The emergence of numerous sites offering essay writing services to students has universities scrambling to change policies on academic misconduct. Within Australia, the issue of plagiarism was magnified in October 2012, when an article published by The Australian, centered on the expulsion of 9 students from Deakin University. The students were expelled for submitting essays which they had purchased online.
Detecting just who is submitting their own work is seemingly an impossible task for universities. This is made easier by software such as Turnitin, which is now in widespread use within higher education institutions. As explained by Kelly Heyboer writing for The Star Ledger, "The Turnitin software allows professors to upload a paper and instantly check the text against 14 billion web pages and an archive of 150 million student papers. The professors are sent a report detailing any sentences or paragraphs in the student paper that appear to be lifted from other sources." Some claim that programs such as Turnitin might actually be creating the situation where students are more likely to plagiarism. Speaking with The Age, Dr Ruth Walker of Wollongong University stated that programs such as Turnitin had a negative impact upon student anxiety, stating that "When people are more anxious they can do bad things." International Education Association of Australia Executive Director Phil Honeywood claimed that despite the use of Turnitin, "tracking down plagiarism is not a perfect science."
Purchasing essays, on the other hand, appears to be a relatively perfect science. Out of interest, (and as if to model the modern researching strategy), I googled 'essays for sale'. Surely it wouldn't be as easy as that, I foolishly thought. To my surprise, a number of different websites immediately popped up offering students "first rate" essays from as little as $9 per 300 word page.
'Tailored Essays' ask of their customers, "How would you like to save hours and days of your valuable time by having a first-rate writer complete a quality essay for you?" Who could possibly say no to that? For $19.95 per page, a student can have an essay in their inbox within 24 hours. Comedy must be a strong suit of the Tailored Essay writers, who claim that:
"We have three payment options regarding how fast you want you custom written essay to be done. To save your money, place your next order now and avoid deadline pressures. And did we mention that you receive bibliography page for free?"
Maybe a set of steak knives as well?
However, 'Buy Essays Cheap' go one step further, offering their clients a "No Plagiarism Guarantee,' which is supported by their claim to be constantly using and updating "plagiarism detection software." . According to the 'Buy Essays Cheap' website, "Thesis writing is one of the most challenging tasks undertaken by students in their academic career. However, there is a cheap thesis writing service which provides students with thesis writing and editing assistance - BuyEssaysCheap.com." At this point in time, I should point out that this is a genuine, and apparently flourishing, business. The site even contains testimonials from satisfied, though anonymous, customers.
The benevolent 'Advanced Writers' claim that ""Eliminating the worries is our goal, and by creating custom written essays for sale, we are providing you with a safe choice when you need to write essays for school, high school, college, university or master's academic course level."
Clearly, the purchasing of essays from online businesses is a fairly blatant form of academic misconduct. However, at least amongst detected cases the proportion of students plagiarising by purchasing essays is relatively low. In many instances, it is a lack of awareness as to what plagiarism actually is, that is causing an increasing number of university students to be hauled in front of disciplinary committees. Writing for The Guardian, Sue Littlemore referred to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, Rob Behrens, who claimed that the instance of students facing allegations of academic misconduct in the United Kingdom had risen sharply in recent years. According to Behrens, this is largely due to lack of information amongst students as to what plagiarism actually is. As stated by Behrens, "We can no longer have assumptions about what students know when they go to university."
Furthermore, in the age of mass information and information sharing, the concept of intellectual integrity may be less easily grasped. Donald L. McCabe of the Center for Academic Integrity conducted a series of surveys which sought opinions from students on academic misconduct between 2006 and 2010, finding that the percentage of students who considered cut and pasting of information from the internet to be "serious cheating", was in steady decline.
"Now we have a whole generation of students who've grown up with information that just seems to be hanging out there in cyberspace and doesn't seem to have an author," said Teresa Fishman, director of the Center for Academic Integrity at Clemson University, told Trip Gabriel of the New York Times. "It's possible to believe this information is just out there for anyone to take."
This seems to be the perfect storm. The availability of online sources offering essays for sale; the declining understanding amongst students of what plagiarism is; the limited perception of intellectual property and seemingly endless supply of information online all contribute in some way to student plagiarism. However, many argue that the institution should take some responsibility as well. According to Ashworth, Bannister and Thorne (1997, pp.201-202), "Cheating is sometimes a symptom of some more general malaise." According to Ashworth et al. (1997, pp.201-202) students are more likely to consider cheating as an excusable practice, when courses are viewed as being of lesser importance, or are poorly taught.
The student-teaching staff relationship is a critical predictor of academic misconduct amongst students. Simkin and Macleod (2010, p.450) found that students were much less likely to cheat when they respected the teaching staff. On the other hand, discontent arising from "how students perceived themselves to be regarded by academic staff" lead to a higher instance of cheating amongst students (Ashworth, Bannister and Thorne 1997, p.202). In an era where grades, or the endpoint of the learning process, are considered to be of greater importance than the actual manner in which those grades are attained, Rabi et al. (2006, p.1) claim that "teaching methods such as fairness and focusing on learning" can reduce cheating. Simple, yet apparently effective. As Lord and Chiodo (1995, p.324) lament, "learning in academia has been replaced by credentialling."
If this criticism holds true, students falling into the trap of feeling as though credentials can be essentially purchased, may not necessarily be all that surprising.