For decades, students in U.S. colleges and universities have been on the receiving end of a repeated sermon from their professors: Don’t cheat.
Backed up by academic integrity codes, online plagiarism detectors, and potentially severe academic sanctions, schools have utilized a variety of mechanisms to try to scare students straight and to encourage them to submit their own work.
However, what about when students submit work that is originally written? Just not originally written by them.
Contract cheating, “where students recruit a third party to undertake their assignments,” has reportedly been on the rise, according to a recent review by Swansea University Medical School professor Phil Newton.
Data indicates that from 2014 to present, approximately 16 percent of students paid someone else to complete an assignment for them, the equivalent of 31 million students around the world. Now, some believe these numbers are at least partially attributable to the globalization of the essay mill industry.
How Do Essay Mills Work?
Type the term “essay mill” into a digital search engine and a myriad of companies come up, providing students who are considering engaging in contract cheating with a wide array of potential service providers.
Avery Morgan, senior editor at EduBirdie, a “professional essay writing service for students who can’t even,” explained how the company operates to The College Post over email.
Created in 2015 and boasting “the largest base of professional writers around the world,” in Morgan’s words, patrons of the website experience a four step process. They fill out an order form with the details of their assignment, select their writer from a plethora of profiles, put down a deposit, prompting the writer to start working on the paper, and then release the money to the writer upon completion.
According to Morgan, each EduBirdie writer undergoes a series of tests to prove that “they are seasoned and professional” to assure users of the service that they are receiving a high-quality product.
“Our funnel model weeds out unqualified applicants and by the end of the tests, less than 8 percent of all applicants make it through to the next phase,” Morgan told The College Post. “EduBirdie asks for a diploma as a proof of higher education and a copy of their ID for verification.”
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The price that students pay for their final product can fluctuate based on a variety of factors as well. While EduBirdie’s pricing model starts at $18 per page for an essay, page length and shorter deadlines can drive these numbers up. Writers with more experience also cost more for users to hire.
“The category of work does not influence the cost but deadline and number of pages do,” Morgan said. “For example, an essay due in seven days will cost around $23 per page, while an essay due in 20 days will cost around $18 per page.”
Finally, in response to academic crackdowns on contract cheating and to alleviate doubts customers might have that their commissioned work is entirely original, an anti-plagiarism tool is embedded into the site itself.
“We have a professional grade plagiarism checker built within our website,” Morgan said. “This technology is the exact same that teachers use when they check to see if a student’s work is their own … It works every time.”
Strategically Marketing to Students
While students paying others to complete assignments for them is nothing new, a variety of sophisticated online marketing strategies have begun to transform essay-mill companies into a robust international industry.
Susan Rowland and Christine Slade, professors at the University of Queensland, analyzed these strategies in their recent research article, “‘Just turn to us’: the persuasive features of contract cheating websites.”
While some students might oppose cheating under any circumstances, certain external pressures have to potential to make others increasingly vulnerable to and likely to engage in these academically-dishonest behaviors.
“These pressures include isolation, financial distress, difficulty with understanding required tasks, difficulty functioning in academic English, health issues (mental or otherwise), insufficient access to tools or technology, peer group pressure, and time stress,” Rowland told The College Post in an email.
Therefore, as stated in their article, “if a contract cheating website is to persuade a non-cheating student to cheat, the site must help the student overcome the conflict between the act of cheating and their perception of themselves as a person of integrity.”
So far, according to Rowland and Slade’s research, these websites have achieved this through persuasive features among four different dimensions: Informativeness, credibility, involvement and reciprocity.
While strategies to promote credibility were most frequently utilized by the websites that the researchers sampled, Rowland and Slade found that the presence of “involvement” components in satisfying the safety needs of students were powerful influencers as well.
“Humans have a fundamental need for safety and a sense of belongingness,” Rowland said. “The websites provide this through engaging personally (and emotionally) with potential users. They provide avenues for the students to engage directly with representatives of the company (particularly through chat features) … This is a powerful appeal to a visceral human requirement and it is understandable that students gravitate towards this.”
By rarely addressing “the idea that using their services may create problems for the student who purchases material,” Rowland and Slade’s article also points out how bringing up the potential for unfortunate consequences to occur seems to be avoided at all costs.
Finally, the research highlights that contract cheating websites commonly appeal to students who are “short of time,” “distressed,” or “overloaded,” a tactic that Morgan confirmed.
“Workplace burnout was just declared an official syndrome by the World Health Organization,” Morgan said. “We’re glad that there is now recognition for this issue – but it does extend past the workplace into the lives of students. EduBridie aims to take some of the burden off of the overworked student body.”
Colleges, Corporations and Governments Respond
In response to the recent rise in contract cheating, 17 states across the U.S. have submitted or passed legislation to crack down on the operation of essay mills. Various countries, including New Zealand, Ireland and Australia have followed suit.
Meanwhile, multiple schools have turned to corporate actors such as Turnitin to identify instances of contract cheating among members of their student bodies.
As opposed to traditional plagiarism cases where a student might try and claim someone else’s work or ideas as their own, until now, it has been much easier for incidents of contract cheating to fly under the radar.
“Contract cheating is difficult to identify and prevent because the submitted work is technically original writing, which means that it cannot always be detected by traditional plagiarism prevention solutions,” a representative from Turnitin told The College Post in an email. “Additionally, in large classes, instructors may not be deeply familiar with individual students’ writing styles and skills, which makes it challenging for an instructor to make a determination about the authorship of an assignment.”
In accordance with its organizational commitment to protecting the value of higher education, coupled with growing customer demand, Turnitin began developing and testing a potential solution to contract cheating in 2016, partnering with several institutions in the UK, Australia and North America along the way.
As a result, the company officially released Authorship Investigate to the public in March, the first education technology solution to assist college administrators in dealing with contract cheating.
First product to address #contractcheating is released by @Turnitin. Authorship Investigate helps gather the evidence needed to investigate contract cheating. https://t.co/AQ7pyvVGYO
— Turnitin (@Turnitin) March 13, 2019
Using linguistic attributes like sentence complexity and sentence length, along with forensic linguistic best practices, the software searches for outliers and suspicious qualities in submitted documents like abnormal formatting, varying fonts and a student demonstrating more or less knowledge that expected, according to the representative from Turnitin
While the software on its own does not make a direct determination of authorship, the representative said it can help determine if an investigation is warranted and act as “a tool to help streamline the investigation process.”
“Users report that Authorship Investigate helps save investigators significant time in preparing and gathering evidence for a contract cheating investigation,” the representative from Turnitin said. “A process that used to take days or weeks can now be done in minutes.”
Despite the creation of new innovations to counter contract cheating, as knowledge has become increasingly commoditized in the internet age, Rowland said students continuing to turn to online resources out of convenience is not necessarily surprising.
“In a competitive world where students need to mix their education with work, commuting, volunteering, career duties, and a small amount of leisure time, it’s understandable that sometimes people turn to sites that offer help in a time of need,” Roland said. “After all, that’s what the sites say – ‘just turn to us.’”