biggest problem with custom essays is that they are, on the face of it, undetectable. They have been written to answer the student's exact question and so if put through a plagiarism scanner, they will usually come up clean. Of course, that doesn't mean lecturers shouldn't be scanning the essays because sometimes the writers who work for All Answers and the other companies will reuse their old material and chunks of the work (or the reference list) will show up matching an essay that has been submitted previously. Every academic institution should have a Turnitin subscription – no other program comes close in its ability to detect plagiarism.
But after that, the most important thing is for lecturers to know their students' writing and ability. Many of the students are ESL and this really shows in their writing. If they hand in the work of someone who isn't ESL (and most of All Answers' writers are not ESL - those that are can write to a fluent standard), it ought to be obvious. They could take measures to help them get to know their students' writing style – for example, at the start of the course, they should email each student asking a number of questions, to get an idea of their writing style, level of English and ability. After an assignment has been submitted, they should briefly discuss the essay with each student to ensure the student's understanding correlates with what (hopefully) they have written. Although this isn't foolproof, the worst case is that the student has taken the time to learn the material, rather than handing something in verbatim without even reading it.
Another way is to set deadlines for drafts to be submitted prior to the actual deadline date – this helps to see how the student's work is developing. Of course, the lecturer should be a little wary if the first draft is extremely polished. Even this isn't foolproof however, as All Answers is happy to work with the customers, submitting drafts for larger assignments and then taking feedback and amending them.
Students could also be asked to work on at least part of the assignment in class. The lecturer will be able to see if it appears no real progress is being made by the student on their own.
Another interesting way to detect use of custom companies would be to develop a plagiarism scanner that compares two pieces of written work for differences in writing style (see here for a description of how this would work). Again, it would not be foolproof as All Answers is happy to give its customers the same writer for every order on request, so a student could get all their assignments done through the Company by the same writer.
Course providers could switch to a model where the coursework and the exam are worth 50% each but you must pass both at a certain level and your lowest grade counts as your overall grade. For example:
Coursework – worth 50% of total marks – must achieve 30/50 to pass course
30/50 = 2:2 level
40/50 = 2:1 level
45/50 = 1st class
Exam – worth 50% of total marks – must achieve 30/50 to pass course
30/50 = 2:2 level
40/50 = 2:1 level
45/50 = 1st class
If a student achieves 45/50 for the coursework but only 15/50 in the exam they fail. If they achieve 45/50 for the coursework and only 30/50 for the exam, the overall result is a 2:2 (the Open University uses this model for their LL.B program). Again, there are holes – a student could still cheat on all of their coursework (although they'd have to put the hours in to revise for the exam).
Perhaps the ultimate way to wipe these companies out in the UK is simpler than all of that – it is to switch to a 100% exam model. If the coursework, essays and dissertations did not count towards the student's final grade, there is no chance that they would bother forking out thousands of pounds to have someone write them. This is not to say that lecturers would never set essays or the students wouldn't have to complete them – they just wouldn't count towards the final grade and would be used as a learning tool. There would of course be a need to make exams more comprehensive, and the change would not be quick. Of course, the downside to this model is that not all students are great at sitting exams and it can become more of a memory test than a test of understanding. A way around this would be to allow open book exams (like many LPC courses) which test comprehension of the material rather than simply recollection of it. Perhaps a sensible transition would be to significantly reduce the impact of coursework and increase the impact of exams on the final grade.
Behind the essays
Another reason this issue is so pressing, is that the people writing the essays for these companies (known as "the researchers') are professionals - including teachers. The education industry is very quick to knock the custom essay companies as leaches, but there are a huge number of teaching staff making extra money this way. Other researchers are doctors, lawyers, accountants, published authors – even government employees. All Answers get thousands of applications and they are able to be quite selective about who they take on. They recruit through a website academicknowledge.com which over the past year has had 77,000 visits from the UK alone.
You might be wondering why the Government aren't doing more to stamp out this industry – after all, switching to exam-only scoring for degrees seems like a pretty simple solution to the whole problem. Nobody would pay hundreds of pounds for a custom written essay if it didn't count towards their final degree mark. Higher education falls within the remit of the Department of Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) in this country, and they don't consider themselves responsible overall for changing policy, stating that it is "primarily a matter for Higher Education Institutions as autonomous organisations". The writer was assured that they take the issue very seriously and have very clear policies in place – she was also assured that "the sanctions that universities are able to apply to students who attempt to pass off work as their own, when it is not, are serious and significant". However, the policies that are in use clearly aren't very effective or we wouldn't have a multi-million pound thriving custom essay industry where thousands upon thousands of students every year are getting away with cheating on their degree coursework undetected.
Aside from the BIS, there are two bodies who might currently be seen as responsible for the inadequate and ineffective policies: the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), which has a statutory duty to provide for the assessment of the quality of provision in institutions that it funds; and the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) which is the independent body commissioned to help fulfil that duty by reviewing how well each Higher Education Institution fulfils its responsibility to maintain academic standards and the quality of the learning opportunities that it provides. All publicly funded providers of higher education courses are expected to comply with the UK Quality Code for Higher Education, published by the QAA. The Quality Code sets out Expectations which Higher Education providers are required to meet to ensure that appropriate and effective teaching, support, assessment. One of the requirements of the Quality Code is for Higher Education Institutions to operate processes for preventing, identifying, investigating and responding to unacceptable academic practice. They are also required to ensure that students do not obtain awards through any form of unacceptable academic practice relating to assessment – including plagiarism. All providers which attract public funding are subject to external quality assurance reviews by the QAA to ensure they are meeting those expectations. However, since All Answers and its competitors are growing businesses that thrive on repeat custom (the bulk of All Answers' custom is from this very source), it is clear that the processes in place are ineffective and the sanctions are therefore meaningless. Customers use them time and time again, passing off the work as their own and achieving better grades than they deserve. The only real solution seems to be an exam-only grading scheme to be introduced, and for this to be implemented it would be necessary for the BIS to remove some of the autonomy that has been afforded to Higher Education Institutions and develop a more universal policy. It would be a huge upheaval for our education system but it would be worth it to give back the value to our degrees.
With thanks to Louise Blyth, BIS Ministerial Correspondence Unit, the Department of Business Innovation and Skills and Fiona Laundy, Ministerial and Public Communications Division, Department for Education.