The joy of buying university essays

A university teacher at the London School of Economics tries his hand at buying a philosophy of physics essay from a shady online retailer.

Online tools are making it easier to learn, and also easier to cheat. In response, universities have widely adopted anti-plagiarism tools like Turnitin.com, which scour the web and other essays for copied text and identifying offending work when it is found. However, such tools do little to prevent ghostwriting, the practice of hiring a writer to create an original piece of written work that gets attributed to someone else. In short, plagiarism-detection can’t catch an essay-buyer.

Ghostwriting has become a profitable industry: over 20,000 university students in the UK alone bought essays last year, according to researchers Thomas Lancaster and Robert Clarke. This led Lord Storey to recently demand that the industry be made illegal. By Storey’s estimate, the true figure is closer to 50,000 students. Roughly a third of them come from the UK’s top universities, known as the Russell Group. And a growing number of ministers have been joining Storey in his concern.

Lord Storey, Committee on Education, Families and Young People. CC BY-SA Attribution: The Liberal Democrats, collected via wikipedia

However, 20,000 students is not a particularly large portion of the 2.28 million students enrolled in UK universities last year. That number means that about 2 out of 100 university students bought essays last year. At the London School of Economics, where I teach, there are only about 4,500 undergraduates. So, even on Storey’s ‘worst-case’ scenario, at most 90 members of the entire LSE undergraduate population bought an essay and submitted it as their own.

The overwhelming majority of students (98%) are not paying someone to write their essays in a given year. That’s a pretty strong trend, which suggests there may be an economic reason behind it. And indeed there is: the ghostwriting market does not have a strong reputation for quality. Both regulators and former ghostwriters reported in 2014 that the industry is a total rip-off, generally providing even high-paying students with dismal quality work.

Still, I was curious.

What’s it like to try to buy an essay online? And is the quality really that bad? To find out, I decided to take one of my philosophy of physics essay prompts from this year and see what I could get from an online essay retailer. I chose one of the most popular such retailers, EssayShark.com.

I began by entering my essay prompt:

“Can we ever be justified in believing in more than 3 dimensions of space?”

I then continued to fill in the form, indicating the instructions and a time limit; I gave the ghostwriter one week. There were convenient buttons for me to choose my citation style, a dropdown menu for me to choose my discipline, and even room for me to upload material and write special requests.

After filling in my information, I clicked “Save and publish for writers”. Within about 15 seconds, dozens of writers had placed a “bid” to write my essay, with prices ranging from $83.40 USD (£64) to $160 USD (£124).

Since I am a cheapskate, I went for one of the lowest-priced options, offered by a ghostwriter called Kingwriter, who expressed “delight” at the opportunity to work on my assignment, and promised “remarkable quality” for my essay. I went ahead and clicked.

I next found myself on a screen where I could read information about the ghostwriter’s previous orders, reviews, and a promising-looking multi-star rating. There was also a handy chat-box where I could ask Kingwriter questions about the service before purchasing. So, I asked the following:

“Can you give me a preview of the sort of thing you would write about?”

“Sure,” Kingwriter replied. And sure enough, when I checked back an hour later, my preview was there waiting for me. This was the moment of truth. How would a ghostwriter do at sketching the university-level philosophy of physics essay that I assigned my students last term, over the course of only an hour?

Here is what I received.

The text is a majestic display of half-baked jargon, the likes of which are rarely seen outside of the comment section of a YouTube video. In it, the author tells a tale of philosophers and “psychists” — scholars of the psyche I guess? — locked in mortal debate about whether there is a 4th dimension of time. On the one hand, we learn, “time is a part of the thermodynamics second law”, a statement that is as true as it is banal; on the other hand, “it has only one dimension, as it entropy does not decrease”, a sentence that is so meaningless it makes your head spin, at least on known English usage of the words “dimension”, “entropy” and “decrease”.

The plot now thickens: “[t]he three-dimensional place is crucial”, we learn. Why, we ask? Because “it contributes significantly to maintaining life, complexity, and stability”. Of course! We must maintain complexity! How could a philosophy essay exist without it? Not only that: the author postulates a novel new theory of life, suggesting thatit does not exist in the presence of a 4th dimension, previously identified as “time”. Woe be to all of us who thought our lives took place in time; the author has crushed our illusions!

The paragraph is so disastrous that it’s comical. This is the joy of buying university essays.

A well-known adage among experienced essay-readers is that, in almost all essays, you can detect the grade it would receive to within 5% by reading a single paragraph. If one of my students submitted this paragraph, with the rest of the essay filled in, they would have received the following (plus or minus 5 points).

Grade: 15 out of 100.

Comments: Failed to answer question about space, not time. No coherent thesis or argument. Incorrect characterisation of debate. Incorrect understanding of central concepts.

In other words, I was not impressed.

If my experience is in any way representative of the general practice of essay-buying (as it seems to be), then we can only conclude that the practice is relatively harmless. I may have even read an essay that a student purchased online and submitted as their own, before assigning it a “bad fail”. It is no wonder that empirical research has found such a small number of university students buy essays: the quality is objectively dismal.

The recent huff and puff over ghostwritten university work appears overblown. Most importantly, very few of our students are buying essays. Those that do are probably failing anyway. There is no real economic incentive, since the risk is high and the expected return is so low. This makes it fruitless to waste government and university resources trying to make a non-existent problem disappear. Resources would be much better-spent in providing students with the experience and opportunity needed to do excellent independent work, and maybe learn something deep about the world along the way. All my experiences with students suggest that this, and not an easy A, is what they really want.

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