Illegal essay-writing services: don’t get sucked in

Tempted by an ad promising “help” with your university assignment? Don’t take the bait.

Student assignment marked with pen.

Place your order and get “a superb, high quality paper that is grammatically correct, well researched and most importantly plagiarism free!”, the Trade Me listing promised. A quick online payment and your essay would be on its way to your inbox.

The fly in the ointment? Not only is it illegal to advertise essay-cheating “services”, if you get caught using one, you may have to kiss goodbye to your qualification.

Businesses that provide work for purchase are called “essay mills”. Their stock in trade is targeting students with ads touting quick turn-around on assignments-to-order.

Trade Me head of trust and safety George Hiotakis said the three listings we found for essay-cheating shouldn't have been on the site and removed them. However, four days later, the trader had put almost identical listings back up. Mr Hiotakis said the person had since been banned from Trade Me.

Money trail

Despite being illegal, essay cheating services have been making good money.

In 2018, five traders linked to the assignment4u website paid more than $2 million in a settlement with police for providing essays to students in New Zealand. Court documents showed two of the traders took in $4.7 million. Police believed 11,549 assignments were sold for about $400 each.

It’s easy to find other sites offering similar deals. Sites advertising on Facebook tout 1000-word essays from $83. Many offer “premium writers” for an extra fee.

Posing as a student, we were able to purchase a first-year university essay for $85 from essaywritingnz, a service claiming to be the “best writing service in NZ!”.

Posing as a student, we were able to purchase a first-year university essay for $85 from essaywritingnz, a service claiming to be the “best writing service in NZ!”. The ghostwriter boasted a five-star rating based off 63 completed papers and claimed he’d worked as an academic tutor for four years and had an education degree.

The essay we got back had poor grammar and spelling. It also had major issues with structure and referencing of sources.

The ghostwriter wasn’t just bluffing about his competence. The profile photo he used was lifted from a Boston dental graduate. When we contacted the Boston man, he said he had nothing to do with ghostwriting and had no idea his photo was being used.

The deception doesn’t stop there. Despite hundreds of websites advertising ghostwriting services, a 2018 study published in the International Journal for Educational Integrity found many sites shared identical PayPal information, phone numbers and internet provider (IP) addresses.

Caught out

Plagiarism cases are increasing, according to figures we obtained under the Official Information Act. Across all universities, there were 856 misconduct cases recorded in 2019, up 13% from 2017. More than half related to plagiarism, passing someone else’s work off as your own.

Based on student population, the University of Waikato had the highest rate of plagiarism reported – 1.08% in 2018, compared with the average of 0.34% for the other institutes that provided data.

Students caught cheating not only fail their paper but also risk getting kicked out of university.

Universities New Zealand chief executive Chris Whelan said universities take academic integrity “extremely seriously” and “are confident that cheating is not widespread”.

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Across all universities, there were 856 misconduct cases recorded in 2019, up 13% from 2017. More than half of these were related to plagiarism.

However, University of Waikato senior law lecturer Dr Myra Williamson thinks the problem is probably bigger than official figures show.

Dr Williamson began studying essay cheating after experiencing the problem teaching in Kuwait. She came across cheating “every semester, to the point where it was a bit of a joke”.

“I got to a lecture once and pulled out one paper after another and started reading out the same paragraph ... it was clear a number of people had gone to the same service and brought essays from the same person.”

She believes the penalty here isn’t enough to deter companies from selling fake essays. Under the Education Act, the maximum fine for advertising or providing cheating services is $10,000.

“The assignment4u case is the closest we have ever come to prosecution and the money involved was astronomical ... there are millions of dollars involved yet the act only states a fine of $10,000, which would not really put off a commercial entity,” she said.

In November, Dr Williamson gave a presentation on her research at the University of Waikato’s annual LearnFest education conference. The audience was asked if they’d ever received a piece of work they suspected was not completed by the student. Out of 24 people in the audience who answered, 17 said yes.

However, these cases may never be reported because lecturers feel it’s too difficult to prove.

Associate professor Cath Ellis, from the University of New South Wales, thinks many cases of suspected cheating are put in the too-hard basket.

In 2018, associate professor Ellis worked with Australian researchers to survey more than 1100 academic staff and 14,000 students in the largest study to date on cheating. “Our research found that around two-thirds of academics who responded had suspected that a piece of work they had marked had not been written by the student. But only about half of them went on to report their suspicions,” she said.

Reading between the lines

Life may soon become harder for essay mills and students thinking of trying their luck by submitting a fake assignment.

Associate professor Ellis said she’s working with plagiarism-detection software developer Turnitin to design tools that will make it easier to detect cheating.

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New “authorship investigation” software has been developed to assess whether a student’s work is their own by comparing it with the student's past assignments scanned through Turnitin.

Turnitin software is already routinely used by institutions to scan essays for plagiarised content. The company said a new “authorship investigation” tool has been developed to assess whether a student’s work is their own by comparing it with the student's past assignments scanned through Turnitin.

Authorship product manager Mark Ricksen believes that, within the next 10 or 20 years, technology will develop to the point where “institutions will probably be able to go back and prove which assignments have been purchased”.

Cheating could also come back to haunt students in other ways, he said.

Mr Ricksen said he’s heard of cases where students have been blackmailed by cheating services.

“In some cases, they decide to extort students for more money after the initial payment. It is incredibly risky for [students] to engage in this behaviour online and I think people need to be aware of that risk.”

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