Academia’s Online Black-Market

Investigations into claims of academic plagiarism throughout 2017 revealed more than 20,000 university students in the United Kingdom are buying professionally-written essays every year, alongside thousands of students from Canada, the USA Australia. A clear indication that contract cheating is becoming more prevalent amongst the student body globally.

The contract cheating business began courting clients and writers in earnest during the aftermath of the global financial crisis and today, the business of academic plagiarism is rampant. October last year saw universities around the world committing to fighting back against the tide of black market services, with the second International Day of Action against Contract Cheating.

But why is it occurring in the first place? What’s contributed to the rise of students outsourcing their assignments to a custom writing company, rather than completing the work themselves?

Today’s university students are under even more pressures and obstacles than ever before. Workloads are becoming larger, with the addition of more assignments, more tests and more practical assessments every year. Most students today are required to juggle unpaid internships and work experience, alongside a part-time job, and all while attending classes and lectures. In some industries, it’s becoming impossible to secure a position with only a bachelor qualification, meaning many students are extending their stay, on to graduate school, and inevitably suffering the burnout that comes with studying and living in the limbo of student life for the better part of a decade.

The system leads to students outsourcing their work to freelancers and paper mills for a range of reasons. Pressure to adhere to deadlines, or achieve top grades is one obvious reason why a student might engage these kinds of services. For others, it’s the time aspect. A student working a part-time job could earn money to cover daily expenses during the time they spend working on assignment, but for a small fee they can outsource their assignment, work more hours at their job, presenting the lure of more money, and a better grade.

Unlike the services offering banks of already written papers on numerous topics, ready to be shipped out to buyers, many of todays operations connect students with a freelancer, and the paper is written according to the specific criteria of the student (and what their instructor has told them.) The end result is a unique paper that will be found nowhere else on the internet, emailed to them, which makes all of the plagiarism detectors developed by universities and colleges to deal with issues of cheating, irrelevant.

Some of these suppliers are located in offshore countries, like Pakistan, India and Nigeria. In these instance, even small amounts of money earned in US Dollars of British Pounds can end up as hefty sums once they are converted into the writer’s local currency. Meaning that there are workers out there who will offer cheap services to the strapped-for-cash student.

But the reality is that not all of these companies and writers are located in developing nations. The recent reports out of the UK have revealed that there are teaching assistants and lecturers working with academia who are providing these black-market services to top up their earnings. In Canada too, the working conditions of academics have come under scrutiny, with some academic staff earning as little as $28,000 a year. It’s hardly surprising then, that many faculty members moonlight for paper mills and essay writing companies.

It’s not just papers that students are buying. The range of services available are only as limited as a student’s funds. Online exam taking services, even course outsourcing services exist. Where an agency will hire an expert to complete your entire course for you, and they guarantee you a good grade.

The market that these services are trying to sell to, are the students who are not there for the love of learning. But rather just for the grades on the piece of paper at the end. The oversaturation of degrees has meant that top marks are becoming the best way to stand out. These services understand this, and are making a point to profit from it, by selling what students want. Good grades.

Even though universities across the world all possess strict rules and penalties for academic plagiarism and cheating, they haven’t managed to deter students from soliciting the services of paper mills, and submitting outsourced work. There’s also the issue of separating legitimate translation and editorial businesses from the essay mills. While there are many disreputable companies selling custom dissertations, there are an equal number of professional editing and consulting professionals who provide services to ESL students, or produce ungraded reports and materials for businesses or community groups.

Most autobiographies you read are written by ghost writers, and in 21st century society, there is nothing illegal about outsourcing the tasks you can’t complete. Whole industries were born from the concept, cleaners, dog-walkers, finance managers… does it really come as a shock to add academics and education to that list?

In the free market, where there is a demand, there will be a supply. Students need help with papers, coursework, and tests, so a market has developed to provide them with the services. It may be that academic papers and theoretical thesis become a thing of the past, with only those truly interested in the process of research being encouraged to submit academic papers and reports. The question universities should be asking themselves is not “how do we stop academic plagiarism at our institutions?” Instead they should focus on reengaging with students, and finding ways to help them see the value and benefit in learning for themselves.