Not so long ago the biggest threat to academic integrity on campus was plagiarism.
These days, contract cheating services – which provide essays and assignments to order – are emerging as the biggest risk, magnified by the pandemic and shift to remote learning.
“It’s a huge problem,” says Megan O’Connor, vice-president for academic affairs with the Union of Students of Ireland (USI).
“On campus, the posters advertising these services are going up faster than they can be taken down. Students are being targeted on social media... Anyone who thinks there isn’t an issue doesn’t realise that it’s right under their nose,” she says.
The main activity of contract cheating services is providing paid-for assignments, ranging from coursework to open-book exam questions
Alarmed by the risk to academic integrity, the Irish watchdog for standards in education, Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI), has flagged more than 80 websites which allow students to cheat in online exams or assessments. Universities are moving to block access to them from their campus networks.
Ireland is one of the few countries in the world that has legislation which prohibits the operation or promotion of so-called contract cheating services.
However, QQI’s powers are limited. It can only take legal action against services based in Ireland; it is powerless to combat activity abroad.
The main activity of contract cheating services is providing paid-for assignments, ranging from coursework to open-book exam questions, which contribute to students’ degree results. Some services are now offering answers to questions within 30 minutes, raising doubts over the integrity of online exams.
Colleges are struggling to respond. They have been using plagiarism detection software such as Turnitin, but the rise of essay mills means that paid-for assignments can pass through undetected as they appear to be original work.
The estimated scale of contract cheating varies according to a range of studies. Some studies in Australia suggest 2-3 per cent of students use them, while some UK academics estimate between 5 and 10 per cent will use them at least once. Latest studies in Canada and Wales since the pandemic put it closer to 15 per cent.
To examine how they operate, The Irish Times selected essay-writing services from a list provided by Irish officials who flagged services where there is evidence of use by students in Ireland.
The companies were asked to write a 1,200-word undergraduate essay which critically analysed the influence of the internet on the “public sphere” and whether it promoted or threatened open, democratic discussion in civil society.
NUI Galway's head of journalism and communications Tom Felle agreed to grade the assignments.
The first commission was from University Custom Writing which charged €136.50 for a 48-hour turnaround. It allowed us to select how many sources we wished to have included in the essay.
If it had been submitted to one of my classes I would have no way of knowing the student had cheated. It's not so brilliant as to be noticeable
It charges premium fees for “advanced” writers (high-ranking professionals in a requested field of study) or “ENL” writers (English as a native language writers).
The service does not disclose where it is based, though the website is hosted in Canada. It did not respond to requests for comment.
Peachy Essay charged €142 for a 48-hour turnaround. It claims to be UK based, though company records show it is registered in the US (further detail below).
The completed essay arrived on time accompanied by a separate “plagiarism report”, which confirmed that it would not be flagged as copied work.
When The Irish Times contacted Peachy Essay, an individual who identified himself as "Kevin" told us the essay had been completed by "Jean", a doctoral student at a UK university. However, there is evidence that some of its writers are based in Kenya.
He insisted the company was not trying to help students cheat and it was providing an important service and was employing underpaid doctoral students to assist with assignments.
In marking both essays, Felle said the Peachy Essay was the better of the two and would likely pass a module.
“If it had been submitted to one of my classes I would have no way of knowing the student had cheated,” he said. “It’s not so brilliant as to be noticeable. It passes the Turnitin test, so there really are no red flags, which is a worry.”
While it made some good points which needed to be expanded, they lacked enough citations or local contextual references to the UK or Ireland.
“It would probably pass, but they wouldn’t get a high grade, probably a C+ for the best effort of the two,” he said.
The University Custom Writing, by contrast, felt like the work of an essay mill with language and phrasings that were “a little off and no local references”.
“The arguments made, while well structured, are at times waffle. If a student had submitted this I’d give feedback that they’ve failed to really answer the question and talked in general terms about the issues rather than making any strong coherent points.”
He said the essay would likely scrape a pass or score around the 50 per cent mark.
As we move out of the pandemic, we just want to get back to the exam halls. It's really the only way we can mitigate against [cheating]
Megan O’Connor of USI says these services are “preying on students”, especially those who are vulnerable. She said she is aware of cases where students have been blackmailed by essay-writing services.
“They have students’ contact details, the essay they wrote and it’s a case of ‘pay us, or we’ll tell the institution’.”
While students in a second language are a key target, she also feels the culture at second level in Ireland doesn’t help Irish students.
“They’re moving from an environment where rote learning and regurgitation is acceptable to being thrown into third level where you need the expertise to critically analyse and think for yourself. That can be really challenging.”
One senior academic, who declined to be named, adds: “If you look at the QQI legislation, it specifically excludes services for Junior and Leaving Cert. Why? If it didn’t, we might have to close down lots of grind services. So much of it is about getting notes and reproducing them. It’s seen as acceptable practice . . .”
The pandemic-enforced shift to online learning has been linked to an increase in the use of contact cheating, in particular services which provide answers to exam questions within 30 minutes.
Prof David Croke of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland says his university moved to counter this by introducing remote proctoring for some of its exams.
It is a controversial practice where students are under surveillance while they complete a test. It can involve locking students’ web browsers and watching them through a computer camera.
“Many felt it was a step too far and created too much stress... As we move out of the pandemic, we just want to get back to the exam halls. It’s really the only way we can mitigate against [cheating]”.
So, if it is almost impossible to detect, how can colleges respond?
“We’re not naive enough to think that we have the solutions to combat these services, but we can do things to mitigate the problem and raise awareness,” says Billy Kelly, deputy registrar and dean of teaching and learning at DCU.
He chairs the National Academic Integrity Network, a grouping established by QQI two years ago to raise awareness of academic misconduct and promote good practice among students.
The pandemic-enforced shift to online learning has been linked to an increase in the use of contact cheating
One option is getting internet service providers to block access to essay mills, but concedes it would end up as a “whack-a-mole” exercise.
He and his colleagues feel the most effective response is to change the campus culture by explaining to students the meaning of academic integrity, reinforcing it each year and producing a common language or lexicon “so everyone knows what’s at stake”.
He says there is also a need for lecturers to “raise the game” academically, ensure assessments are more dynamic and that the same questions are not being asked year after year.
Meanwhile, the fight for academic integrity goes on.
There may be a temporary improvement this year when more exams are supervised in person. However, the tools used by essay mills look set to gain in sophistication with advances in artificial intelligence and other forms of technology
"The genie is well and truly out of the bottle and there is no way to put the stopper back in," says Thomas Lancaster, an academic at Imperial College in London, who has studied this area.
“The entire academic integrity community, including but not limited to staff, students, academic institutions, quality bodies and commercial providers alike, needs to be ready and prepared to act.”
'I'm a history teacher. I've no involvement in essay mills'
– How a Co Clare secondary school teacher's image was misused by a global contract cheating firm
Dominic Haugh, a history teacher at St Patrick's Comprehensive in Shannon, Co Clare, constantly reminds his students about the importance of sourcing material.
“I hammer it home to my students: this must be your work. You can’t copy it from other places without crediting where it came from,” he says.
Unwittingly, Haugh has found himself – innocently – caught up in one of the largest scale essay mills which provides paid-for assignments to students right across the globe.
I don't want to be associated with something that is exploiting people and undermining academic integrity
Peachy Essay claims to have been founded in 2007 by PhD students at University College London as a dissertation-writing service.
Now, it says its customers come from the UK, US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland, among other countries.
The service has been flagged by the Irish watchdog for academic standards, Quality and Qualification Ireland (QQI), as a website that should be blocked from third-level institutions.
When contacted over the phone, an individual who would only give his name as “Kevin” responded and declined to provide details of where the company was based.
On social media network LinkedIn, there is a man who appears under the name “Kevin McCabe” and lists himself as an “experienced academic writer, dissertation and research paper consultant, university lecturer and blogger based in London” with Peachy Essay.
A reverse image search of "McCabe" photo indicates that it was taken from the Facebook page of Dominic Haugh.
When asked if he was responsible for taking Mr Haugh’s photo, he said: “It’s not on our website, it’s on LinkedIn. You can report it to them. There’s nothing on our website. Maybe someone is writing an article, but I’m not responsible for that.”
Haugh, who was first alerted to the use of the photo in a recent Financial Times article, said he was initially bemused. He complained to LinkedIn about the use of the photograph and had no response. Now, he’s feeling frustrated.
“I’m a history teacher. I’ve no involvement with essay mills. I don’t want to be associated with something that is exploiting people and undermining academic integrity. People are profiting from this,” he says.
“I only put my photo online a couple of years ago to publicise my book on the history of the Limerick Soviet. Funnily, we do internet safety classes in school, and this shows what can happen and the lack of control you have. How do get someone who doesn’t exist, as such, to take down your photo?”