‘Essay mills’ are bringing cheating into the digital age, and we should all be worried

More and more countries are making such services illegal, but snuffing them out won't be easy

PA Wire
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Offering essay-writing services to students and selling them pre-written work is increasingly being made illegal in some parts of the world. It is already a criminal offence in countries such as the US, NZ and Ireland. And earlier this year, the UK government passed the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill, making it a criminal offence to offer cheating services, commonly known as essay mills. In short, the legislation makes it illegal to provide contract cheating services.

The contract cheat is a nefarious hired hand, often unknown to the person engaging their services. Contract cheating essentially involves outsourcing academic work – paying someone to write an essay, research report or even a whole doctoral dissertation. Such services are increasingly easy to find, with essay mills popping up all over the internet. Some sites even brazenly offer their services as being "100 per cent plagiarism free".

A large multinational study published in Frontiers in Education in 2018 reported that the rate of college students using such services was as high as 15.7 per cent, with a marked increase over the past few decades. Contract cheating is big business, and those offering such services advertise aggressively on social media and other web-based channels.

The rate of college students using such services was as high as 15.7 per cent, with an increase over the past few decades

Many of these essay mills attempt to project a veneer of respectability, promoting their contract cheating service as a legitimate study aid. Other operators make no such attempted pretence, blatantly touting the speed and quality (deceptiveness) of their services, even offering money-back guarantees. The whole racket runs the risk of normalising the notion of cheating. Purchasing stationery and textbooks is normal. Buying essays is not.

Academic misconduct is nothing new. However, the internet has changed the nature of the game. For example, plagiarism – copy-paste piracy – is much easier to do in the information age. In an increasingly connected world, where vast archives of information are so easily accessible, the temptation to copy and pass work off as original can prove irresistible. However, thanks to automated and increasingly sophisticated plagiarism detection services, such as SafeAssign and Turnitin, acts of copying are much easier to detect.

In recent years, several prominent figures have been accused of academic dishonesty and retroactively stripped of their degrees. Last year, for instance, Luxembourg's Prime Minister Xavier Bettel was discovered to have plagiarised large parts of his 1998 postgraduate dissertation in public law and political science. Only two of the dissertation's 56 pages were plagiarism free. Under threat of consequences from his former university, Mr Bettel, opted to give up his diploma.

Luxembourg's Prime Minister Xavier Bettel, left, and France's President Emmanuel Macron speak to the media as they arrive for an EU summit in Brussels, on October 20, 2022. AP

Mr Bettel is not alone. Pal Schmitt, resigned as President of Hungary in 2012 after being stripped of his doctorate by Semmelweis University in Austria over allegations of plagiarism related to his 1992 dissertation. Similarly, in 2013, Annette Schavan, Germany's former education and research minister, had her academic accolade rescinded after instances of plagiarism were detected in her doctoral work. Former US senator John E Walsh was stripped of his Master's degree for the same reason. The list goes on, and it is generally only those in public office that we hear about.

Those students using essay mills today, contract cheating their way through college, need to rethink. Technology that can conclusively establish the origins and authorship of any work will soon be readily available. AI algorithms can already accurately identify and differentiate individuals based on writing style. For example, a 2019 study published in the Harvard Data Science Review discusses how such technology has been used to identify the authorship of disputed content – from Ronald Reagan's speeches to The Beatles' songs so why not the origins of student essays?

How many future politicians and business leaders will have their academic credentials rescinded based on the application of tomorrow's technology to essays written and bought today?

Consider the once-celebrated cyclist Lance Armstrong, who was banned for life and stripped of his medals (seven Tour de France titles) long after he had won them. Such retroactive detection is possible because the governing bodies of sports and athletics typically store the urine and blood samples for competitive athletes for at least a decade. These governing bodies know that tomorrow's technology will allow them to retest samples for performance enhancers that are, today, undetectable. Likewise, many universities hold copies of student work for decades, even centuries. But, again, who knows what tomorrow's technologies will be able to uncover?

The UK government's move to try and curtail the activities of the essay mills is welcome. However, making this effective will require other nations to join the chorus. Even more critical, internet platforms must do more to prevent these contract cheating services from pedalling their wares in the first place. Inaction on this issue will gravely undermine our education systems with society-wide negative implications. When cheats prosper, nations suffer.

Published: November 02, 2022, 9:00 AM