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MELD Exclusive: Students spend hundreds on essay writing services

Andrew Yeung

Tue Jul 10 2012


THOUSANDS of international students may be paying ghost writers on Sina Weibo hundreds of dollars to write their essays. Andrew Yeung brings you this exclusive report this July on the academic services black market. 

Thousands of international students in Australia could be using essay writing services offered on Chinese social media site Sina Weibo as they struggle to cope with assignments. Meld has discovered multiple Weibo accounts with thousands of followers from Australia, the US and even the UK, showing just how well-established, and widespread, the service is.

How it works

Meld has identified at least 20 user accounts offering essay-writing services on Chinese microblogging site Sina Weibo. The most popular essay writing service for Australian students has more than 130,000 Weibo followers while one account has more than 480,000 followers from Australia, the US and the UK.

Essay writing services are offered for different academic levels and study areas, from undergraduate IT courses to Masters in Business Administration.

A number of the service providers guarantee 95 per cent pass rates, boasting years of experience under their belts and even the support of professional teachers on their teams to proofread written assignments. They also promise the essays they provide will not set off Australian universities’ plagiarism detection systems such as TurnItIn.

All a student has to do is put in a request with the details and requirement of their assignment and make their payment online. Prices range from AUD130 for a Language Foundation essay to AUD200 for essays for  subjects such as IT and Mathematics.

But if you want a higher grade, you have to pay a higher price, says one student who has used the service.

“I could get a high distinction but that’s more expensive,” he says.

A deposit is required before the assignment is written, with the other half paid after completion. Students will then receive their essays within two to five days, depending on the complexity of the assignment.

Chinese student Aris Lee feels the essay writing service industry is an unfair money-making machine. He says he began writing essays for free to help out his friends before being invited to write for a “professional” essay writing service. He declined after finding out about, what he calls, their lucrative approach.

Ghostwriters, he says, are only paid 50 per cent of the fee paid by a customer while the service keeps the other 50 per cent for themselves.

“If I managed a writing business, I would find customers by myself and (keep all the profits),” he says.

Why use these services?

One essay writing service, Assignment001, has helped write almost 3,000 assignments for international students in Australia. The service’s spokesman, Kevin, says language barriers and difficulties coping with studies are the main reasons its customers utilise ghost writers.

“We have been doing this for years. All writers are from the universities of Australia or from China,” he says.

“In my opinion, the subjects universities set are too hard for students, especially for international students.”

In an interview conducted in Cantonese, a Visual Art and Design student from Macau, Melanie*, told Meld she engaged an essay writing service after failing a number of assignments because of her poor grammar and research skills.

“I failed my first assignment because my grammar was too bad even though I thought I had done enough research,” she says.

“I cannot write like local students…If you know a English word but put it in the wrong order, they can have different meanings.”

She now regrets having used the service, but at the time, it seemed to her the only option.

“I feel really bad now for hiring someone to write my assignment,” she says.

“I couldn’t even finish my assignment, I will have learned nothing when I graduate.

“I don’t know what I’m doing at university and why I’ve used their services.”

A Korean business student says he was in the same boat as Melanie. Struggling to cope with his course, he engaged a cheap ghost writer when he could not meet the deadlines for his assignments due to deadline clashes.

“The assignments were due in the same period,” he says.

“I could not handle all of them so I asked the website to finish it.

“I didn’t want to fail the subject due to assignments (so I’d rather) pay several bucks.”

He says if he failed a subject, he would have to pay for it and do it again next semester. But if he hired someone to write it for him, he could get away with doing the assignment cheap and easily.

Despite knowing the consequences, he decided he would use the service anyway, and run the risk of being caught by his university.

Universities react

But Australian universities say students face dire consequences if they are caught using these services.

La Trobe University’s Academic Language and Learning Unit‘s Julianne East says the university has made it clear to students that engaging ghost writers is the same as cheating.

Hiring someone to write your assignments for you is a form of academic misconduct for many universities and students who cheat will face different penalties according to the seriousness of their misconduct.

In general, Ms East says students found guilty of cheating could be given another chance, but in serious circumstances they could fail the assessment or even the whole subject.

“Depending on the circumstances, students will be required to resubmit or re-sit the test and then marked down by a specified percentage,” she says.

“In the case of serious misconduct, the work will be marked down by a specified percentage, and students can fail.”

But Ms East says the use of essay writing services is hardly a new occurrence.

“The research shows that cheating and paying someone else to do work for assessment is not a new phenomenon,” she says.

“Some people will cheat and look for short cuts. The internet has perhaps allowed for easier access to ‘cheating’ opportunities.”

But not all universities would comment on the presence of essay writing services.

Monash University’s Media & Communications Department’s Stacey Mair told Meld she could not find the existence  of essay writing services on Weibo.

“We have looked into this for you however we have been unable to find any evidence of students being offered these services via Weibo so Im afraid I can’t help any further,” she wrote via email.

What’s being done

In order to combat incidences like this, Australian universities use plagiarism software to scan students assignments before lecturers mark them.

TurnItIn is the most popular plagiarism software among universities in Melbourne and is utilised by Melbourne University, La Trobe University, RMIT, Deakin University and Victoria University.

“(La Trobe) University uses TurnItIn text-matching software which reveals copied text, and it promotes the use of TurnItIn as a preventative and educational tool,” says Ms East.

But former ghostwriter Mr Lee says assignments provided by essay writing services can easily bypass academic plagiarism detection software as they are original works complete with proper referencing.

“Plagiarism software detects the level of duplication of an assignment against the assignment database,” he says.

“A ghostwriter is required to write the assignment in a professional, academic way, that is treating the work as writing their own assignment.”

But Guido Ernst from the University of Melbourne’s Academic Skills department says the university trusts their lecturers can judge plagiarism from a students’ writing as well.

“Students are warned not to use such services and the University uses TurnItIn to identify plagiarised assignments,” he says.

“Often lecturers can tell if students didn’t write an assignment themselves by the style and content.”

Where to go for help 

Mr Ernst says the University of Melbourne’s Academic Skills department is aware students resort to essay writing services because of poor confidence or bad time management skills.

“Usually students turn to such services either because they feel they lack the skills and are afraid of failing or because they have managed their time poorly and feel they can’t complete the task by the deadline,” he says.

But every university has departments dedicated to helping students cope with language difficulties and with improving their essay-writing skills such as Victoria University’s Learning Hub, Monash University’s Learning Skills, Deakin University’s Study Skills, University of Melbourne’s Academic Skills, RMIT’s Study & Learning Centre, La Trobe University’s Academic Language and Learning.

However, students like Melanie says she found it difficult to be honest about her problems with her university’s academic skills unit.

“I turned to academic skills after I failed my assignment,” she says.

“But it was written by someone else, so I was afraid to tell them truth.

“I wanted to talk it though but I was worried they would be very critical,” she says.

For students who are under pressure, universities also provide free counselling support services:

*Name has been changed to protect privacy