Article first published as Coursework Corruption on Technorati.
Most undergraduate degrees in the U.K. are taught in a modular fashion, with an allocation of ‘credits’ or similar granted to each student to select individual courses, usually in the department or school in which their degree is based, and construct a semi-personalised degree programme. Students normally take half a dozen modules a year, and these are assessed using a combination of coursework assignments, exams or research papers.
The recent emergence of ‘freelance writing’ websites has provided unwilling or unable undergraduates the opportunity to ‘outsource’ their coursework, for a reasonable fee naturally. I suspected that undergraduates (and even postgrads) are using these services to submit essays and dissertations that are not original, effectively degrading the academic integrity of their degree and those of their peers in the process. These sites undoubtedly profit from this arrangement, and I consider them to be fully aware of the potential for abuse of their system and its effect on higher education, but they have a number of loopholes to exploit that avoid the possibility of any wrongdoing on their part.
I recently signed up to one of these sites as a freelance researcher to further investigate the nature of the industry, and the level and subject of submissions. My intention was merely to observe and investigate and I feel that it is worth mentioning that I never completed or entered a bid for any project, and received no payment. I also think it’s probably best that I do not mention the name of the website, as I’m sure I couldn’t afford to defend myself against any legal proceedings that their studious lawyers may bring against me. What I will say however is that they vet their researchers thoroughly; I had to provide details of my qualifications (degree certificates etc.) and identity and these were vehemently scrutinised for a number of days before I was accepted.
The ‘briefs’ are organised on a central page and researchers can review and bid on them depending on their level and area of expertise. In my experience, many of the projects came from legal and social science courses, but other subjects such as engineering, health and biology were also well represented. All levels of work are available, from A-level to PhD. Many of the briefs were very brazen about the fact that they were very obviously intended to be submitted as a dissertation or piece of graded coursework, as opposed to the ‘research’ or ‘note-making’ that the website’s administrators claimed their service was providing. For example, the screen-capture below clearly shows that the project submitted by the researcher will be submitted as a PhD proposal in the field of management, for entry to a UK university.
Often, the clients would neglect to remove some of the course information from the supplementary information provided with their brief, and it was relatively easy to use a search engine to trace the negligently included course codes back to the UK university where the course was obviously being run and the student paying for the services were based. For example, the image below is taken from the documentation supplied with a brief posted a couple of months ago. It clearly shows the course code and name of the module, which I found to originate from Portsmouth University’s School of Languages and Area Studies’ undergraduate module unsurprisingly entitled, The Structure of English.
Certain phrases or acronyms can also reveal the source of a brief. For example, the use of the the phrase ‘Geography Undergraduate Thesis’ and the submission location in the ‘Global Studies Research Centre’ in the supplementary information supplied with a brief on sand-dunes brought me fairly rapidly to the Geography Department at Sussex University, where it was confirmed by a member of staff that the document provided was an excerpt from the undergraduate handbook. The price for the completion of this work was £379.
In many cases, the header and course codes were removed or obscured from the attached material to prevent them from being traced back to their origin. The evidence that this ‘freelance writing’ service is being used to commit serious academic misconduct is fairly substantial, but what can be done about it?
As it turns out, not much. The researchers’ submissions are thoroughly screened for plagiarism before being accepted, thus making their detection by university plagiarism software difficult as the work is essentially original, but fraudulent in its origin. The writers are also well paid, the going rate being around £500 per 10000 words for undergraduate work, so there is little incentive for them to object. The image posted below illustrates this point; completing a PhD project in Tax Law would land you a cool £1872.
In an attempt to address the issue, I contacted a number of departments, including those mentioned above, with my concerns and provided them with as much information and evidence as possible. Many were indifferent, some were surprised, but the main response was one of indignant futility. Little could be done to ensure that the work was submitted by the student whose name was on the front unless it was flagged up by a plagiarism filter, which as I mentioned before, was unlikely. The situation was succinctly summarised by a member of staff at Sussex University:
“You will understand, however, that it is almost impossible for Universities to proof such cases although I’m sure it’s a common form of academic fraud. I cannot promise we can pin down the candidate should s/he really submit a “personalised” piece of work.”
I have no doubt that these writing services are the academic black market of the digital age and a blight on the credibility of higher education. They detract from the hard work being done by honest students and the fraudsters they benefit will carry their incompetence and propensity for corruption to the next stage of their now tarnished education, and eventually their careers too, any success in which will be borne of a lie. What concerns me most are submissions from the health, engineering or architectural sectors; these are professionals entrusted with the lives of others, either through direct medical intervention or via the construction of sound buildings and bridges. If they cheat their way through their education, how can they expect to become competent professionals in the future? Their careers, and qualifications, are built on a foundation of corruption and lies, at the root of which are these abhorrent and objectionable writing services.
If you, or someone you know, has had experience with one of these services, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Your anonymity is guaranteed.