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The new problem haunting higher education: Why students are turning to ghost-writers

By Taryn Dryfhout

New Zealand has a good reputation for the quality of our qualifications and the calibre of our research. Naturally, universities want to protect that reputation, but the increasing presence of assignment ghost-writers is threatening it.

As a writer, I have been approached many times to work as an assignment ghost-writer. While I have worked as a ghost-writer before, there is a different set of ethics at stake when it pertains to writing assignments. A ghost-writer helps someone who has an idea, but lacks the writing skills to get it on paper. This might be an entrepreneur who wants to articulate their ideas into a blog, or someone who has had an interesting life, but who doesn’t have the skills to put their experiences into an autobiography. Assignment ghost-writing, on the other hand, involves writing someone’s assignment for them, and allowing them to submit it to the university in their own name, to be graded and contributed toward a course, and consequently, a qualification. While ghost-writing helps someone, who isn’t a writer to publish their work assignment ghost-writing helps students sail through university without doing the written assignment work. For a humanities student who chooses papers without exams, and without contact courses, this could mean not doing any work themselves, at all.

Platforms like Upwork and Freelancer.com frequently advertise for workers in this lucrative field and I’ve been approached more than once from university students to provide a ghost-writing service at both undergraduate, and postgraduate level. Though I have never taken up such an offer, I’d be lying if I said I’d never been tempted. Ghost writing pays, and it pays well.

How Common is the Industry?

A quick Google search for ‘academic proofreading’ will offer you a range of options for custom-created assignments that can be available to you in as little as 24 hours. Ghost-writing has become so common now that it is being used in Ivy League colleges across the United States, Oxford and Cambridge in the UK, as well as throughout New Zealand. For markers, there is a very real risk that some of the papers you are grading were written by people who are not even enrolled in your course.

While it’s almost impossible to gather statistics on the extent to which these services are being used, there are several agencies which are offering their services and which seem to be keeping themselves in business, and there has certainly been evidence of the use of assignment ghost-writing in New Zealand universities and polytechnics. In 2012, three Wintec students were caught using ghost-written assignments and were given several punishments, including ‘zero grades’ and suspensions from enrolment. The following year, numerous organisations were tracked down and purported in the media for providing ghost-written assignments to Auckland students, one which operated using both local and overseas writers. In the same year, anonymous tip-offs were sent to NZQA, as well as several universities, including The University of Auckland, Auckland University of Technology (AUT), Unitec and Massey University, from someone outlining the work he had done to help students cheat when he worked as a ghost-writer for an Auckland based organisation.

In the age of internet, these organisations have become so ubiquitous that anyone with a credit card can have their assignment written, and many students are taking up the opportunity.

Going Undercover

To find out what services were available to an undergraduate student, I approached several different agencies asking if they would speak anonymously about the work that they do. When all declined, I decided it was time to go undercover.

Posing as Charlotte Jenkins, a third-year BA student, I made my inquiries. A friendly woman by the name (or more likely pseudonym) of Aurora Pan replied within ten minutes, from online company www.bestghostwriters.net. The website claims to have over 300 ghost-writers available to its customers.

According to Aurora, without even knowing the nature of the assignment, she was able to offer me a 1500-word undergraduate assignment for US $61.81, within their standard deadline of ten days. For the same assignment at master level, I would pay $91.59. When I cited my hesitation that Massey University might find out that I had used a ghost-writer, I was assured that their service came with complete confidentiality.

“There is no need to worry about the university as we keep all of our clients’ details safe and private. 100 per cent privacy is one of our main guarantees. Even your writer won’t know your name. Please let me know if you would like to proceed, I will customise your order to make sure that everything will be done properly.”

As easy as this transaction could have been, other services can be rendered without even speaking to a person. Other websites allow you to submit an order using an online form where you input the deadline, length of the assignment and subject. Many services even allow you, for a higher price, to enter the grade required for your paper. According to one service, a 2000 word, B+ English essay due in a week will cost around GB £700 (with a 20 per cent discount if I could give them two weeks, rather than one).

Legal Loopholes

This kind of academic cheating has become so common that an amendment to the New Zealand Education Act 1989 was made in 2011, making it an “offence to provide or advertise cheating services”. This means that writing an assignment for someone else, or submitting an assignment written by someone else is punishable by law, with several penalties including a $10,000 fine. So, why are ghost-writing agencies continuing to get away with it?

Firstly, the assignments that are written are completely original. These organisations are not assignment banks where you can purchase a pre-written paper, they are ‘essay mills’ – this means that each essay is custom written to the specifications of your assignment. If a ghost-writer knows what they are doing, even programmes such as Turnitin and Copyscape will not be able to detect that it was ghost-written.

Secondly, ghost-written assignments go under the radar because students who don’t want to raise suspicion by submitting a higher grade than they have previously achieved, can select a grade range. Assignments ordered with a lower grade will be of adequate passing standard, but will be artfully peppered with enough inaccuracies that it will be marked without suspicion.

Organisations are also using legal loopholes to evade responsibility, offering the ghost-written assignments as ‘study guides’ or ‘examples’. When the requested work is delivered, it is often accompanied by a disclaimer that the work is only intended as an example of the essay which you might submit, and that it shouldn’t be submitted as your own work. By including this disclaimer, organisations are effectively washing their hands of their legal responsibility.

Plagiarism and Massey

In addition to being illegal, Massey University policy strictly prohibits the submission of work which is not your own. According to the Massey University website:

“Academic Integrity comprises all forms of scholastic honesty, whether you are engaging in undergraduate or postgraduate study. It requires you to be scrupulously honest about all aspects of your studies; in assessment activities – examinations, tests, reports, essays, seminars, lab notebooks, and thesis research and presentation. Write your own assignments, acknowledge ideas and text you have used from someone else, reference all sources.

“At Massey University breaches include but are not limited to…submitting material obtained from internet based essay depositories (paper mills) or similar sources…submitting an individual assignment written entirely or in part by another person (e.g. ghost writing and collusion – agreement between students to deceive).”

Anyone using a ghost-writer is in clear violation of this policy and is subject to penalties including an automatic fail on the paper, suspension and expulsion.

Of course, it’s not just the students who are responsible for the cheating. Ghost-writing organisations are not employing just anyone – they are seeking out graduates with several degrees – even PhDs – to do the work, raising questions about who is most culpable in this chain of degree devaluation. For those who feel strongly about the value of an academic degree, ghost-writing is also seen as a serious breach of ethics.

 

“A degree should make a statement – that its bearer has been willing to put themselves through three years or more of hard effort, through often very difficult and uncomfortable times. To extend their thinking beyond familiar habits. To see things from new and often complex perspectives. To achieve things they would not achieve outside of the degree. But when ghost-writers enter, the degree’s gloss turns into doubt, with the question: “How much of this degree was the person’s own work, and how much did they pay for?” Ghost writers are an insulting attack on the hard work and expense of every honest person who has ever studied at university level,” says Massey Extramural Students’ Society President, David McNab.

Why Are Students Turning to Ghost-Writers?

Several factors appear to be contributing to the rise in demand for ghost-writing assignment services. For some, language barriers are a factor. One Auckland-based organisation was directly supplying assignments to international students studying in New Zealand. For these students, not only is their qualification at stake, but thousands of dollars in costs to study here, often invested by family back home with high expectations.

Another factor is the lack of preparedness, with some students being thrown in at the deep end without having an academic background, and the skills required. Modern parents have got good at telling their kids things like ‘anything is possible if you just believe’. There is an underlying rhetoric that anyone is capable of anything, and it’s not always true. While I like to think myself ‘Wonder Woman’, the reality is, that I will never be an Olympic high jumper, or an astronaut. In the same way, not everyone is cut out for university. Some will struggle because they are unprepared for the rigour of academic writing, or because they lack the command of the English language that is necessary to succeed. Students who have been indulged to believe they can achieve success at university despite their shortcomings will find themselves unprepared for the demands of the academic world. Enter ghost-writing, which allows students, out of pragmatism (or possibly laziness and more money than they know how to spend), to pay their way through their degree. All they need is a computer and a credit card.

Albany Students’ Association President, Lance Walsh, says it is an interesting topic as it shows that students are getting more desperate to pass university, no matter the cost.

“Most people who use the service would probably understand what they are doing is illegal and will get them removed from the university. Society has put university as a very important step to get to the workplace whereas this is not true. Some people are better suited for on-the-job learning rather than academic learning. It’s sad that there is a market for ghost-writers as it shows the stress students face day to day with assignments and the requirement to pass,” he says.

For now, it seems clear that the problem of ghost-writing within academia is not going to go away. If anything, the presence of assignment ghost-writing services is going to increase because the internet has made it easier for students to connect with potential ghost-writers, who are only a click away. And, no matter how much we want to deny it, there is a clear economic demand for it, otherwise agencies such as these wouldn’t exist.

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