Many readers may have heard whisper of companies that offer a range of writing services — some more ethical than others. Although some companies offer to edit and polish writing, others can write PhD research proposals, masters’ theses, or even a dissertation. In other words, the students engage in so-called “contract cheating” — paying someone else to produce work they pass of as their own. We spoke to Cath Ellis at UNSW Sydney, first author of a recent analysis in the International Journal for Educational Integrity, about the extent of the problem, and what troubles her most about these services.
Retraction Watch: How many sites appear to offer PhD theses, which then might get published? Or any other services that could end up in the published literature (say, by even established researchers)?
Cath Ellis: They all certainly offer to do PhD writing. The order forms for the sites we looked at have a lot of fields, many of which can only be filled via pull down menus. One of these is usually the Academic Level and the pull-down menu usually allows clients to choose any level of study right up to PhD. There is also sometimes a specific section of the website titled ‘dissertation’ or ‘research help’ which explicitly invites clients to hire a professional to write their PhD. How much of this kind of work they actually do in relation to, say, undergraduate essays is hard to say with any kind of accuracy.
We are able to see bits of information relating to orders that are placed on some of the sites because of the RSS feeds that they provide. Through our analysis, we inferred that the purpose of these feeds is to facilitate the distribution of available orders to a team of freelance writers. Other research has shown that writers vie with each other to grab the most lucrative and easy orders. Because they may be working for multiple sites an RSS feed probably helps writers keep an eye on the orders as they are made available by the website owners. The feeds contain just enough information for writers to make a judgment about whether the order is worth bidding for. While we don’t know everything about the order from these feeds, we’ve seen some coming through that have clearly been placed by PhD candidates.
I think it’s unlikely that many established researchers are using the sites we’ve found to get papers written for publication. The fact that these sites are targeting the student market and the level choice usually caps out at PhD probably means it doesn’t attract these sorts of people to them. I wouldn’t rule it out however!
RW: Based on your analysis, which types of researchers are using these services most frequently, and which services are they requesting?
CE: We’ve only done a bit of high level analysis at this stage so it’s not possible to talk about frequency or proportions. At a guess, I suspect that Masters students are using these services more frequently than PhD candidates and that professional doctorates more frequently than research doctorates. But we need to do more analysis to confirm that. We’ve certainly seen evidence of all manner of things being placed for order. Pretty much anything a Masters or PhD student could reasonably expect to do during their candidacy we’ve seen ordered through these sites. This ranges from writing PhD research proposals for admissions, through to writing up individual chapters right through to a whole dissertation being ordered – although not necessarily all by the same person. There seem to be a lot that relate to research training courses as well which is a bit of a worry. I’ve even seen a PhD candidate order someone to write a nomination for their PhD advisor for a supervision award!
RW: What’s the range in fees for various services?
CE: It’s pretty well understood that the price of these orders is dependent on a few variables: the level of study (with PhD level being the most expensive), the length (the price goes up by the page) and the so-called ‘urgency’ or the date by which the client wants the order to be filled (with the price getting higher the shorter the deadline). For some sites the price also varies by discipline (with STEM subjects usually more expensive than HASS disciplines) and there is sometimes a premium to be paid for the grade or result (with a 2.1 or a distinction costing more than a 2.2 or credit).
The price for the work varies enormously. Just like in any other industry, while some of these companies are competing on quality others are competing on price. On one site for a PhD of 55 000 words in length in Engineering to be delivered in a month the price quoted can be over AUD80 000 [$63,300 USD]. On another site, the same order would cost only AUD6700 [$5300]. A lot of sites allow you to choose to order individual chapters of a dissertation and also for your dissertation to be proof read or edited as well.
RW: What is most concerning to you about these sites?
CE: There are a lot of things that worry me about these sites – many, many more than I can go into here! From a research integrity point of view, what worries me the most is if research degree candidates are ordering their research findings to be written up. To do this, it’s likely that some research degree candidates are sending their research data to these sites. Who knows where that data is going, who is seeing it, where it is being stored and whether it has been anonymised or not. This simple act could be exposing a whole research team to allegations of inappropriate data storage and security. Any other authors or co-authors of publications based on that research data could be at risk.
I also worry about research degree candidates ordering more than just writing to be done for them. It’s possible that some research students are ordering their data to be fabricated as well. Again, other authors or co-authors of publications based on that data could have their work and reputations jeopardised.
This is not to mention the overarching concern about Masters and PhD candidates outsourcing their learning and training to others. This means, of course, that any higher degree research candidates using these sites have not demonstrated their ability to do things that the degree award should warrant.
RW: Your paper provides some advice for researchers who want to detect when their students have engaged these services. Could you share some here?
CE: First – this kind of cheating is designed to be difficult to detect. Most of the advice we offer in the paper is more relevant to undergraduate course work than it is for supervisors of research candidates. The most useful advice for PhD supervisors is to take responsibility for having conversations with their research students about the nature of the problem. Obviously, this is a very covert industry and it has to rely primarily on word of mouth and return business as its main form of advertising. This means that other students are likely to know more about what’s going on and who is doing what than their supervisors are. We recommend that institutions consider making it easy for students to report their concerns. Institutions also should take responsibility for raising awareness amongst the research and postgraduate student community about the risks that this kind of behaviour brings with it and to encourage them to be vigilant for it.
RW: It’s not easy to identify sites offering academic writing services. Can you tell us about your process?
CE: Actually it’s fairly easy to find academic custom writing services – it’s just a matter of using some obvious search terms in Google. What we did, however, was a bit more sophisticated than that. It all started when we came across a website that a student pointed out to us. It sparked our curiosity for various reasons. We started doing a bit of snooping around and we began to find some other sites that looked very similar to this first site. Our hunch was that they had to have something in common – we just didn’t quite know what that was. The searching strategy that worked best for us turned out to be a reverse Domain Name Server lookup or rDNS.
RW: Can you tell us more about the reverse Domain Name Server (rDNS) process you used?
CE: In simple terms, a DNS lookup exposes the process that is used by web browsers to find a website. When you use a web browser you enter a URL or web address which is usually in the form of words that are easy to remember like retractionwatch.com. The browser then finds the IP address and uses that to find and return the webpage you’re looking for. Using free online tools such as DNS, rDNS and IP lookups we can reveal the other websites that are sharing the same server at the web hosting company. We were able to use these methods to find lots of other websites that were in the same virtual ‘neighbourhood’ so to speak.
Not all of the websites we found were related to contract cheating. But we certainly found what we were expecting to find: lots of other sites that were very typical of the contract cheating sites most of us would be familiar with. These sites advertise to do academic writing work for students, offering a reliable service, privacy, timely delivery and so on. We call these client sites. But we also found two other types of sites that we hadn’t been expecting. Both were clearly associated with the contract cheating industry. The first were what we call writer sites. These invite people to work for them as writers. They promise such things as good pay, flexible working conditions and a wide variety of writing assignments. The second set of sites we found were what we call master sites. These sites offer to build, in return for a fee, a set of websites that together constitute a single academic custom writing business. The set of websites they offer to build is made up of a single writer site joined together with one or multiple client sites. This makes sense when you think about it. The client sites are the ‘shop windows’ where students can go to place and pay for their orders. The writer sites are the ‘factories’ where the writers go to claim orders and do the work.
RW: You note that some sites claim to provide writers with academic credentials — how accurate are those claims?
CE: We’ve noticed that the client sites often make claims about the qualifications of their writers. They often state that some or all of their writing team hold Masters and PhDs. When you look at the writer sites, however, they tend to say that all you need to register as a writer for them is an undergraduate degree. How many of the writers actually hold Postgraduate qualifications is something we want to look into in the future.
There is evidence out there already, however, that many of these writers sell on their accounts for these writing sites to others once they have achieved a certain ‘status’. We’ve been able to corroborate that because we have shown that the websites give writers different status levels depending on the quality and quantity of their work. This gives writers greater privileges to claim (rather than just bid for) orders and to stockpile a larger number of orders at any given time. As a result, writing accounts with a good status have a resale value. So – who knows what the credentials of the writers these accounts are sold on to might be!
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