The University of Toronto’s St. George campus is teeming with posters advertising custom essay-writing services to students. The university’s official recommended punishment for submitting purchased work is expulsion. Posing as a first-year student behind on their work, The Varsity spoke to Custom Essay and Essay Experts and purchased a three-page paper from Essay Experts in order to learn more about the process.
Essay Experts charged $124 for a 750-word paper. Custom Essay offers similar rates. Both companies claim that their papers are written by qualified professionals, and said that all of their work is original and will not be flagged as plagiarism by websites like turnitin.com.
Marcel Vilanez, a representative of Essay Experts, said that the company’s papers are not meant to be submitted as is. “You are not supposed to submit the essay directly to your professor. That would go against the university code. This is why we give you time with the paper, so you can write your own. It is as if we are another student in the class, perhaps a very good student, and you want to see their answer, what they would write,” he said. The company website claims that it is completely legal to purchase work as long as it is properly attributed, and outlines the proper way to cite Essay Experts’ work in an original paper.
In contrast, Nick — a representative of Custom Essay — said that he would not recommend that a student purchase work from the company and cite parts of it in an original paper. “I wouldn’t dream of it. You are asking for trouble. You would probably get thrown out of university. We are not credible enough to quote,” he said. The company even offers a $25 service to run its papers through turnitin.com, to reassure students who are worried about getting caught. Turnitin saves copies of all the papers it receives, so it is not clear how this service would make the paper less likely to be flagged at a later date.
Custom Essay’s website is registered under an organization called Domains by Proxy, a company that offers domain privacy services to companies who wish to anonymize the personal information of their domain owners.
The purchased paper was written according to the requirements of an actual assignment for PHL275 — Introduction to Ethics. The paper answered the question: “Is psychological egoism true? If it were true, what implications would this have for our understanding of morality?” It received an approximate grade of C+ or B- from the instructor of PHL275, professor Thomas Hurka. “It covers the territory but it is not written in a mature way. It only reports on other people’s opinions and tends to rely on quotations to make its points, which is in a way more of a high school than university way of writing,” said Hurka.
Both Vilanez and Nick were contacted on the record and informed of The Varsity’s investigation. Both claimed that they provide work for reference only, and would never counsel a student to hand in the essays they purchase. During The Varsity’s original interaction with Nick, he stated: “Once we give [the essay] to you, what you do with it is your business. We can’t tell you anything, basically. We do the research for you and then it’s your property.”
University does not have a clear policy on citing purchased work
The university does not have a clear policy on whether or not citing a purchased work would constitute an academic offence. The Code of Behaviour on Academic Matters states that it is an offence to “obtain unauthorized assistance in any academic examination or term test or in connection with any other form of academic work.” It also states that the recommended sanction for submitting purchased work is expulsion, with a minimum sanction of suspension, and zero as the final grade where the offence occurred.
Though Essay Experts claims to have served “literally thousands of students” nationwide, and maintains that its services should be properly cited, Michael Kurts, assistant vice-president, strategic communications and marketing at U of T, stated that the University Tribunal is not aware of any case where a student has cited a purchased work. “Whether in any particular assignment such an action would amount to an academic offence would depend on the particular circumstances of that case; however, it is difficult to see how such a purchase and citation could add any academic merit to the student’s work,” he said. “Students should be very reluctant to expose themselves to the risk of a prosecution arising from the purchase and use of custom essays.”
Instructors disagree on whether citing purchased work is acceptable
Some educators say that citing purchased work makes it too easy to stretch into the territory of academic offence. Jacques Bertrand, associate professor in the Department of Political Science, commented that he would absolutely not accept work that cited purchased essays, adding that he considers such services deeply problematic. Kimberly Clark, a teaching assistant in the Peace, Conflict, and Justice Studies program, echoes the sentiment. She says that upon seeing an essay company cited in a paper, she would request a meeting with the student, and ask them to produce the source. “Of course,” she says, “in producing the source, the student will then open the door to a number of potentially damaging consequences for their academic record.”
Jessica Soedirgo, a TA in the Department of Political Science, says that she would not accept a paper that cited an essay writing service. “These services, they’re notorious essay mills. Citing them is just, it’s problematic. That’s terrible,” she said, adding that she thinks most students who purchase work would hide this fact, rather than cite it in an original paper.
The contrast between citing purchased work and submitting it in whole is important for Hurka. He compares the essays provided by the service to any other external work incorporated into a final paper. He said that if a student borrowed a paper from a past student in a class, used it for guidance, and cited it appropriately, it would not constitute plagiarism. He said that he does not see a significant difference between this and citing a purchased work. As long as the bulk of the work is done by the student themselves and the source is cited properly, it does not constitute plagiarism, he says.
“It’s hard to believe that they would pay for an essay in order to cite it,” said Clifford Orwin, a professor of political science, adding: “Why would you turn to what an essay mill tells you about Machiavelli with the intention to cite it, when you could turn to what legitimate scholars say about Machiavelli?”