Academic Integrity and the Management of Essay Mills

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An ever-present and increasing problem for today’s universities is the use of essay mills by the student body. Essay mills have emerged in recent years as large-scale businesses offering paid-for writing services including essays, dissertations, PhDs and other forms of assessment, all tailored to specific degrees and courses, and often with a guarantee of writing to benchmarks in order to attain a particular grade.

The scale of the problem

In August 2018 Professor Phil Newton published the results of a large-scale longitudinal survey on so-called ‘contract cheating’ in Frontiers in Education. The survey sample size was over 54,000, and revealed that since 2014 levels of contract cheating have increased from a historic average of 3.5% to current levels of 15.7%. Since the sample records only those who confess to cheating, the figure is likely to be higher. This survey followed the QAA document ‘Contracting to Cheat in Higher Education’, published in October 2017 and written by Newton and Professor Michael Draper, which outlined the issue and made a number of recommendations for higher education providers.

Whose responsibility?

The release of the QAA document and the survey has energised debate around the problem of contract cheating and its regulation, making it a live concern for university managers. In September of this year it was reported that a group of more than 40 vice-chancellors had written to the Universities Minister Sam Gyimah urging him to support Newton and Draper’s proposals for legislation that would outlaw businesses selling essay-writing services. A live petition is also underway to support this.

While the traditional response of government has been to place responsibility for policing academic cheating on universities, there are signs that changes may be afoot. In September this year the BBC reported that Sam Gyimah, Minister for Universities, has responded to the vice-chancellors’ letter by stating that “legislative options are not off the table”. In addition, in a landmark ruling, the Advertising Standards Authority recently upheld a complaint by the QAA to ban an online advert of the company All Answers Ltd /UK Essays on the grounds of misleading advertising. For the time being, however, the onus remains on universities and the student body to regulate this critical, systemic problem.

Post-hoc detection

Most universities today routinely use machine-assisted plagiarism-prevention tools such as Turnitin that work by online text and pattern-matching. But essay mills present substantial challenges to universities because their material is not itself plagiarised, but is written to order. Of course, academic staff may still detect changes in style, register, or level of writing by an individual student, but this is not a failsafe detection method, and neither can plagiarism be straightforwardly proven in such cases. Detection, therefore, is not always a robust solution to meet the specific challenges of contract cheating, although it remains essential as a means of deterring non-commercial plagiarism.

Universities can, however, put in place a number of practical measures such as restrictions on advertising opportunities within the university campus, ensuring that assessment methods are robust and not open to cheating, and strictly enforcing penalties for proven plagiarism or collusion. Most importantly, universities can ensure they take a proactive approach to reinforcing the importance of academic integrity to all its members, both staff and students.

Preventative values education

By far the most effective means of combatting plagiarism, collusion, and cheating of all sorts, including in the form of contracting a third party to cheat, remains value-driven. The QAA document cited above begins with a reminder of the definition of academic integrity by the International Center for Academic Integrity, as follows: “a commitment, even in the face of adversity, to six fundamental values: honesty, trust, fairness, respect, responsibility, and courage.” Universities uphold these and similar principles in their institutional mission and public values, and it is incumbent upon them to make these explicit to both staff and students, promoting cultures of ethical achievement rather than grade attainment.

Staff training in the extent of the problem is key to maintaining high academic standards and rewarding a culture of academic integrity, since the education of students lies in their hands. Ultimately, however, this is not just a university problem but a problem for society in general, since today’s students will go on to be not just researchers, politicians, civil servants, teachers, lawyers, and so on, but tomorrow’s citizens. How universities tackle this growing problem of contract cheating will be key, therefore, in shaping our collective futures.

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