Is academic ghostwriting haunting higher education? How ethical is it for students to pay agencies to write their essays? Is there anything universities can do to detect and stop it?

Ghostwriting: Time for universities to call Ghostbusters?Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext/COLUMBIA:  The Guardian

Julia Molinari is a PhD researcher and EAP tutor at Nottingham University.  In an article in The Guardian (April 3, 2014) she talks about academic ghostwriting and how it has come to haunt higher education institutions in the UK.

All you have to do is to google "academic proofreading" and you will see a list of sites offering to "proof" your work. But it is easy to see that what they are also offering, is to write your assignments for you.  In other words, they are not "proofreading".  Instead they are writing the full assignment or paper for students.

Julia Molinari knows this because she occasionally assesses ghost texts: she teaches English for Academic Purposes (EAP).  In most institutions these days, students don't sit traditional exams. Instead, they write research papers.  This is the case at the institution where Julia works.  After students write their research papers, they are also assessed via a viva voce exam - an oral exam - where they are asked to defend their research.  As both the paper and the viva are assessed, this provides several opportunities to get to know the writers and their texts. At the end of this process, it is easy to see which final papers are genuine.

Julia notes that there are some cases that she comes across where a student has submitted a research paper or assignment that is well-written and carefully referenced but which is clearly very different from the student's ability as evidenced day-to-day interactions with the student. Although the written work submitted by the student is carefully manipulated to appear as though it is written by the student, it is easy to see that it is not the student's own work. This plagarism and it is unethical.

In order to find out more about these proofreading agencies, Julia Molinari sent sent her CV to, and was interviewed by, a "proofreading" agency.  The prices for proofreading range roughly from £16 for a 2,000-word essay to £600 for a doctoral thesis.  But, most sites don't give prices. It wasn't until her interview, however, that Julia was asked if she would actually write essays.  She was told that she would be paid according to whether the essay got a first or second - but she was not told exactly how much.  But some wealthy students are prepared to pay any amount to have their PhD written for them.  The truth is that ghostwriting pays well!

Although it is difficult to find statistcis about the extent to which ghost writers are being used by students in higher education, what is certain is that there are a number of agencies offering the service and this number has greatly increased in the last 10-15 years. The main reason for this mushrooming is that obtaining a degree really matters to the UK's 2.5 million students (their parents and sponsors) and according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, half a million of these students are are from overseas.

The pressure to achieve good grades can contribute to inequitable levels of competition. Is it possible for international students to produce lengthy academic assignments without having benefited from a traditional academic background or without English as their first language? As Julia Molinari notes: "Academic discourse is highly complex, inherently cultural and discipline-specific. It requires extensive reading and is also rapidly evolving."  It is easy to see how some students (especially international students) may be tempted to pay for someone else to write their assignments or papers; to plagiarise.

Some institutions are turning a 'blind-eye' to the issue of ghostwriting especially since international students are a huge market for institutions and a market upon which they depend for their financial survival.  Afterall, ghostwriting is not illegal (yet).  So what can universities do to deter students from turning to ghostwriting agencies while at the same time maintaining high academic standards?

Molinari believes that one thing they could do is to extend deadlines, run workshops and set up writing centres. She also believes that if the written exam was re-instated, it might help.  But that too too has drawbacks.

What do you think?  Is it ethical to pay agencies to write your essays?  Do you know students who have paid someone to write their essay or thesis or dissertation written by someone else? Have you ever used a 'ghostwriting' agency?  If so, how much did you pay?


[Photo: Allstar/Cinetext/COLUMBIA/The Guardian]

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