The plagiarism business

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently ran a piece by a man who makes his living writing ‘bespoke’ essays for university students: The Shadow Scholar.

I’ve been keeping an eye on this business since I was flyered by one ‘Oxbridge Essays’ on campus about five years ago. At the time I was officially a PhD student, so possibly a customer (they’ll do you an 80,000 word PhD thesis in a month for a bit over £10000). I was also a part-time lecturer though. I’d just dealt with my first case of plagiarism, and the dude flyering got rather an earful.

I can recommend spending some time on the Oxbridge Essays website. Their cynicism is an eye-opener if nothing else. is also worth a read. They both stress that the essays are for research purposes only, a way of finding a model answer. They present themselves as a support center for students. Oxbridge Essays has a blog covering issues like the increase in fees. Both also stress their openness. You can see photos of the UK Essays writers, and visit Oxbridge Essays’ offices. According to an interesting piece from the Guardian, they are both owned by Barclay Littlewood who, via a link on his wikipedia page, I learnt had made the 2008 Sunday Times Rich List (see also a piece from 2007 and another from 2006).

If any of those links depress you, you might find the scepticism of this student forum page cheering.

Such ‘bespoke’ essays are unlikely to be caught by plagiarism checks (e.g. turnitin) and more likely to fit the coursework brief than cutting and pasting off the web. I do know a tutor who once caught a student who had bought an essay from such a site. She noticed a sudden rise in a student’s standard of coursework, so pulled him into a meeting to discuss the essay’s topics, at which point he broke down and admitted it. But she only spotted this because she is a good tutor who knows her students, one that thinks about their development as she works through her marking. I think it’s fair to say that tutors like that are less likely to get students cheating in the first place.

When I first caught that undergrad cheating, I was angry with her. I thought she was being phenomenally lazy (it was a real doozy of a cheat) not to mention downright cheeky to think such laziness was ok when other students had bothered to produce original work. But part of me also felt like I’d failed her slightly, that she either felt unable or simply uninspired by the coursework. I don’t think I was just being hard on myself. I think any sign of student failure (and this includes them making ‘stupid mistakes’ as well as dishonesty) should be taken as a signal for the teacher to at the very least check themselves. I think assessment is not just a part of measuring learning, but helping to develop it. I put a lot of effort into setting and marking coursework. I think most (good) lecturers do. Still, it is difficult, and even the best lecturers will set coursework students cannot do well in. This isn’t (just) because we set challening work, it’s because it’s bad coursework: confusingly articulated, uninspiring. As another bespoke essay writer puts it ‘Imagine trying to write a novel, for a grade, under a tight deadline, without ever having read a novel’ (hat-tip Paula Salgado for that link).

I’m not saying we should ‘spoon-feed’ lazy students or set easier work (or let cheaters get away with it), I’m just saying a good coursework assignment is a project students can and want to work on.

So, educators: read up on this bespoke essay business. Keep an eye out for students using it, but take their existence as a challenge to yourself too. As the guy in the Chronicle piece put it ‘I live well on the desperation, misery, and incompetence that your educational system has created’. If you find him disgusting, think about how you can most productively help cut off the food supply.

20 thoughts on “The plagiarism business

  1. William Cullerne Bown

    I think your story about the tutor who spotted a student who had done this is the clue to a partial remedy to this problem.

    As demonstrated, essays are fakeable. Vivas are not. So the (partial) solution is to make all degrees assessed by vivas, for which a university may, if it chooses, accept written work as a substitute. Marks for essays stop being points towards a degree grade and become merely provisional grades and potential points, provided you don’t disappoint on a viva.

    I’m not saying that universities should actually do all assessment by vivas. In fact, almost nothing should change in day-to-day life. But this would allow suspicious tutors to verify and act on their concerns.

    Instead of being faced with the impossible problem of proving an essay is a fake, a suspicious tutor would instead call a viva. If the student fails, then they fail that essay/coursework/degree. The university might then decide to assess all that student’s work by viva. This in turn would make these despicable services much less valuable to students.

    There could also be random viva spot checks.

    1. Kieron Flanagan

      @william – At one institution I know fairly well academics are specifically precluded from viva-ing students where there are concerns about the originality/origin of their work. They can only do it in a situation where examiners disagree about the mark to be awarded.

      @alice – I’m more and more convinced that coursework design is something we all need to reflect hard upon. But, whatever they say about quality and ‘the student experience’ I’m afraid our employers want us to spend minimal time on these tasks, maximum on REFable journal articles…

      1. alicerosebell Post author

        One thing we’ve done with some of the undergraduate courses I’ve taught on is set coursework which is really hard to plagiarise – you really need to be in class to complete it. It doesn’t work for all topics though.

  2. William Cullerne Bown

    Or, do we know anybody who could buy Oxbridge Essays? Or even better, hack it. I love the idea of publishing all their customer details!

    In fact, if there’s anybody out there who has been writing for OE or similar and now regrets it, I would be very interested in talking to you. Confidentiality is over-rated you know.

    1. alicerosebell Post author

      Yes, there are people who are happy to write about it and defend their jobs, would be interesting to see those who’d admit to regret.

      I’m SURE I read in the Guardian a while back that the founder of Oxbridge essays was a business studies undergrad from UWE. His uni tried to chuck him out, but couldn’t find anything in their rules about a student acting as a broker to allow cheating in other universities. Added a few extra levels of cynicism to it for me. I can’t find that story anywhere now though – I must be mis-remembering or my google-fu is entirely failing me.

  3. Nathan

    One of the sample essays provided by Oxbridge Essays refers to “Dicken’s Bleak House” in the first line… I’d feel cheated if I paid for that.

  4. Joana Andrade

    Having done my undergraduate degree in another country and having been a marker/demonstrator for a couple of years, I think there are also some cultural nuances to plagiarism. British academic culture values individual and original work a lot while in others what matters the most is having a degree, especially if having a degree is seen as a way of attaining social status or financial security. Coming from that kind of background it makes more sense to buy/copy an essay than to write one. I have also encountered 1st year students that didn’t have the concept of plagiarism, as long as you provided an answer it didn’t matter where you got it from, you had to explain them why they couldn’t just look for answers on the internet or ask some colleagues to let them copy the results-I know it sounds strange, but it is true.

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