Paying someone to write an essay is not cheating: discuss. (1,800 words)
“Is it cheating?” asks the Oxbridge Essays website, over a picture of a pretty female student staring pensively into
the middle distance. “No” is the emphatic answer. “Ordering a model essay or dissertation does not make you a cheat,” says the site. “In fact, it usually shows that you are a hard-working and conscientious student.”
Oxbridge Essays was set up in 2006 to provide “model custom essays, dissertations and coursework” to students. You can get a custom quote on its site in seconds. Pick your level of study, your subject, word count, when you need the piece and what quality it needs to be, from 2:2 to upper first, and the price will flash up instantly. A 12,000 word PhD thesis in English literature delivered in four days and of a “publishable standard” will cost you £4,165. Meanwhile, an A-grade-standard, 1,000 word GCSE geography essay delivered in a month will set you back just £75.
The essays are written by a network of current students and graduates from Oxford and Cambridge universities. They are given access to a bulletin board where essay orders are posted: they select the ones that appeal and write to order, following notes on tone and style provided by the commissioning student.
One of these brains for hire is Tom, an Oxford graduate in his late twenties. I meet him in the library where he spends his days writing “sample essays” for people he will never meet. He’s an English lit graduate but writes papers in almost any humanities subject. “I can knock up a history essay, I can write a psychology essay or whatever, it’s all pretty doable,” he tells me. “It’s not like I could do a piece of work in any subject on any topic, but the range that I do write is pretty broad.”
I ask him how he sets about writing the pieces. “I don’t become an expert on the subjects, I basically just amass information from various easily accessible sources, lump it together and put it into a straightforward beginning, middle and end,” he says. “If I know something about it, I’ll start with something I have read, and if I don’t I start with Wikipedia and then work outwards to the source material from there. I will try to get some sort of argument going if I can, but it’s not always possible. A good amount of the work is done in the appearance of the piece, making it stylistically plausible, putting references in the right format and everything, having enough references and so on.”
Has he ever knocked out a PhD for someone? “No, but I have done some really long pieces. With those, probably the most important thing is that you hit the word count. It’s no good handing in 8,000 words when you should have handed in 12,000. It’s the absolute worst thing you can do. And sometimes, especially in an unfamiliar subject, you think, I have to get up enough steam here to write 15,000 words and it can’t just be gobbledygook, it’s got to make sense. There has to be some sort of story through the piece.”
Sometimes Tom’s jobs go above and beyond simple essay writing. “If it’s a social science piece, you sometimes have to concoct the research yourself, but it has to be plausible, so you sometimes have to design surveys and you have to make up the data as well. For one assignment I had to make up all the individual answers to the survey for each of 15 respondents or whatever. It actually took a lot of work. I was really chuffed I did it: I was thinking, I’m pretty sure nobody’s tried to do this before.”
I ask Tom how the system works from a legal point of view. “It’s a brilliant business model,” he says. “I almost wish I’d thought of it myself. For the client who buys the essay, it’s a criminal offence to hand it in as their own work. They would be committing fraud. And the stated position of Oxbridge Essays is that these sample essays should just be a springboard for your own research and must never be handed in. I don’t find it plausible that people wouldn’t sometimes hand these essays in as their own work, but it is semi-assertible in that I remember when I was a student, I sometimes thought it would be nice to see what a first-class essay on a certain topic would look like. It is strange to me, though, that people are paying hundreds of pounds to do that.”
What this also means, of course, is that if a student hands in an essay they have bought as their own work and it fails to get a mark at the level they paid for, they have no right to redress. “Say they paid for a first-class essay and they get a 2:2, they can’t come back to the company and say ‘I got a 2:2,’” says Tom. “Because it would be admitting fraud, and the entire legal liability rests with them. If I were advising customers what to buy, I would say just pay for the lowest mark, because if they are like me, it is unlikely that the writer is going to really pay much attention to the mark requested. What I am bothered about is getting enough words on to the page and it basically being a plausible piece of work. I am not going to bust a hump trying to make it a first-class essay. Especially when I know that the customer can’t complain if they hand it in and it doesn’t get a first.”
There are links to seven stories in Oxbridge Essays’ “Our Press” section. “This public exposure should further enhance your confidence in ordering with us,” it says. Of the seven, five no longer work, and the remaining two don’t paint the sunniest of pictures. One, in Cambridge student newspaper Varsity, quotes a student working for Oxbridge Essays who claims they are sure that their essays are used as more than study guides (Oxbridge Essays refutes the charge at the end of the piece) and also says: “I’m really cold towards people who pay for essays.” The other feature, hosted on the Kuwait Times website but originally published in the The Guardian, quotes a writer who also claims that they believe their essays will be handed in by students.
I ask Tom whether he struggles with the morality of what he does, or whether he has no problems with it. “I wouldn’t say either of those,” he replies. “In my experience, the few times I’ve got wind of who the customers are, they are clearly foreign students whose English is really bad. So it’s not like they are just crappy, lazy students with too much spare cash, it’s just that they shouldn’t really be at the universities that they are studying at. I think it is primarily the universities’ fault for admitting students who they probably know cannot produce the work involved, just because of the money they get for them.”
“For the client who buys the essay, it’s a criminal offence to hand it in as their own work”
Southampton Solent University takes a lot of foreign students each year. Sarah Cooper, who lectures in media at the university, says that she has never known a foreign student who’s been admitted wrongly and was unable to complete the course requirements because of language skills, but goes on to say: “If you’re talking about grammar skills issues, it’s not limited to foreign students: some of our English students have problems too.” She has never suspected a student of handing in a sample essay, but says that her students often ask her about it. A few years ago, an essay-writing company called Ivory Research was found to be touting for business just outside the campus, handing out cards to students. But Cooper doesn’t have a major problem with sample essay companies. “If there’s a demand for it, then someone’s going to meet that demand,” she says. “I think that Wikipedia has more to answer for than the essay-writing companies. You regularly get an essay come in and there are chunks of it that sit completely uncomfortably with the rest of the essay and when you Google them you see them show up in Wikipedia.” The university now uses plagiarism-spotting software called ‘Turnitin’ on every essay submitted.
Tom agrees that easy access to online resources lie at the root of the problem. “Even if you don’t resort to an essay-writing company, it is so easy to just go onto Wikipedia and paraphrase,” he says. “I never did that as an undergraduate, but I imagine that for a lot of things, especially humanities, you could: there will be a Wikipedia page that you just rephrase in your own way so that when they Google it, it doesn’t come up as plagiarised.”
Does this make him think less highly about British universities? “To be honest, I’m quite sceptical about undergraduate academia anyway,” he says. “Even at a really good university, there’s this technocratic way in which you are expected to study – ie ‘Just go off, read these things, basically just parrot them, throw in your own view if you can be bothered but we just want a summary of the canonical texts that is nice to read.’ I don’t think there is anything mystical or amazing going on there. For most people it is just a rite of passage, so I was never particularly idealistic about academia as such.”
Despite his scepticism about undergraduate education, Tom does have his limits when it comes to writing essays. “I care less if it’s something like English, where basically there is no upshot if they hand it in and pass their degree. Put it this way, I would outright refuse to do medicine or anything associated with it like biology or physiology.” What about law? “ Yeah, I guess law is ever-so-slightly dodgy. But I don’t really care if lawyers can’t do their jobs. In fact, depending on what area of law they are going into, I would actually prefer it if they couldn’t do their jobs.”
It’s a strange, lonely job being an essay hack. You don’t have the benefit of knowing your co-workers, or of having any real contact with the people you’re producing for. You get no feedback except the negative, when a student complains that you have not fulfilled their brief. “It’s really isolating,” says Tom. “I would never recommend anyone to do it unless they were incredibly bored or desperate. I don’t think that morally it’s as bad as it might sound, although I still don’t think it’s very good.” For the moment, though, the recession keeps Tom churning out the sample essays. “I guess from my point of view, I still feel better doing that than just, you know, being unemployed,” he says. “Which is pretty much what I would be otherwise.”
We contacted Oxbridge Essays for its comments on the issues raised in this feature but the company didn’t have time to respond.
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