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Why are students using essay writing services to cheat?

A recent BBC investigation found that more than 250 YouTube channels are being paid to promote EduBirdie, a service which lets students buy essays rather than write them themselves. Is cheating rife in our schools and universities?

A lot of focus has been placed on YouTube’s responsibility to do something about it. But what’s clear is the implicit popularity of these essay writing services – it can’t be a small and struggling industry for companies like EduBirdie to be paying so many YouTube stars for adverts.

The investigation also raised questions over why students would use an essay writing service. Unbelievably, in their adverts a few YouTubers said that EduBirdie would free up your time so you can play video games or take drugs.

The EduBirdie website itself is more vague, saying: “when you buy a custom essay through EduBirdie, you’ll have more time to focus on what matters while achieving academic success.”

Pulling a fast one?

Of course, academic success isn’t the only thing that matters in life, but if you do choose to undertake higher education you should probably take it somewhat seriously – whatever EduBirdie says.

Yet I don’t think it’s always the case that students are trying to pull a fast one when they use an essay writing service. It’s probably true in some cases, but I think it’s a more nuanced issue than that.

We all know that education can be challenging – if you’re a student, or know someone who is, it’s worth taking a look at our revision advice for tips on lessening the load.

Under pressure

When I was at school and university, I felt under extreme pressure to succeed. I never went as far as to use an essay writing service, but I also accept that my environment allowed me to work hard and focus on my studies.

This considered, part of me can understand why someone would use one of these services. If a student has a challenging home life or they’re working two jobs just to get by at uni, for example, they simply might not have enough time, resources or mental energy to really commit to their work.

A student might also suffer from a severe lack of self-belief in their own abilities, but simultaneously might not want to be seen as a failure by their family or friends. Universities are increasingly tuned into mental health and wellbeing issues, and there’s often help for students if they need it.

I’m not saying that anyone should get a pass to submit work that isn’t theirs, but I think it’s important to consider the myriad of reasons a student might have to do that – and try to understand and learn from it.

Harsh penalties

If a student gets caught submitting work that isn’t theirs, the penalties can be severe. But there’ll likely be no or minimal repercussions for companies like EduBirdie, as essay writing services aren’t illegal.

But even if you can get away with it, is it worth it? What about the wider damage done to education? It certainly muddies the playing field in terms of fairness. And there’s actually no certainty that you will earn a good grade with a fake essay.

Essay writing services tend to say they can guarantee a top grade. But when the BBC ordered an English Literature GCSE coursework essay, it was given a level 5/6 (or around a C, if you haven’t yet got to grips with the new GCSE grading system).

And the first-year degree course assignment it paid for earned 60%, which is good but not quite jaw-dropping.

Would you use an essay writing service if you were a school or university student? How do we tackle the problem?

Comments

There are a number of issues with students, firstly too many youngsters are getting high marks for school exams when they still are unable to calculate without a calculator and also unable to spell correctly without using spell check. They then start to look at university probably through peer pressure when they are not really academically suitable.

The other issue is social media which the youngsters spend too much time on; they are so busy putting what they are doing or looking at what friends are doing with their social life instead of studying.

Many will probably have low paid jobs to try and cover some of their living costs; I feel that the funding for students probably needs to be looked at as they cannot properly study if working all hours just to pay for rent and food.

So with this combination of not really being academically suited and the pressures of keeping up their social media persona they are wasting everybody’s time and efforts.

And finally many are still studying courses which have no real use in the real world then wonder why they don’t get a good high paid job once they have graduated.

Or maybe I’m totally wrong.

It’s simply cheating, whatever excuses are made. Education is about learning, and if you buy in work you are not learning so you are cheating yourself and your future. Just like writing a false CV. Learning is hard work for many; no way round it.

DerekP says:
4 May 2018

Whilst any students who pay others to do their coursework for them might end up might end up by passing their courses, if they ever have to pass written comprehension and writing tests as part of a job interview, then they’ll really struggle.

UK universities have access to Turnitin UK, an online service for detection of plagiarism. Plagiarism is copying of text or ideas without acknowledgement of their source.

Some weaker students will assemble essays by copying and pasting material from websites, electronic journals, etc. Turnitin (and similar software) does a comparison of all the text in the essay with all publicly accessible material on websites and produces similarity reports showing what has been copied and where it has been copied from. The same could be achieved by doing hundreds of Google search but Turnitin makes the job very much easier. There are various ways that Turnitin can be used but a common one is that the student submits their own document as a Word or pdf file.

Once a document is submitted, their document forms part of the Turnitin database. That means that Turnitin can check if material is copied from another student doing the same module, or one who has done an essay on the same subject in another university, during a different year or in another country.

I have not heard of EduBirdie but when I retired there were several other essay writing services with some questionable credentials. It’s quite likely that users will purchase essays that are of low quality. Despite claims, they may not be original, so would be picked up by Turnitin.

I cannot speak for other subjects but in science the good students rarely copied material from websites or cheated in other ways, though there was the odd exception. Doing paid work when studying can leave students very short of time, a major driver for plagiarism. Robert James mentions the problem of shortage of time in his post above. Turnitin can be seen as a ‘big brother’ approach, but many good students welcome its use because without it, cheating students could gain credit for work they have not done and as a student you are working with others in a competitive environment.

Plagiarism can be deterred by good teaching and assessment, including using a variety of different forms of assessment, which also offers the advantage of testing different skills. Giving different essay topics each year discourages students passing on their work to friends in the following year.

I have no idea if plagiarism detection if being used in schools and colleges but part of the problem that universities are experience stems from the fact that some school teachers turn a blind eye to plagiarism. Fortunately others strongly discourage cheating.

I agree with much that has been said except “as a student you are working with others in a competitive environment” Surely if you put in the work and have the ability you will qualify? It is not a battle against other students. I’m sure the comment was not meant that way.

I read engineering and, thinking back to my course, don’t see how buying work or plagiarising could have been of any help. Most was learning to think and investigate, assimilating knowledge, facts and techniques and how to apply them, and conducting experiments and drawing conclusions. I hope none of that has changed.

Sorry if I did not make myself clear, Malcolm. What I was referring to was the competition to do better than your fellow students. That provides a valuable incentive to do better.

One thing that has changed, at least in higher education, is that knowledge, the ability to recall information, is a low level skill, when we live in an age when information is so readily available. Analysing information and applying it to new situations and drawing conclusions are examples of higher skills. In our subject areas, essay writing would probably form a minor part of the assessed work, whereas it is more important in other disciplines.

I have been looking at the terms and conditions on the EduBirdie website:

5.3. Neither Plan B Services [owners of EduBirdie] nor any of its affiliates and / or partners shall be liable for any inappropriate, illegal, unethical, or otherwise wrongful use of the products and / or other written material received from Writers. This includes plagiarism, expulsion, academic probation, loss of scholarships / titles / awards / prizes / grants / positions, lawsuits, poor grading, failure, suspension, or any other disciplinary or legal actions. Customers shall take up the matter directly with Writers for resolution of any disputes.

The US company will take no responsibility for the consequences of using their service. That’s alright then.

Presumably someone choosing to use the services of EduBirdie has decided to cheat. They must accept the consequences. Why might they feel entitled to take action against someone else? I do not agree with this type of service but it’s existence seems to rely on (dishonest) willing customers.

It is certainly the responsibility of the student not to cheat, but I am not happy about any company or individual offering to help anyone cheat. Financial advisers sometimes cross the line between tax avoidance and tax evasion.

There are many ways of discouraging cheating, or ‘unfair means’ if you prefer. One is to have a variety of different forms of assessment contributing to a module mark. This has the advantage of testing different skills as well as decreasing the effect of cheating in one form of assessment.

It is interesting to look at the reasons why students cheat. Shortage of time, either due to making a late start on a piece of work and other pressures such as doing paid work, sport fixtures, family commitments (in the case of mature students) and plain laziness can all be factors. Those whose first language is not English may be tempted to copy text because they find it difficult to express themselves.

By gaining a qualification after cheating is not just cheating the system, but yourself and an employer, as you have not acquired the knowledge necessary. Whatever the reasons or excuses.

I would be interested to know to what extent writing services actually improve marks. I don’t think any of my colleagues used straightforward ‘essays’ as part of their assignments, except for first year tutorial work. At ‘my’ university first year marks did not contribute to the degree grade and module marks, and were used to determine whether students were fit to progress to second year. If you avoid doing work in the first year you will be poorly prepared for the second year.

Anyone wishing to recruit someone for employment, whether a graduate or not, can look at the qualifications and what is in a CV but really needs to carry out their own investigations.

I saw a lot of professionally-prepared CVs – with words like “passionate” seemingly essential to include. I was far more impressed with what appeared to be a CV constructed just by the applicant.

However, it took 6 months in many cases to see just what a new employee had to offer, not only with regard to their skills but also their attitude. Seeing a job through, recognising then correcting mistakes, taking responsibility for their work and thinking how to do it better. Sadly lacking in some these days who seem to think they are entitled to a job and that it only occupies 9-5. Maybe they are right 🙁

All the applications I’ve seen were obviously written by the applicant and generally adapted to suit the information available for the advertised post. Anyone who sends in a standard CV does not deserve further consideration, now that it is so easy to tailor an application and demonstrate that you have at least done your homework.

Our departmental policy was to encourage first year students to produce or update a draft CV and show it to their academic supervisor. Some students had received from careers advisers, made use of advice on websites or even paid for help. The latter were more likely to contain overstatement of ability and words such as passionate. I strongly believe that actual job applications, personal statements etc. should be written by the individual, though having someone check the spelling and grammar can be useful.