Academic cheating using paid-for essays ‘poses threat to integrity of third level’

Conference hears one in seven students have used ‘essay mills’

Academic cheating using online “essay mills” is posing a significant threat to the integrity of higher education, the State body responsible for policing standards in third level has warned.

International research indicates there has been a sharp rise in written-to-order essays and dissertations, with as many as one in seven graduates admitting to paying someone to undertake an assignment for them.

While the scale of cheating in Ireland is difficult to estimate, there have been more than 1,000 cases of students in Ireland being disciplined for plagiarism since 2010, according to figures compiled by The Irish Times.

In response to these trends, Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI) has established a new National Academic Integrity Network to help agree common ways to identify and prosecute academic cheating.

The new network met for the first time on Thursday and heard of how recently enacted laws make it an an offence to provide or advertise “cheating services” which aim to give students an unfair advantage over others.

The provisions are based on legislation first introduced in New Zealand which makes it illegal to advertise or provide third-party assistance to cheat.

They include circumstances beyond essay writing, such as sitting an exam on behalf of another person.

The network heard that a new QQI communications campaigns will target providers, learners, advertisers and publishers to inform them of the new legislation and its implications for them.

Detection and analysis

QQI officials are also collaborating on an international project involving other agencies on detection and analysis of academic cheating, It says solutions will require a sophisticated and collaborative international response.

The network heard from Prof Cath Ellis of the University of New South Wales, who is currently conducting research into contract cheating. Her university was one of 16 Australian third-level institution affected by scandal in 2015 which discovered that some 1,000 students across the institutions had paid a company to to ghost write their assignments and sit online tests.

Prof Ellis is also leading a project with Turnitin, a technology company that supplies plagiarism detection software, to find better ways to identify instances of cheating that go beyond copy and pasting content.

In addition, the network heard from Prof Michael Draper of Swansea University who has published a report on the sharp rise in "essay mills". His research indicates that as many as one in seven recent graduates may have paid someone to undertake an assignment for them.

Blackmailed by these services

Prof Draper also said there are reports that some students who have complained to “essay mill” companies or demanded their money back have been blackmailed by these services.

Some of these firms have threatened to tell a student’s university about using the service or demanded more money.

Prof Draper said Swansea University and others have sought to tackle the problem by using students as “academic integrity champions” or ambassadors, who can signpost and support students at risk of using “essay mills” or contract cheating services.

They can also act in confidence as go-between to let academic know where we need to take action, such as in the case where students have been blackmailed by “essay mills”.

He also said there needs to be a wider cultural change in an era where so many students will have grown up using the internet as their source of information.

Many schools do not teach anything about intellectual property rights or plagiarism, so when they come to university they have to be “re-educated”.