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Contract cheating: shedding light on ghostwriting companies

Perspectives from U of T admin, @chungessays
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IVAN MILIUKOV/THE VARSITY
IVAN MILIUKOV/THE VARSITY

In recent years, essay mills and assignment-providing services have become a growing concern for U of T and educational institutions at large. While there is no indication that there has been an increase in U of T students using these services, ghostwriting — or paying someone else to write an assignment — is a form of plagiarism that is more difficult to detect than most.

The Varsity investigated how these essay mills operate and how the university has responded to them. More broadly, companies provide a wide range of academic services to students, and it remains difficult to detect them when used. 

A look at data behind contract cheating

In the university’s most recent report on academic integrity, released every November for the previous academic year, the data shows an increase in academic offence cases in the 2019–2020 academic year. The total number of closed cases where sanctions were imposed was 2,140 — 2.3 per cent of U of T’s student population — an increase from the average of about 1,636 cases each year from 2015–2019.

Since 2015, the most common type of offence has been plagiarism. There were 1,124 cases in 2019–2020; however, it is unclear exactly how many of these cases are of purchased essays or assignments. U of T’s website for summaries of cases decided by the Academic Integrity Tribunal since 1999 only lists 187 cases with the tag “Plagiarism and/or purchased essay.”

A U of T spokesperson wrote that “there is no indication of an increase in the number of cases of cheating by purchasing essays at U of T.” With the difficulty of tracing these cases, however, it is hard to say exactly how much it happens. Purchased essays may be harder to trace than other forms of plagiarism since websites like Turnitin only track material taken from existing sources, not new material purchased by a student. 

The spokesperson also noted that many essay-writing companies blackmail students by threatening to expose them to their university unless they make additional payments. “The University strongly encourages students to ask for an extension or other assistance rather than considering engaging in this behaviour,” the spokesperson wrote.

In a later email to The Varsity, a university spokesperson added that the university supports the Academic Integrity Council of Ontario’s subcommittee on contract cheating, which has developed an action plan to combat it.

The plan includes raising awareness about contract cheating among university administration, faculty, staff, students, and relevant provincial and national education stakeholders; developing strategies to reduce contract cheating; and advocating for legislation to prosecute contract cheating services.

 

A firsthand account of an essay-writing company

In an email to The Varsity, a U of T spokesperson wrote that the purchasing of essays or assignments is one of the most egregious offences under the university’s Code of Behaviour on Academic Matters. 

But even if students don’t seek out services, the services will frequently seek them out. Many essay-writing companies create Instagram accounts to follow students that appear to have connections to the universities they seek clients from. 

The Varsity reached out to @chungessays who, through an anonymous email used for the company’s services, replied to several questions. The writer explained that they decided to employ their skills by writing students’ essays for them after dropping out of university. 

They do not have a set price for their work and claim to be flexible in accordance with their client’s budget. While they do not ask for their clients’ personal information — such as their university — they wrote that they are “pretty sure [they] get some from [the] University of Toronto.” They also noted that they do receive more Canadian dollars than US dollars, indicating that they have more clients in Canada.

When asked whether any of their clients have ever gotten caught for buying their services, the company insisted that this had never happened. They claimed they are very careful because they value their clients’ academic success and their own career.

Instagram accounts for essay-writing services often follow many more similar accounts, not all of which exclusively cater to essay writing. Other service providers will write poems, do your math homework, or complete physics assignments. 

The U of T spokesperson noted that any student caught using one of these services will be referred to the University Tribunal. While this in itself is not outside of the ordinary, the university wrote that the sanctions against such actions “reflect the seriousness of the behaviour, and can result in multi-year suspensions.”