Interview: Meet the top researcher fighting back on essay cheating

“It’s become a real problem,” says Dr. Thomas Lancaster during our conversation about essay cheating at university.

“You see, we don’t want students getting degrees they don’t deserve and haven’t worked for. So, of course, it’s not fair if someone cheats their way to a degree and another student misses out.”

Dr. Lancaster and I discussed the growing practice of what is now widely known as ‘contract cheating’. This, he tells me, is where a student uses a third party to get their work done to achieve first class quickly, undetected by plagiarism software, and of course, relatively cheaply.

After beginning with his PhD research in the early 2000s from a computing standpoint, Dr. Lancaster together with colleague Robert Clarke conducted further investigation into the idea of contract cheating. They are now the leading experts in the country.

Together, they found that plagiarism, particularly gained from freelancing websites, appeared to be a serious academic issue.

“legitimate businesses”

Even dating as far back as the 1960s, the idea of finding someone else to write your essays, assignments and dissertations for you has been a popular, yet secretive convention.

Yet now these freelancing websites, which Dr. Lancaster informs me are often “legitimate businesses”, are being rejected for well-publicised organisations known as essay mills.

An essay mill is a business which allows students to commission an original piece of writing to pass off as their own. Essay mills tend to be favoured over freelancing, particularly as student information is kept private and there often comes the promise that “work will not be resold and copies will not be kept.”

It is safe to say that the student can bypass anti-cheating software such as the popular TurnitIn which is only, at present, able to detect the copying of previously published work.

However, the use of essay mills also comes with certain disadvantages. When drawing comparisons between the traditional freelancing sites and the more recent essay mills, there appears to be a large variation in price.

‘Hard work? Nah mate, daddy bought my First’

“Students can hire international workers for anywhere from £10 to £20. But this is where they can find someone to actually connect directly with,” says Dr. Lancaster, “But when we look at essay mills… taking into account things like marketing and advertising, they’re charging anywhere from £100 to £200 on average.”

The phenomenon of using essay mills has raised concerns that wealthy students could be paying their way to better grades and honours degrees. The more money one has at one’s disposal, the easier it is to afford regular essays. Dr. Lancaster appears to agree and takes money into consideration when telling me about the number of students who opt to cheat every year.

“They’re charging anywhere from £100 to £200 on average”

He adds: “Rather than risk failing, paying for work is used… a couple of hundred pounds compared to fees for repeating the year paying for work is worth it to some students.”

And it does indeed seem that in this case, money makes the world go around. With the rising cost of tuition fees, Poppy Noor from The Guardian argues that students may cheat as “buying essays, although wrong, feels like the logical extension of an expensive education. With the recent government plan to break the £9,000 tuition limit and instead raise the annual amount to £9,250, an average student will now leave university with over £40,000 of debt.”

Can we justify paying for essays when we already pay so much for education?

In Dr. Lancaster’s opinion, the answer seems to be a resounding ‘no’: “With the tuition fees, most often it’s just a way of justifying things. Higher fees have helped some students to morally justify cheating in their own minds.” In fact, with his research on contract cheating in South Eastern Europe set to be published in April, Dr. Lancaster appears to completely disassociate tuition fees and contract cheating from one another.

“The point with these countries is they have no tuition fees and even they cheat, in fact they are just as involved in contract cheating as students in the UK.” The fact of the matter appears to be that cheating is rife and it’s going global. And really, there isn’t much to do about it.

Surely something can be done to combat contract cheating?

According to Dr. Lancaster, it is far more difficult than it seems.

“Say you go on Twitter, and you post something like ‘Working hard all night on my essay!’. Within minutes, you’ll probably get replies from companies offering essay writing services, even though you were probably just socialising with friends.” With information like this, it isn’t difficult to see why students could easily be tempted into cheating, particularly as it is at our fingertips with the click of a button.

“Most of these companies exist outside of the UK, so they don’t fall under the UK legal framework and can’t be prosecuted.”

It also does not appear to aid matters that most of these essay mills offer unsolicited services, using targeted social media advertising to capture students hook, line and sinker.

However, Dr. Lancaster seriously dissuades anyone from cheating. It just doesn’t appear to be worth it. “There is the potential for a student’s degree to be removed after they graduate, and then the university has a duty to tell the employer that.” With cases of essay mill blackmail, where students become forced to continue to use essay sites or else run the risk of exposure, and essay mill information leaks happening across the globe, students run a severe risk of being caught either during their degree or after graduation.

“more engaging, interesting and varied student environment”

So, how do we deter contract cheating? Dr. Lancaster suggests a “more engaging, interesting and varied student environment” as well as not always assessing by essays, instead favouring an approach that will equip students with the skills they will use in the workplace.

It does appear that cheating will almost always take place within Higher Education institutions, however, the research matters. If universities consider the opinions of researchers such as Dr. Lancaster, it is inevitable that a solid and secure path can be crafted towards a more honest and open academic environment.

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