What can we do to combat the essay mills?

There was a very interesting article on the Today programme on Radio 4 this morning.  The topic was the BBC investigation on the Ukranian company, Edubirdie, that writes essays for students.

The BBC reported yesterday how EduBirdie was paying YouTube stars to advertise their services, noted how YouTube stars are very strong influencers (more so than celebrities) and also that there were more than 250 YouTube channels promoting this service alone.  An example of the scale of the problem is given by the account of Adam Saleh who promotes Edubirdie to his 4 million subscribers.  Universities Minister, Sam Gyimah, called on YouTube to take action to remove these advertisements on moral grounds.  The article can be read here.

In October 2017, the QAA issued guidance for HEIs entitled ‘Contracting to cheat in Higher Education: How to address contract cheating, the use of third-party services and essay mills‘.  The report recommended providing information and guidance for both academic staff and students on the problem and looking at both the supply-side of the issue (trying to restrict the operation, promotion and availability of companies such as Edubirdie) and the demand-side (by reducing the requirement by students).

In March 2018, the QAA has a complaint against one essay mil company upheld by the ASA on the basis that the advertisement was misleading.

The size of the problem was estimated in the UK to affect 100,000 students.  This figure was calculated on the basis of 5% of the 2 million students having used material that was not their own on a least one occasion (sourced from this morning’s interview).

HEIs, including BU, already have a strong commitment to academic integrity that is expressed in our regulations and policies.  The penalties for students who are caught engaging in these practices are severe in terms of their current academic studies and also their future professional careers – if  they can be detected.   In terms of detection, it is recognised that the traditional plagiarism software used in many HEIs provides no help in identifying newly-created materials such as those engineered by the essay mills.

This is therefore a widespread and growing issue that is difficult to detect so what can we do?

  1. Promote awareness to staff and students.  It would seem that alerting students to the negative aspects of this behaviour could have an impact on the demand.  Beyond the serious career impacts, it was reported in the article this morning that students who use these services open themselves up to the possibility of extortion as the companies they use threaten to inform the university of their behaviour.
  2. Staff marking a student’s work may be able to detect a change from the usual pattern of writing which may set off alarm bells and prompt further investigation.  This relies on staff knowing a student’s style which is difficult in other than small cohorts and in exacerbated by the lack of continuity between staff and student throughout the levels of their studies in many programmes.
  3. The area that seems to offer the best protection against this activity is to review how a unit is assessed and to reduce the need to write essays that are created in students’ own time and over a long period.  Options here include writing essays under invigilated conditions or within time constraints, for example producing an essay within a 12 hour window.  There are many other assessment options beyond the essay including exams, multiple choice questions, group and individual presentations, in-tray exercises and practicals to name but a few.

The Faculties’ Assessment Fiestas currently being supported by CEL provide an opportunity for us to consider how we can use assessment to help tackle this problem.

Also, as part of the LEAP process, Shelley Thompson has developed a range of 50 assessments that could be used in units.  For more information on LEAP and assessment, please contact David Biggins or Shelley Thompson.

If you have ideas for how to combat the issue of essay-mills, please share them here.

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