The cheat is on

Taking a trip down the essay-mill rabbit hole. On the way, we meet an enraged university professor; pushy, assignment-salesdroids; and a shame-free essay mill retiree enjoying the fruits of her labour

Until UK law catches up with the Republic of Ireland (RoI), South Africa and Australia, essay mills, aka commercial contract cheating companies, are busy making hay – and reaping cash – with impunity in the UK.

Scourges of academic integrity, the contract cheating ‘industry’ is widespread, opaque and morally dubious. They’ve also been implicated in recent cases of blackmail, say the NUS, who’ve reported cases of students being bribed to keep contract writers from reporting their collusion direct to their universities.

But, demanding money with menaces aside, essay mills are completely legal – in 2018 it was estimated that 115,000 UK students were employing third-party writers – and driving the education sector, and student representing bodies, to distraction.

They’re banned in South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, the RoI and a number of US States. Following suit in February, former universities minister Chris Skidmore delivered a Private Members Bill hoping to get the legal ball rolling here.

There’s no guarantee that the motion – which has had a second reading and the full throated support of the Russell Group of top universities et al. – will succeed, but it has at least got the media interested and brought into sharp relief the exploitation and reputational vandalism that is a direct result of industrialised contract cheating.

So, what’s the deal with essay mills?

Cash for qualifications

Whatever the discipline, from the humanities through to, (perhaps more concerning) engineering and medicine, if a student is assigned an essay, a dissertation, even a PhD thesis they can’t (or can’t be bothered to) write themselves, an essay mill can be hired to commission a professional writer from their database – always, they promise, with a Master’s degree upwards – to deliver it.

Some will tout their wares as a form of educational support or extra tuition. Most just cut to the chase.

They’re not hard to find; just Google search ‘essay mill UK’ and the top four returns will be ads with taglines like: “We provide students with Good Grades”, “Plagiarism free” and “Excellent writing”. There’s a fee, of course, which increases with the word count and the closing of the deadline window.

Payment out of the way – Visa, American Express and Maestro all allow their logos on the sites ET visited, and many essay mills are reviewed on Trust Pilot – the finished article is yours to do with whatever you chose. In most cases that means adding your name and submitting it as your own.

The essay mills that ET contacted (more about whom later) claim their product is 100% original, with all references and quotes correctly notated and cited.

Before final delivery, the mills boast of running all their commissions through the same, or very similar, plagiarism spotting software used by the education sectors; commercially available AI packages such as Turnitin, Unicheck and Plagscan that can cross reference millions of texts and citations.

That might be reassuring for students who’ve used an “academic writer”, were it for the fact that AI software (such as Unicheck) can also determine the true authorship of the words linking the quotes, turns of phrase, sentence structures, syntax – which could, potentially, lead to students having to commission the same writer for essays throughout their degree, less they be exposed.

Cheating the epidemic

There’s little doubt that proliferation of essay mills has benefitted from the pandemic. With students confined to their rooms and studying remotely, libraries closed and limited peer and campus pastoral care on call, a skewed justification for using ‘writing services’ is thrown into sharp relief.

Last February (2021) the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) for higher education counted at least 932 essay providing sites in operation in the UK, or open to business from UK residents. That’s up from 904 in December 2020, 881 in October 2020, and 635 back in June 2018. 

Those figures are cited in Chris Skidmore’s Private Members Bill. “Their increased presence is even boasted of on a website, www.uktopwriters.com, which provides a ‘compare-the-market’ service,” he added, with some incredulity.

Unexpected dissertation in the bagging area

A cheater’s supermarket? That’s chutzpah enough to beg a visit.

Sadly, it’s not that exciting.

UKtopwriters.com is a slick, but tawdry, WordPress-generated site filled with lifted stock images, bullshit customer endorsements and made up biographies of “expert reviewers”, such as: “Timothy Spray is a (sic) associate from Oxford so can spot instantly whether an essay is using original content”. The expert’s picture bylines reveal themselves, with almost effortless research, to have been lifted from entirely unconnected websites and blogs.

Most of the links about the site itself are broken. But, amusingly, with a simple reverse image search, it appears that all of UKTopWriters’ “expert reviewers” have side-hustles as cleaners for a Glasgow-based domestic services company called Gleemly which charges £15.50 an hour.

Not a bad rate compared to the measly pennies per word most essay mill scribes (see below) can expect. And, as a bonus, house cleaning can make great copy for writers who want to hold their heads high – just ask Truman Capote.

essay mill
Image source: lookstudio/Freepik

UKTopWriters’ raison d’etre, though, is its listings. They’ve compiled 993 essay writing services – 600 with ‘.co.uk’  addresses – in their ‘Best Essay Writing Services (September 2021)’ list.

Impressive, bar the fact that fewer than 200 of the listings actually include hyperlinks.

Clicking through a random sample of the top 40 hyperlinked companies in the chart, you may be struck (I was) by just how similar they are. Might it be reasonable to posit that there aren’t quite as many essay mills in operation in the UK as feared?

Either way, comparison sites like UKTopWriters (there’s at least two other such services online) are evidence of an industrial sized threat to the academic integrity of universities everywhere and at every level of the sector.

I sent interview requests to several essay mills with contact emails. Surprisingly none replied. But I got some insight into how they work via the embedded ‘Live Chat’ functions.

Mill communication

Assuming the character of Gyp Finagle (thanks Dr. Roget) I picked 10, apparently UK-based, essay mill websites. Via Live Chat, I asked each the following question: 

Hi, I’ve been assigned to write 2,000 words on the ethics of contract cheating and essay mills. Will you write it for me? How much will it cost?”

And then rolled with it…

I suspect that my opening gambits were with an AI assistant – such as Oscar at oxessays.com, but as soon as I became more specific with my questions, I was forwarded to a human colleague, like Oliver.

Gyp 11:52

what I mean is if I hand in an assignment that I’ve said I wrote but was written by someone I hired to write it – will I be run the risk of being exposed as a cheat

Oscar 11:53

I’ll get back to you in a minute, please wait for a little, please.

Oliver 11:59

Good day! My name is Oliver and I will assist you today.

…answering the question, I asked Oscar:

Oliver 12:00

In case if you will place an order with us – that is guaranteed, that the originality of it would be saved and there is no risk to get a penalty for this work. After order will be completed – the paper is fully yours and you will have all rights on it

If any of the human operatives had asked me if I was a journalist (surely the essay title is a giveaway?)  I would be obliged to reveal I was. But, in spite of the wincing irony of my potential commission, no one did – they were simply focused on getting me to sign up. Here’s ‘Raymond’ at https://assignmentman.co.uk/:

Raymond 13:53

We have 150+ Professional writers in this field who have master’s and PhD. backgrounds. These Experts mostly consist of native English speakers from the US, the UK, and Australia. The majority of them have at least a Masters degree. If you’d like to contact the writer, you’ll be able to do so via our messaging board at any time.

Gyp Finagal 13:54

Oh right – can I just mail them? Do I have to pay you first? I’d prefer an English speaking one.


Raymond 13:54

For us to officially start working on your paper, the order should be placed and paid first.


Gyp Finagal 13:55

right. And then I can speak to the guy writing it. I just need to know they’ll spell my name correctly. A lot of people don’t


Raymond 13:57

Alright, not a problem.

Your eyes may narrow when it comes to the services they provide, but essay mills selling their wares in the UK aren’t, currently, doing anything illegal. Ethically speaking, though, there’s not that much skirting around.

In every conversation, Gyp specifically asks if it’s ok to submit work that he didn’t write as his own.

Here’s Alex (who asked me to rate his chat at the end of the conversation), aka Support Specialist 44 from UKWritings. Note his typographical wink. A cynic might translate it as conspiratorial. I think it was just flirty.

Gyp Finagle (20:37:51):

so just a matter for my own conscience who I say wrote the assignment.

 

Gyp Finagle (20:38:58):

I guess since I pay for it what does it matter, right?

 

Support Specialist ID 44 (20:39:26):

You are the only owner of the product you are buying. You may tell whatever you want, really 🙂

Gyp, naturally is concerned about the quality of the work if he proceeds with an order. Here’s Alex, again:

Gyp Finagle (20:29:12)

…It HAS to be quality – but not too quality, because I’m a bit shy and I don’t want my commissioner to ask me too many questions about the paper do you understand

 

Support Specialist ID 44 (20:30:13):

Sure, let me check the expert with my Writers Department. Just a moment, please. Also, we hire only professional writers who have at least 4 years of writing experience and hold either Masters and/or Ph.D. degree in their field of study. So, you should not worry about the quality. Finally, all our prices are fixed.

Fair enough. But how will Gyp be reassured that the work he buys is 100%, er, original? Highlighting how difficult it can be for institutions to prove contract cheating, all the essay mills I contacted said the assignment had already been investigated for plagiarism using software very similar – if not the same – to those used by colleges. 

Support Specialist ID 44 (20:32:51):

Of course. You paper will be checked with a specific software. In contrast to the free originality check that compares your paper against webpages on the internet only, the advanced one scans through a database of a billion sources, containing essays, books, journals, and other online sources. The check will basically be as enhanced as Turnitin’s similarity check.

Meanwhile, at Superiorpapers:

Toni 14:15

…We check each order with our advanced anti-plagiarism software to ensure that the paper is original and non-plagiarized.

 

Gyp Finagle 14:16

what’s the software called

Toni 14:18

That is PlagScan.

Of the sites I visited, only ukwritings.com has a listing at Companies House.

But the similarities, the copy style, the emotional button-pushing reasons for using them – “you’re stressed”, “you don’t have enough time”, “you’re not a natural writer” – between many of the platforms are such that you can’t help but wonder if many of them are just trading names of perhaps two or three larger parent companies.

Most of the sites carry ‘legal’ disclaimers at the bottom of their pages. A Google search of uksuperiorpapers.com’s own notice reveals dozens of sites using identical scripts: 

“Disclaimer: It is illegal to use the research materials ordered on this website for other than research purposes. You must quote the sources appropriately. The company bears no responsibility for the use of research work, not intended for education use, the work is sold as-is with the highest quality and service available and written by freelancers.”

The disclaimers are worded to say nothing yet somehow cover everything. Some of the sites carrying the warnings had UK web addresses, where essay farms are not illegal, others had US domains, where farms are illegal in some states, others with Australian URLS, where farms are now illegal. Again, it points to multiple essay farms operating under the umbrella of a few larger companies.

Whatever weight they carry, the disclaimers are no handicap to Toni at Superior Papers…

Gyp Finagle 14:18

Your disclaimer says I can only use the papers I buy from you for research and its not intended for education use – so is it still cool to order a paper and put my name on it? That’s kind of important – otherwise what’s the point of hiring you?

Toni 14:21

Yes, you can still put your name on it.After a certain period of time, we will use your paper for reference purposes and will not let others use it for their projects or assignments.

Gyp Finagle 14:22

right. Not sure I understand

Toni 14:23

For now, we will not use your paper as reference for other client’s assignment but after a certain period of time, we can already use it as references to their assignments.

Gyp Finagle 14:24

ok. I get it. So really it’s. aquestion for my own conscience if I pass off your work as my own – there won’t be any comeback?

Toni 14:26

Definitely not. Any information you provide will not be known by anyone else for any reason.

The elephant in the classroom

Speaking over Zoom from a book lined office at a (very) well known university in the South East, professor of political science Dr T rolls his eyes when I read him one of the transcripts.  

“The fact that they say they can hire academics for you is just depressing. I hate these essay farms, what is even the point of going to university if someone else is doing your degree for you?”

Dr T agrees that the mills are potential for huge damage to the reputation of universities. “Of course, it’s a minority of students doing this – but it’s significant. The reality is that for all the talk about academic integrity, universities, mine included, bury their heads in the sand when it happens on their own turf. It’s quite ridiculous. Everybody knows it’s going on but they’re reluctant to tackle it. The optics are bad.”

Image source: rawpixel/Freepik

Dr T has no sympathy for students who hire third-parties to do their work. But he understands what’s driving them and how they’re getting away with it. “Universities are businesses nowadays. Students are customers. Of course there will be an investigation if they’re suspected of cheating – I’ve sat on disciplinary boards – but it’s a many staged process, very gently executed; a friendly chat, a letter, and by and large concludes with a slap on the wrist. I don’t have ‘empathy’ for cheaters, but I can see that the changes in higher education facilitate cheating. Students, overall, are really stressed. A lot of them are working in addition to studying, there’s so much pressure on them”.   

In an ideal world, says Dr T, each essay submitted would come with a viva element. “Y’know, it’s written, it’s handed in and then you invite the student for a 10-minute chat about the points they raise, you’ll quickly get a feel for the originality and provenance – that’s formally part of the PhD process, I supervise PhDs and do them myself. But I’ve also got 160 undergraduates starting – where is the time and resources to interview every one of them, every time I set a paper?”

Does he think the proposed legislation will work?

“I don’t think anyone working in the sector could find an argument against banning essays mills” – Dr T

“I don’t think anyone working in the sector could find an argument against banning essays mills. But, y’know, drugs were banned, too. Look how well that went, if you’re determined to cheat there will be a service out there for you. I think courses will need to be redesigned to incorporate ways that students are asked to demonstrate their understanding in person, in real-time. Better software might help, maybe you could go after the Essay Mill writers, although I hear that they’re just as exploited.”

Hacks the way we do it

So, what of the actual essay writers? Are they as exploited as the students themselves? Are they really, as contract cheating companies claim, qualified to Master’s and even PhD levels?

“I’ve actually got a Master’s – 18th Century lit, from the 1980s. I’m qualified as a journalist, I went to print school,” says S, a part-time freelance writer (“in-house and free magazine stuff, mainly, nowadays ”) with a sideline producing essay mill copy.

I was introduced to S via a chain of friends of friends of fellow freelancers I’d contacted for leads on contract cheating.

S phones me on a withheld number and doesn’t want to be named.

Being a bit dramatic, aren’t we? 

“…this sort of work is hinterland stuff, it’s not something I’d put on my CV. Even though a lot of people know it goes on, you don’t talk about it…”

Like Fight Club?

“Like Thrush. I worked as a researcher in academic publishing, textbooks, for quite a long time, and before that I was a news stringer, then a features writer. I can reword copy on the internet to say the same thing, over again, I’m very well read and I’m quick”

So, is she ashamed of the work?

“Hmmm. Not really. I get paid for writing. I don’t know the client. Actually, I have done it privately, too, but for companies I’ve very rarely had contact with the client – the student – we exchange a couple of early emails first via the company message boards, then sometimes by email, but it’s not really allowed, they don’t want you coming to a different arrangement with the client, but that’s it really. I know damn well that they will pass it off as their own work, it’s what they pay for.”

There’s a pregnant pause, I can’t work out how to record the conversation and speak on the phone at the same time so I’m juggling that challenge with writing notes. I don’t do shorthand (I bet S does, she sounds ‘old-skool’). I think S misinterprets the silence as being judgemental.

She breaks the silence with a shrill note of exasperation.

“Listen…a lot of print journalists across the industry – newspapers, free mags, stuff like that – are simply being paid to rewrite press releases from advertisers; sometimes they don’t even bother rewriting them – you know that goes on, right? It’s just cut and paste, cut and paste, so what’s the bloody difference? At least I actually put thought into it, original opinion.” Which someone else takes credit for to gain a qualification they don’t deserve. She calms down to considers this with a “Well…” that trails off.

Back on track – the mill process sounds straightforward enough.

“I get sent the essay title, the length, maybe a couple of specific bullet points… Other than that, I write it, make sure I cite the texts and quotes, I file it, I get paid.” She’s a hack? “If you like, in the sense that I don’t care what happens to the work after I’ve finished it. I’ve only had a couple where I knew that English wasn’t a client’s first language, I got why they might have struggled – but I’m not a social worker.”

This contract cheating scribe might not be having sleepless nights over the ethics, but are the rewards worth it?

Essay mills invoke images of malnourished Lancastrian urchins sent under the looms to retrieve errant cotton reels. And it sounds, to use the Manchester vernacular, like the pay, is bobbins.

“Oh, it’s laughable – if it was your main income you’d be typing 23 hours a day” – S

“Oh, it’s laughable – if it was your main income you’d be typing 23 hours a day,” says S, who found her first gig via the website of a household-name job recruitment company and is now on the database of a number of mills. “I still get ads in my inbox from companies like Indeed, Glassdoor… it’s not illegal work – dubious, maybe.”

The point S is making is that there’s tons of shady writing work out there, and it’s advertised by legitimate companies. An indication, perhaps, of just how big the industry is.

“I had to do a writing test, the company were pretty upfront about what they do, though. The pay is nothing like the £30-£40k a year that was advertised, that’s just ridiculous. I get between £6-£10 per page – a fraction of the company’s commission – which is about 500 words, just over a penny a word, and I suspect that’s because I’m English. I think if you asked an Indian writer for the same company (quite a lot of writers from one of the companies I work for are from India) they’d be getting even less.”

S, who bangs out around six essays a month for clients in English-speaking territories – she’s vague about where, exactly – says the work is welcome pin-money verging on a hobby.

“I’m semi-retired; I like the work it keeps me sharp, and I only do literature and British history assignments because I love those topics. I wouldn’t touch anything medical or engineering,” although, she confirms, she has been asked to. 

S has it down to a fine art. She says that essay questions she answers often riff on similar themes, to the point that she’s compiled a database of, “quotes and citations, properly footnoted, that you pop in. You get a feel for what’s needed and what’s not.” She says she keeps abreast of buzz-phrases and changing attitudes to the texts.

Like a counterfeiter who puts a deliberate mis-stitch into a ‘priceless’ Turkish rug (a practice humbly employed by genuine master craft weavers acknowledging that only Allah is perfect) S initially went to great lengths to convince the imagined tutors that hers was the work of bright undergraduate, albeit in a rush.

“I used to put in random, but consistent, spelling mistakes, like”, she spells them,  “…’definitly’ instead of ‘definitely’. I thought it would give them a bit of ‘authenticity’”. But after running her work through their software, the essay mills kept sending them back with notes to spellcheck before sending.

Well, it’s good to know they’ve got some standards.

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