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Going through the mill

Technology is often blamed for the rise in ‘essay mills’ that make cheating too easy to resist. But could technology also help address a key cause of cheating – the pressure on struggling students?

They say cheats never prosper – but recent statistics suggest otherwise.

In 2018, professor Phil Newton of Swansea University published a review of students paying for assignments, known as ‘contract cheating’. Evaluating samples from 65 higher education studies dating as far back as 1978, Newton found that around 3.5% of students self-reported as cheats each year. In samples since 2014, however, that leapt to 15.7% – roughly one in six students. If Newton’s findings accurately reflect the wider population, that’s around 2,200 cases of contract cheating per UK university.

The majority get away with it, too. The 58 UK universities that responded to Channel 4 FactCheck’s recent freedom of information request declared an average of just five or six cases of cheating each in the academic year 2017-18.

Technology could be partly to blame. While students in the 1970s, 80s and 90s may have lifted recognisable text from books or approached friends to write essays for them, today’s online ‘essay mills’ use social media to help them directly target struggling students, tempting them with bespoke content for alarmingly little cash.

These essays are readily available and written to order, making it difficult to detect – and nigh-on impossible to prove – that they’re the work of a third party.

However, perhaps the key question is: why would students engage with essay mills? Andrew Kincaid, a lecturer at Edinburgh Napier University, links the rise in plagiarism to the increasing number of students suffering with mental health problems – a pattern documented by the University Student Mental Health Survey 2018, and the spring 2019 horizons report.

“Today’s students are experiencing high levels of anxiety, pressure and stress,” 

Kincaid says. 

“I don’t believe that most students using essay mills are driven by a desire to cheat the system. Most of the cases I’ve seen are desperate students who can’t see any other way out.”

This is echoed by Caitlin Bloom, a former De Montfort students’ union executive who sat on the university’s academic misconduct panel, 2012-14. 

“Most of the students who’d been caught cheating were people who, in other circumstances, you would be recommending for student services assessment. Students that fall prey to essay mills usually need help – whether that’s help with language skills, mental health or settling into university.”

Both Bloom and Kincaid point to the aggressive tactics adopted by essay mills.

“It’s exploitation,”

says Kincaid.

“These companies use social media to identify students that are feeling the pressure.

If a student tweets ‘so many deadlines coming up’, they’re targeted. If essay mills get just 1% of those they contact to pay for their services, it makes for an incredibly successful business.”

And there are dirtier tricks than targeted algorithms, says Bloom, who is now a sector analyst at Jisc.

“These companies don’t have obvious urls – they aren’t called! And some use ‘skins’ that copy institutions’ websites. For example, one UK university had its logo and branding cloned by an essay mill that used the term “advising student support”. If you chuck ‘essay help’ into a search engine, the essay mill site pops up. And if you’re a student in a mental health crisis looking for help, you’re unlikely to smell a rat.

These companies deliberately prey on vulnerable students. It’s very manipulative. Sometimes, essay mills quickly jump to offering ‘help’ in return for cash,”

Bloom continues.

“But often, they suggest a Skype chat to discuss it first, building trust. In my experience, it’s rare for a student to Google ‘buy an essay’; it’s more common for them to be led gradually down the garden path until they hand over their credit card almost without realising they’re doing anything wrong.”

Nearly every university in the UK uses anti-plagiarism software – such as Turnitin, which identifies plagiarised blocks of text – and software that tracks writing style. If an essay contains sentence structures or phrasing a student hasn’t used before, the work can be called into question – but it remains very difficult to prove foul play.

In March, education secretary Damian Hinds intervened, asking universities to impose “honour codes”1 where students pledge not to cheat, and calling on young people to snitch on their peers. Meanwhile, Universities UK and a number of vice-chancellors have called for essay mills to be banned, as they have been in other countries. Earlier this year, Google removed adverts placed by essay companies, and PayPal is blocking payments to essay mills.

“We need to help students by raising awareness about what plagiarism is,”

says Abdullah Okud, president of Sheffield Hallam University (SHU) students’ union.

“We’re working with the university on this. We have guidelines in development about good study and essay writing practice, skills training is being developed at the library and we’re working on issues around mental health.”

SHU is one of a growing number of universities to block access to known essay mills on campus, too. This sends a message – but, as our chief innovation officer Phil Richards notes:

“Offering academic support is not illegal. If essay-writing companies present themselves as helpful, supportive writing coaches, artificial intelligence can’t detect them or filter them out.”

The government’s recent edtech strategy outlined the need to develop and improve anti-cheating software ‘to help tackle the problem of essay mills’ by 2021. Meanwhile, we are working hard to support student wellbeing through our learning analytics service. It has a staff dashboard that gives, among other things, a prediction of whether each student is likely to pass or fail the academic year.

There’s also a student version, study goal.

“That uses the same data as the staff dashboard and has the same aim of helping the student succeed,”

Richards explains,

“but instead of telling the student they’re flagged as struggling, it adopts a ‘nudge’ approach. It will note that, for example, the student hasn’t gone into the library recently, so a message will pop up suggesting they go in and reminding them their essay is due. It gives pointers based on a student’s timetable and activity, their own personal track record and data history.

Most students understand that they’re being nudged because they need to up their game, but it’s done in a helpful and supportive way."

We're also looking at how data and analytics-based techniques can be used to give universities better information about students who may be in crisis or experiencing mental health issues. We are partnering with James Murray, whose son Ben took his own life last year while a student at the University of Bristol2.

Murray’s insights are helping us to understand how key data could be collated from different systems across a university to highlight students in distress. We are currently working with three institutions to pilot the Suicide Safer dashboard approach that has been championed by Murray.

The insights and understanding that we gain from this work will be widely shared across the sector and form part of UUK’s Suicide-Safer Universities guidance. The hope is that these types of approaches will alert universities to students who may need timely support that could make a crucial difference.

Richards says:

“Around half of university suicide victims had never referred themselves to student services. People who are in the darkest place are often the least likely to ask for help. These wellbeing dashboards are being developed for those students.”

Jisc is also looking across the board at how services can better support student mental health and wellbeing. For example, new elements of the digital capability service are being developed to help students and staff develop healthy online behaviours.

Ultimately, supporting vulnerable students who might fall prey to essay mills is much more complicated – and much more important – than simply catching cheats. As Richards concludes:

“Technology can provide an early alert if a student is struggling, and it can link different sets of support professionals, making sure nothing falls between the cracks, but while technology is a huge help, we need humans supporting students in every case, using their skill and judgement to decide what action to take.”