Going through the mill: Inside the world of 'essay farms'
Living on coffee, late nights poring over books in the library and sweating over meeting a deadline are all part and parcel of being a university student.
Students know when they accept a place at a uni that they will be required to sit exams, file assignment and work on large dissertation projects.
But universities must now contend with “essay mills” – websites which provide students with a short cut to getting their work done.
A variety of online sites which offer to provide plagiarism-free essays for students – for a price.
Among them is UKEssays.com, which says it is not an “essay mill”, but a legitimate studying tool for students of all levels.
The site allows users to choose from essay, dissertation, and assignment or coursework writing services.
They offer essays suitable for diploma, undergraduate, masters, and PhD level study, and even allow users to choose their grade.
For example, a 5,000-word history essay, written to 2:1 undergraduate degree standard, to be delivered in a month would cost £627. A 10,000 word dissertation in the same field would set you back £1,296.
UKEssays is part of All Answers Ltd a company based in Nottingham, which provides a legally legitimate service.
“The intention of our services is to allow students to gain a better understanding of the topic or learn how to create and properly write a certain type of assignment,” said spokesman Sam Douthwaite.
“By ordering with us, the student gets an easy to understand guide that shows them how to achieve the grade they want whilst also helping to educate them on the nuances of essay writing and research.
“An ‘essay mill’ is traditionally a company that churns out pre-written, pre-prepared essays. They often have a huge bank of essays available, which students can buy individually or subscribe for access to. What we do is rather different, as each piece of work is written to order and by a qualified expert in the area. We aim to provide the customer with the perfect guide to create their work.”
UKEssays sells about 15,000 assignments per year.
A study by Professor Phil Newton of Swansea University published in August 2018 reviewed questionnaires dating back to 1978 where students were asked if they had ever paid for someone else to complete their work.
The study found that up to one in seven students since 2014 have admitted such acts.
“The work we produce is plagiarism free, and we verify that,” Mr Douthwaite added. “If a student then takes that work and submits it, that student is committing plagiarism.
“Some other companies may sell or produce plagiarised content, which we very strictly do not engage with.
“Alongside reviewing it, we give it a plagiarism scan. This, coupled with the work being written from scratch and read by our in-house team, means we can verify the work is plagiarism free when it’s written.
“We don’t allow writers to re-use, recycle, or re-sell any content. They are not allowed to re-submit old work, re-use paragraphs or even sentences. They can’t take any of the work they do for us and give it to anyone else or sell it to another company or individual. Even if a writer was asked to write an answer on two identical questions, each answer would be written 100 per cent differently.”
The University of Wolverhampton says it has experienced some issues with essay mills – but insists the practice is not widespread.
James Allen, a spokesman for the university, said: “Instances of plagiarism and cheating are amongst the lowest levels in recent years and only account for an extremely small percentage of all module results recorded.
“Proven cases of students using essay mills are minimal with only an extremely small number identified over the past few years.
“Students found to be involved in such matters can face sanctions ranging from having to resubmit work right through to expulsion in the most severe cases.”
While essay providers say they do not want students to simply submit their work as their own, it is causing a headache for The Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), an independent body which monitors standards and quality in UK higher education.
Gareth Crossman, QAA head of policy and public affairs, said: “Essay mills are a scourge on the reputation of the higher education sector. They impact on the academic experience of students, and the trust that employers place in UK graduates.
“Employers risk taking on graduates who lack the skills, knowledge and competencies which they rightly believe higher education qualifications ought to provide.
“Students committing fraud by passing off purchased essays as their own work are liable to significant penalties if caught, including being disqualified from professional practice.”
Last year the Advertising Standards Authority ASA upheld a complaint about UKEssays lodged by QAA.
On its website, UKEssays previously claimed to provide a ‘guaranteed grade, every time’, and says its work is ‘loved by customers and the global press’. It features quotes on its services from high-profile media organisations.
ASA has ruled that UKEssays’s claims must not appear in their current form again and that the company must stop implying that students can submit purchased essays without risks.
Universities accept there are difficulties in tackling the issue.
Ian Britton is the head of academic quality and standards at the University of Chester, which awards qualifications to University Centre Shrewsbury students.
“The University of Chester very much supports the work being done by the QAA and others to warn of the dangers of essay mills,” he says.
“Although we believe that it would be difficult to legislate to outlaw essay mills, given the international scope of their operations online, we will continue to support any efforts to dissuade students from being tempted to use these services.”
While he says that at UCS there had been no examples of this kind of malpractice, he also said the university would not be complacent on the issue.
“Cheating undermines the principles of honesty, trust, fairness, respect and responsibility, which are central to a university education and fundamentally it is unjust to other hard-working students,” he said.
“The outright deception of buying an essay from an essay mill is at the upper end of the scale in terms of sanctions which would be taken against a student.”
Mr Britton also believes the problem as a whole is difficult to nail down.
“Within the higher education sector, there has been some research into the use of essay mills and it is known that they vary in terms of service, but it would be difficult to quantify how prevalent this practice is universally,” he said.
Staffordshire University, in line with most universities, say it ensures that ‘uncontrolled’ assessments such as assignments or essays are submitted through specialist plagiarism software such as Turnitin.
A spokesman said: “It is able to identify plagiarism of published work or the work of other students. Staff are also encouraged to design their assessments in such a way as to minimise the opportunity for contract cheating.”
UKEssays say if they were aware a customers intention was to directly submit the essay written for them then they would refuse to sell, although it is difficult to see how that would work in practice.
“We’re confident that the vast majority of our customers do use our work correctly,” says Mr Douthwaite. “We know this by speaking with, and engaging with, our customers. From the point of them visiting our website right through to order delivery, we stress upon the importance of observing our fair use policy, and encourage students to make the most of what we provide to further their knowledge and academic skills.
“Many customers re-engage with us after receiving their order, looking for further guidance in understanding the work and how to adapt what they have learned to their writing style. Our aim isn’t to just give them a piece of work they can print off an hand in. Our aim is to give the student the support they’re lacking, help them to understand how to complete their assignment, and become a better student going forward.”
The company suggests a closer working relationship with universities to prevent cheating.
“We’ve suggested before – and would love to discuss this further – that there is a way we can achieve certainty that no students misuse the work,” says Sam.
“Universities have suggested that we simply submit all of the work we produce to Turnitin, which, as a private company does not solve the issue. We think that the solution is by working with universities. If universities recommended a company like us – just like they do now with tutors – we could share every piece of work we produce with them. As an official source of help and assistance, we would be able to offer services to students with all parties safe in the knowledge that none would ever be able to misuse the work.
“We have no desire to encourage, enable or contribute towards cheating or academic dishonesty. But we also believe that every student has the right to seek the support and assistance they need, that most suits them. Only by working together can we find a solution that suits all parties. Students have always, and will always, cheat, regardless of if essay writing services exist.”