Page last updated at 15:46 GMT, Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Essay auctions 'harder to catch'

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News, education reporter

Buy now, online shopping
Lecturers warn that some students think they can buy degrees

Universities warn that students who cheat by commissioning essays from other students are proving harder to catch than other types of plagiarism.

Students are using websites to outsource their essays - inviting other students to put forward their most competitive bids for the work.

Robert Clarke, a lecturer at Birmingham City University, has identified 4,000 sales on a small number of websites.

Unlike other copied work, he says it is hard for plagiarism software to detect.

"The difficulty is that it is original work - it's just not the original work of the student handing in the assignment," says Mr Clarke, principal lecturer in the Department of Computing.

'Arms race'

Unlike material copied from the internet or recycled work bought from "essay mills", these are usually one-off essays, which he says are hard for universities to spot as cheats.

Universities face a range of different types of plagiarism

A recent workshop at the university into this so-called contract cheating heard from Tony Jenkins at the University of Leeds that academics were in an "arms race" with cheats - with cheating websites trying to keep ahead of efforts to detect them.

He warned the workshop that the cost of buying essays in this competitive marketplace was within reach of many students.

"For a little over $120 we managed to pass the coursework component of an introductory programming module with a reasonable grade. We evaded all the usual detection measures. This really was very easy indeed."

Mr Clarke has been monitoring this type of cheating - in which students and other writers compete for tenders to produce essays and assignments - and he warns that the problem is becoming a growing threat to the higher education system.

His own monitoring has been of a handful of websites, but he has identified more than 130 websites associated with this trade.

"It is a major worry if they can buy their degrees - it devalues the qualification," says Mr Clarke.

Calculated risk

What concerns Mr Clarke is a change in attitude towards scholarship among students who "think that they've paid for the course, so they should get the degrees".

He says that students are putting out tenders for their assignments to be written as soon as they are given to them - so that there is no excuse that they are caught in a last-minute panic.

"They have never had any intention of doing the work themselves," he says.

"These are substantial pieces of work - final year assignments and MSc projects."

The amount of cheating that is going on is very hard to gauge, he says. The most effective way of detecting such fraud is for lecturers to realise that it is unlike a student's regular work, says Mr Clarke.

But in many universities there is an increasing chance that lecturers are not personally familiar with students and what could be expected from their writing style.

'Repeat offenders'

Mr Clarke has been monitoring websites which are particularly used by computer degree students - but he says there is also a trade in law, economics and science degree work.

He highlights a website which has dozens of offers for anyone wanting to buy help with coursework in a range of subjects.

These "experts" are reviewed by their previous customers: "I gave him a job to do and he delivered promptly on time as agreed," says one reviewer of an expert who has more than 2,800 customer comments.

Mr Clarke has gathered examples of contract cheating. As well as requests for essays this includes a tender for someone to help with a real-time online module, with an instruction that the paid helper would need to be available to swap instant messages during this time slot.

There are "repeat offenders", including one student who wanted to buy 76 assignments in a year.

And there is a request for research work for a PhD - with the warning that this would have to be able to avoid detection by university plagiarism software.

The sting

Universities face a range of other types of cheating - including cutting and pasting from material from the internet and students buying essays from essay-writing companies and submitting them as their own.

This is a globalised trade - and Mr Clarke says that universities need to take a more concerted, collective action.

Individual universities have often been reluctant to acknowledge the extent of problems with cheating, because of the threat of damaging publicity and the risk to the reputation of their degrees.

However Mr Clarke is not proposing to copy the sting tactics of a lecturer in the United States who identified one of his own students trying to pay someone to write an essay for him.

The lecturer put in a bid to write the essay himself - which once completed was sent to the student, who unwittingly submitted the essay to the lecturer, who then revealed himself as the author.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

As academic jobs are on the line, if you fail too many students, with the commercial culture of many of the lesser ranked institutions who depend heavily on student income; even if you suspect and/or can prove it you may not want to deal with it. The only time I have seen department heads get upset, having spent 9 years in academia in two universities, is when you want to fail students. I am aware in one institution that students in an anonymous survey admitted that an on-line assessment, undertaken remotely, is often undertaken by the class ‘nerd’ for a fee. The assessment has been restructured to avoid that problem now.
Gary, Princeton, NJ, USA

Is this the end of coursework then?
Ralph, Surrey

What's the big deal? Private school kids have their parents buying them an education. Is there any difference?
Peter, London

This does not surprise me. As a recent university drop-out (who had a realisation I was going to leave with too much debt to cope with), you expect a degree at the end of the 3/4 years because of how much money you have pumped into the university. Nobody wants to spend £9,000 over a span of 3 years on tuition fees alone, to leave with nothing. Also, the university style culture is very much to blame. On my course, you were given nothing to do for 8 weeks, and then in the remaining 4 weeks you were expected to write and hand in three essays, along with coping with all the frivolities that is expected of a 20-year old.
Nicola, Stratford-upon-Avon

People who cheat in this manner are simply squandering their opportunity to gain from the courses they attend. Too many people these days seem expect to get things given to them for no effort. The university culture referred to in a previous comment expects students to be responsible enough to cope with serious work. As for Peter's comment comparing this form of dull cheating to having a private school education - the difference is that students come out of any good school, state or otherwise, with a great deal of knowledge because the do real work to achieve it.
Gareth , New Malden

This is why they invented exams. It can be an exam on your coursework - justifying reasons why you made certain decisions in it etc. If they pass their coursework with flying colours, but fail dismally in the exam, there's probably a reason for that.

I think that people can't cheat as much in exams. I have just qualified as a professional marketer. I had to take 8 x 3 hour exams and there is absolutely no way I could've cheated as you have to be ID'd with photographic ID, student card etc and no names are put on the exam. Coursework has and always will be rife with plagiarism.
Jenny Lane, London

I think the saddest part of this, are the students are cheating themselves too!! I learnt so much just by researching my assignments! Maybe there should be a journal attached with each assignment, outlining how and where students got the information needed, and what they learnt "incidentally" along the way. I agree with Rand, exams and presentations ( with lecturer asking relevant questions) would be good, directly associated with the coursework. Unless you've got a brainy twin, there's no way out of that!! is there??
Karen, Manchester

In response to Rand, exams still don't prove or disprove anything - not everyone copes well with exams and/or may have an 'off day' on the day of the exam, thus giving them a bad grade. That doesn't mean they've cheated. I'm at university and am not a cheat but I can understand the pressure which drives some students to cheat. We're constantly told how A-levels mean nothing and how our degrees won't be worth the paper they're written on - what sort of incentive is that to work hard at university? I'd sooner have been born without intelligence and have been good at football instead - that's the way to make millions these days, not academia.
Rob, UK

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