More students are paying for ghostwritten essays - study
As students become more anxious about meeting grades, many are turning to essay mills, supporting a booming online industry. Source: Hannah Wei/Unsplash

There is a global rise in the number of students paying someone else to undertake their assignments, a new study by Swansea University has found.

As many as one in seven recent graduates may have taken part in contract cheating – where students employ ghostwriters to complete assignments – based on a review of studies from 2014 to present. This is a figure that amounts to a potential 31 million students across the world.

And it’s likely to be a conservative estimate, according to study co-author Professor Phil Newton, as those who engage in such acts are less likely to take part in surveys about cheating.

“These findings underscore the need for legislation to tackle essay-mills, alongside improvements in the way students are assessed and awareness-raising of the fundamentals of academic integrity,” said Professor Newton, Professor at Swansea University in the UK.

Newton and his colleagues analysed 71 survey samples from 65 studies dating back as far as 1978 and covering 54,514 participants. The study used a systematic review of findings from ‘self-report’ research papers; “questionnaire-based studies wherein students were asked if they had ever paid someone else to undertake work for them”.

UK’s essay mill problem

Passing off someone else’s work as your own is considered plagiarism, a serious academic misconduct – it doesn’t matter 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.

Essay mills represent a specific type of plagiarism. The UK’s university standards watchdog Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) terms it “contract cheating”, which means “a form of cheating where a student submits work to a higher education provider for assessment, where they have used one or more of a range of services provided by a third party, and such input is not permitted.”

The contract with the student can include payment (ranging from a couple of hundred pounds for a single essay to over £6,750 for a PhD dissertation) or other favours.

Though banned in 17 US states and New Zealand, around 100 essay mills are reportedly still in legal existence.

According to figures obtained by The Guardian from freedom of information requests to Russell Group universities, the number of students caught cheating has increased by a third in three years.

Academic misconduct cases have gone up by 40 percent, from 2,640 to 3,721, between the academic years 2014-15 and 2016-17.

Professor Newton warns: “The UK risks becoming a country where essay-mills find it easy to do business”. He proposes a new law, since existing UK laws would not be effective in tackling such essay cheating sites.

In an article titled A legal approach to tackling contract cheating?, published in the International Journal for Educational Integrity, Newton and Michael J Draper wrote: “We conclude that a legal approach to contract cheating is possible, and, on balance, appropriate”.

Using UK law as an example, the paper offers suggestions on how this might be achieved and that the most successful approach would be to “focus largely on a law targeting the providers of contract cheating, in particular, commercial services”.

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