With an increasing number of students buying essays online or from other students, Rachel Michaella Finn investigates whether Queen Mary, among other universities, has a problem with fake and plagiarised content
Deadlines are looming as the end of term approaches. You have what seems like a million books to read, not to mention research papers, essays and even a dissertation. Sure, maybe you should have started earlier, or taken better notes in lectures, or maybe even gone to your lectures. But now is not the time to look back. You’re mid-way through that all important research when you see it in the ad sidebar. “Buy custom essays online”, it says, “buy cheap non-plagiarised essays written quickly.”
Most would simply ignore the message, assuming these sites are dodgy or illegal. Yet an increasing number of students are turning to these “essay writing services” which, can write your essay, or even your whole dissertation – for a price.
These prices don’t start cheap. We queried one such company, Oxbridge Essays, who claim to provide “the UK’s best essay writing service, as featured on the BBC”, making inquiries into how much it would cost me to get an undergraduate 3,000 word essay written in two weeks by one of their writers. To receive a 2:2 piece of work, it would cost around £300, all the way up to £700 for an upper 1st (75+) piece of work. Decide you want the essay this time tomorrow and the price at least doubles; that same upper 1st essay costing me £1450 for next day delivery.
Despite the astronomical cost, buying an essay from one of these companies is not actually cheating; submitting one, however, is. Oxbridge Essays claim “ordering a model essay or dissertation does not make you a cheat. In fact, it usually shows that you are a hard-working and conscientious student.” These companies get around the fact that submitting an essay written by someone else is cheating by claiming their essays are only written as ‘examples’, a pretty expensive one albeit.
But how does this fit in at Queen Mary and at UK universities as a whole? We produced an anonymous survey posed to students, 65% of respondents being current or ex-QM students and the remaining 35% being current or ex-students at another UK-based university. 40% of those interviewed said they knew someone who had submitted work they had not written, either by someone else writing the essay entirely (essay buying) or by copying someone else’s work (plagiarism) although only 3% of those surveyed admitted to having done it personally. Of those respondents, 64% were produced by a fellow student and 14% were bought from a website such as Oxbridge Essays.
“I couldn’t believe my friend got away with it,” one respondent told us, at a University of London college aside from Queen Mary, “he literally submitted his brother’s dissertation. But his brother was at an American university, not a British one”. Another respondent, this time from Queen Mary, told us that a friend “submitted an entirely plagiarised dissertation”, whilst another claims that they have a friend who “paid someone else to write an essay”. It all leaves a lot of questions as to how thorough the university’s checks on submitted content are.
With an essay written for you by someone else, plagiarism check systems are usually unable to detect it, as they check for the originality of the essay in terms of other published sources, not originality in terms of the author who submitted the piece. Queen Mary’s plagiarism check ‘Turn It In’ boasts a worldwide database of 45 billion web pages, 337 million student papers, and 130 million academic books or publications. But despite this, plagiarism sometimes slips through the net.
Students fluent in more than one language can be at an advantage. One respondent said: “students with the ability to understand one or more other languages than the university’s chosen language for submission can get material [in that language] and translate”.
But obviously, the university’s stance on cheating is clear. A QMUL spokesperson told us: “we take plagiarism very seriously and have robust processes in place for both preventing and detecting instances of plagiarism. Our students also have a responsibility to understand the gravity of plagiarism as an issue and we have clear guidelines outlining our policies.”
But are these guidelines clear enough? Almost 40% of respondents said they were “unsure” how the university even checked for plagiarism, and a further 43% claimed that they felt “not enough” information is provided on plagiarism and cheating.
Not everyone who ‘cheats’ does it deliberately. Your essay can get flagged up as being self-plagiarised (repeating some of your own previous work), or by incorrectly referencing and appearing to try and pass off a theorist’s work as your own. 16% of respondents have accidentally plagiarised, with incorrect referencing being the most common source of accidental plagiarism. Further technicalities add to this problem; for example, in the English department, you usually can’t write about the same novel in more than one essay in any particular module, although this might not always be made clear.
Our research suggests some students unaware of checking and plagiarism processes are being caught out, and some that are deliberately cheating are getting away with it, which leaves this question as to how many students have got away with essays, dissertations or even parts of their entire degrees due to the work of others. Does QMUL have a cheating problem? Admittedly, nearly all of our survey respondents claimed they “probably wouldn’t” report someone they thought to be cheating, but with 4 out of 10 respondents admitting they know someone who has cheated, it seems to be a problem known about but not reported.