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Harsher punishments for students who use essay mills, academics say

Source: Hannah Wei/Unsplash

Go big or go home. That appears to be the consensus among academics on how to address the problem of contract cheating among students.

A significant minority (41 percent) of academics believe that student use of essay mills, ie. where they pay ghostwriters to complete their assignments on their behalf, should be criminalised, a new survey has found.

A large majority also believe essay mills should be made illegal, according to the Times Higher Education (THE) survey of a self-selecting group of 230 respondents.

Making the use of such services a crime is the only way to stop it, one Australian respondent said, given the prevalence of the problem. “Any solution that doesn’t place onus back on students as well as contractors is doomed to failure.”

The survey also found that 70 percent of respondents have suspected one of their students of using contract cheating services, while 63 percent claimed at least one of their students had been proven to have cheated in this way.

The survey follows a series of actions several countries are taking to clamp down on essay mills. Last year, the UK government urged universities to block essay cheating sites, detect their ads and set up adjudication panels for those accused of academic misconduct. Legislation is reportedly being discussed to punish these sites.

The Australian government announced that they will introduce a new law to punish those providing or advertising commercial cheating services to university students.

Passing off someone else’s work as one’s own is considered plagiarism, a serious act of academic misconduct, regardless of whether it was done with or without intention. Students caught plagiarising face penalties such as having to re-do assignments and in more serious cases, suspension or expulsion.

The use of essay mills represents a specific type of plagiarism, also known as “contract cheating,” which Australian higher education regulator TEQSA describes as “…when students outsource their assessments to a third party, whether that is a commercial provider, current or former student, family member or acquaintance. It includes the unauthorised use of file-sharing sites, as well as organising another person to take an examination.”

The scale of the problem is vast. And the THE survey is not the first to express academia’s serious displeasure over their use. A previous study of 196 respondents across Australian and UK universities found that there was “modest, qualified support for the criminalising of student use of these services”.

The paper reported close to 50 percent of those surveyed “strongly agreed” with the idea of criminalising the behaviour of students who engage in contract cheating. However, the authors noted that many later retracted this tough stance.

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