It takes about three minutes to order a final dissertation for an English literature degree at the UK Essays website. I pick my country, subject and required grade. I go for a 2:1, choose a length – let’s say 5,000 words – a seven-day deadline, and watch the price calculator hit £687 (or £1,236 for a two-day turnaround). Click “next step” and I can enter my topic before being matched with a suitable writer, who will produce an essay “personalised to my requirements”. It would come with a series of promises. “The work we produce is guaranteed to meet the grade you order, or you get your money back.” It will also be “100% free from plagiarism” – and on time.
All of this would be totally legal and, the owners of UK Essays insist, ethical, too – because what its customers are definitely not supposed to do is submit the work as their own. “Our essays … are the best, most useful study aid in the world,” says Daniel Dennehy, chief operating officer at All Answers, the Nottinghamshire company that owns UK Essays. “They increase any student’s understanding of a topic, which subsequently improves their ability to write an excellent, unique answer of their own.”
UK Essays says it sold 16,000 assignments last year, up from 10,000 five years earlier, written by a network of 3,500 researchers. The company’s “fair use policy”, which requires a click away from the order page, spells out the rules. “Even if you did make minor alterations to the researcher’s work, this would still be considered plagiarism,” it warns. But, Dennehy accepts, “I have worked here for nine years and I am not naive enough to think that all our clients use the work correctly.” He declines to estimate what proportion of his customers are cheats.
The growth of these sites, which are known as essay mills, is now troubling the higher levels of government. Jo Johnson, the universities minister, has appealed to student bodies and universities to help tackle so-called “contract plagiarism”, which he sees as a growing threat to academic integrity. New guidelines, to be published in time for the next academic year, are expected to recommend a new sector-wide policy, and the government has not ruled out beefing up the law.
The intervention follows a report published last summer by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), which maintains standards in higher education. It found that anti-plagiarism policies were variable across universities, and that fraud law isn’t robust enough to legislate against the misuse of essay mills. It also suggested a ban on advertising, and explored the role of search engines, which present hundreds of results to students looking for essays.
The government believes there are more than 100 mills in operation, churning out anything from B-grade GCSE coursework (£106 on UK Essays) to a 100,000-word PhD in criminal law (£82,238). “But our research suggests it’s more like 1,000 sites,” says Prof Phil Newton, the director of learning and teaching at Swansea University and an expert in academic plagiarism. Previous estimates suggest that more than 20,000 students a year in the UK are paying for essays to get degrees. The true figure may be much higher.
“This is a very fast-moving problem, which the sector and legislation has been slow to address,” Newton adds. “When I started researching it in 2009, I couldn’t believe what was available and how little research had been done. On some sites you can even enter your course code and the name of your lecturer and the writer will tailor an essay to that. To the man on the street,” he adds, “it’s very odd that this sort of thing is legal.”
Universities are equipped to detect old-fashioned, cut-and-paste plagiarism. Software such as Turnitin, which claims 97% of UK universities as customers, flags up passages it identifies in existing sources. But it cannot detect an original essay written by someone else. Even when lecturers suspect foul play, it can be hard to know how to act. “I had one instance recently when a student received a much higher mark than expected,” says a senior lecturer at a London university, who asked not to be named. “His work had a level of fluency and sophistication of thought that hadn’t been seen. But I wasn’t 100% sure, because I think he wrote parts of the essay in his own style to throw me off, so I left it. It’s a minefield.”
Opinion is divided over how to respond, however, and whether tighter rules or laws risk driving would-be cheats to the darker edges of the “model answers industry”, as essay mills prefer to be called. Many students have reported being ripped off with shoddy work, or none at all. But there is also concern that contract plagiarism, while obviously wrong, is a symptom of what critics describe as the commodification of higher education.
International students in the UK now pay between around £15,000 and £40,000 a year in tuition fees. Those from outside the EU paid £4.2bn in fees in 2014-15, almost 30% of universities’ income from fees – and almost 13% of their total income.
Universities depend on foreign students with deep pockets, which is why they are fighting government plans to bring numbers down. Dave Tomar, a former mill writer in the US, says this means universities too often sell places to ill-equipped students, many of whom arrive with limited written English or awareness of British academic norms. “The vast majority of students who cheat aren’t lazy, but struggling,” he says. “They have invested so much that they don’t want to blow it by failing.”
In 10 years, Tomar, 37, says he wrote about 4,000 assignments for customers, including hundreds in Britain. Before he quit in 2013, he says he earned $60,000 (almost £50,000) a year; he says writers generally get about half the essay fee. “Whatever their motivations, this is a symptom, not the illness,” he adds from his home in Philadelphia, where he now writes about education reform after the success of The Shadow Scholar, a book about his former life. “We need a broader conversation about how educational systems are failing these students such that they end up in college way over their heads.”
Now a degree is a commodity, no wonder more students are cheating | Poppy Noor
While studying a language at Cambridge University, Claire (not her real name) wrote essays during her first year, and also understood that most of her customers were not British. “You have a UK system reliant on foreign students while, through the backdoor, companies are devaluing the very degree certificates that attract all that foreign money in the first place,” she says in an email, describing the result as “a wonderful downward spiral of devaluation”.
Newton accepts that, in some places, students arrive without sufficient skills to complete good written work. But he says students know when they are crossing a line, and that penalties for plagiarism are generally tough already (cheats at Swansea are expelled). What has changed, he adds, is the increasing accessibility and slick presentation of many of the sites, which appeal to students who might not otherwise resort to cheating. “The easier it is, the more likely it is to happen,” he says.
Not all essay mills, which began to proliferate over a decade ago, do much to put off would-be cheats. OK Essay, which last year removed adverts from London Underground stations near universities after complaints, claims on its homepage to have more than 10,000 customers. “Looking for experts to ‘Write my essay for me’? Choose us and we won’t disappoint you!” Deep in the terms and conditions, the mill says it will not be liable “for the outcome or consequences of submission [of] the paper to any academic institution”. Nowhere does it explicitly advise against it.
Posing as a struggling history student, I call the customer support line for clarification. “If I want to use the essay as my own work, is that possible?” I ask. “I’m not able to tell you whether it’s possible or not. We just write the paper for you and you can use it for what you want,” the agent says. The company says it is based in Sheffield, but there is no address on the website, which also hides its domain registration details. The terms and conditions say the site is owned by Elabama Inc, a company registered in Panama. “So it would be at my own risk?” I ask. “You can just use it at your own risk – it’s what our disclaimer says on our website. It’s meant to serve as example … You can get it, read it, shake it and if you like it you can use it, if you don’t like it you can fix it to [be] like you want it and use it.” When I call back as a journalist, I am given an email address but none of my questions are answered, and despite further calls and emails, there is no response to the suggestion that the company appears to condone cheating.
Claire wrote for Oxbridge Essays, a prominent site with offices in London. “It was clear to everyone involved what was going on,” she recalls. Yet she found the work stimulating as well as lucrative after quitting a “soul-destroying” temp job. “I didn’t worry too much about the ethics at first because I felt bitter about the fact this was the only way I could find work that was interesting and rewarding,” she says. “I got paid £200 for the first one. I was 19 and that was a lot of money.”
In 2013, the Advertising Standards Authority ruled that Oxbridge Essays had breached its code by guaranteeing “that you will receive at least the grade you order”. The implication of the promise contradicted the company’s terms, which prohibit the submission of its essays, the authority found. Philip Malamatinas, who launched the site in 2006, declines to answer questions. Nor does he respond to Claire’s claim that the company knew what was going on. “We work with thousands of students who come to us having been let down by a system designed to penalise those for whom English is a second language, and who typically pay three or four times as much as UK students in tuition fees,” he writes in a statement. “Sadly, our universities are simply too stretched to provide the same level of support to all and as a result, students are turning to private enterprises to subsidise their educational needs.”
Mills are not the only people making a case for model answers. “I think they’re incredibly valuable, especially for international students,” says Alexander Proudfoot, chief executive of Independent Higher Education (formerly Study UK), which represents more than 130 private institutions. He attended a QAA plagiarism forum before the publication of last year’s report. “We’d be happy for there to be a national database of essays. If you made them accessible then the demand for essay mills goes out the window [see footnote].”
Universities blame others for plagiarism. They need to look at themselves
Newton, who also sat on the forum, is not convinced, preferring “to show students how things are structured and what it looks like to write an essay”. Either way, he adds: “When you can give a precise title and specify the grade and the referencing and sources, that’s something very different.” No essay site I approach will explain why, if their work is only intended to be used as a model, they are so keen to guarantee originality, sometimes two days before a deadline, if not to help students elude plagiarism detection software.
Newton believes part of the solution must be a requirement for more face-to-face and practical assessment. Proudfoot says institutions should find resources for essay-writing and critical-thinking classes, as well as tutorial support for students who “find themselves backed into a corner”. Claire agrees. She gave up when the demands of her own studies left her too busy to write for other students. “My dad also told me, ‘You might not be thinking about the wider repercussions of this now, but think about later,’ and I thought – you know, you might be right.”
• The following footnote was added on 6 March 2017: after publication, Alexander Proudfoot asked us to clarify that when he said “the demand for essay mills goes out the window”, he meant “the argument for essay mills goes out the window”.
The Best Online Essays of 2017
“The Sea Was Never Blue”by Maria Michela Sassi
Aeon, July 31, 2017
“When Drummers Become Writers: The Strange Wisdom of Method Books”by John Colpitts
The Paris Review, May 19, 2017
“The Life of a Field Recordist”by Jack Needham
Red Bull Music Academy, March 24, 2017
“Where Have All the V Chords Gone? The Decline of Functional Harmony in Pop”by Dean Olivet
Flypaper, August 14, 2017
“The Contradictions of Joseph Conrad”by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o
New York Times, November 21, 2017
“Sweet Bitter Blues”by Amanda Petrusich
Oxford American, January 6, 2017
“The Erasure of Islam from the Poetry of Rumi” by Rozina Ali/
The New Yorker, January 5, 2017
“Powerlessness and the Politics of Blame”by Martha Nussbaum
National Endowment for the Humanities, May 1, 2017
“The Lost Pleasure of Reading Aloud”by Kate Chisholm
The Spectator, August 26, 2017
“Evelyn Waugh Revisited” by William H. Pritchard
The Hudson Review, January 2017
“When Gospel Sermons Came on the Phonograph”by Jerry Zolten
The Conversation, June 29, 2017
“Breaking Elgar’s Enigma”by Daniel Estrin
New Republic, February 1, 2017
“Why Do Stars Like Adele Keep Losing Their Voice?”by Bernhard Warner
The Guardian, Thursday, August 10, 2017
“One Man’s Mission to Unearth Africa’s Lost Treasure Trove of Music”by Abdi Latif Dahir
Quartz, April 28, 2017
“You Probably Think This Art is About You”by Carolyn Stewart
The American Interest, August 16, 2017
“Is Goodness Natural”by Nakul Krishna
Aeon, November 28, 2017
“The Man Who Broke Ticketmaster”by Jason Koebler
Motherboard, February 10, 2017
“Consciousness Began When the Gods Stopped Speaking”by Veronique Greenwood
Nautilus, November 9, 2017
“Are Pop Lyrics Getting More Repetitive” by Colin Morris
The Pudding, May 2017
“Who was the First Modern Philosopher?” by Steve Nadler
TLS, April 5, 2017
“Was Weird Al the Real Star All Along?”by Geoff Edgers
The Washington Post, February 16, 2017
“How To Sell A Country: The Booming Business Of Nation Branding” by Samanth Subramanian
The Guardian, November 7, 2017
“Going Deep”by Jay Jennings
Oxford American, February 16, 2017
“Why You Hate Contemporary Architecture”by Brianna Rennix and Nathan J. Robinson
Current Affairs, October 31, 2017
“The Premium Mediocre Life of Maya Millennial”by Venkatesh Rao
Ribbonfarm, August 17, 2017
“In the Footsteps of Marcel Proust”by William Friedkin
New York Times, May 15, 2017
“Raphael Up Close”by Andrew Butterfield
New York Review of Books, July 15, 2017
“Take a Trip to Los Angeles’s New Internet Celebrity Summer Camp”by Megan Farokhmanesh,
The Verge, July 20, 2017
“An Oxford Philosopher’s Moral Crisis Can Help Us Learn to Question Our Instincts”by Olivia Goldhill
Quartz, October 15, 2017
Here is a list, in no particular
order, of articles I enjoyed
during 2017. They are mostly
longform essays, with a focus
on music and culture, but with
a few articles on other subjects
included as well.
For a list of my favorite
recordings of the year, click here.
Selected articles by Ted Gioia
available on the web
Ted Gioia can be contacted at
Great Books Guide
The New Canon
Ted's Twitter Feed
The African Origins of the Love Song
The Rise of the Fragmented Novel
Why Are Music Scholars Ignoring Musical Universals?
The Adventurer's Guide to Finnegans Wake
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
Has Music Criticism Turned Into Lifestyle Reporting?
Vladimir Nabokov, Sci-Fi Writer
How Sartre Cured Existential Angst with Jazz
If John Coltrane Had Lived
The Decline of Satire
My Year of Horrible Reading
The Backlash Against Jazz
The Con Man Who Invented American Popular Music
The Bumbling Shostakovich
The Rise of Artisan Music
The Year American Speech Became Art
What We've Learned About the NSA
The 8 Memes of the Postmodern Mystery
Ted Gioia Interviews Composer Terry Riley
Why the Fuss About Jonathan Franzen?
Slaves for Love: How Bondage Shaped the Love Song
A Conversation About Jazz with Ted Gioia
The 100 Best Recordings of 2015
The 100 Best Recordings of 2014
The 100 Best Recordings of 2013
The 100 Best Recordings of 2012
The 100 Best Recordings of 2011
The Weirdest 1960s Novel of Them All
Franco: The James Brown of Africa
How Alice Got to Wonderland
Does the Music Business Need Musicianship?
The King of Western Swing
The Year of Magical Reading
Frank Sinatra at 100
What is the Clumsiest Classic Novel?
The Crisis in Music (podcast)
The Weird Tales of H.P. Lovecraft
How to Fix Online Music
My 10 Favorite Novels on Music
A Conversation with Ted Gioia about Love Songs
The Music of the Tango
The Letter That Changed the Course of Modern Lit
The End of the Angry Guitar
Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook
Do Blues Musicians Need to be Really, Really Old?
The Unconventional Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Twelve Essential Tango Recordings
Alan Lomax and the FBI
Robert Musil and The Man Without Qualities
Cool Jazz in 100 Tracks (Part 1) (Part 2)
Lecture on the History of Love Songs
Henry James, Horror Writer
Why Only Revolutions Will Not Be Televised
David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest
The Crisis in Music (video lecture)
How Good a Singer Was Dean Martin?
How Music Videos Changed Love Songs
Why Bessie Smith Matters
The Zombification of Popular Music
The New Revolt of the Masses
Was Ambrose Bierce Inspired by Agoraphobia?
Apple's New Paradigm for Music
Fix-Up Artist: The Chaotic SF of A.E. van Vogt
Jazz Vocals in the New Millennium
A History of New Orleans Music in 100 Tracks
The Making of Ulysses
The Great American Novel That Wasn't
In Search of Dupree Bolton
Gulliver's Travels and the Birth of Genre Fiction
Five Essays on Novelist John Fowles
Where Did Our Revolution Go?
How Lester Young Changed the English Language
The Reinvention of the Cowboy Novel
The Many Lives of James Joyce
The Complex Gender History of the Love Song
William Gaddis's The Recognitions
5 Lessons the Music Biz Can Learn from TV
Hipsters: The New Scapegoats
B.B. King's Best Performances
The Most Mysterious Woman in Sci-Fi
12 Memorable Works of Hispanic Fiction
Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice
The Alt Reality Nobel Prize
The Decline of a Great Jazz Record Label
Don DeLillo's Underworld
How NY Became Center of the Jazz World
Milton Nascimento: 12 Essential Tracks
When Science Fiction Grew Up
The Most Influential Film of the 20th Century
Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch
Is Sleep Music a Real Genre?
Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Bill Evans: 12 Essential Tracks
Early Vintage Wynton Marsalis
Remembering Cordwainer Smith
My Favorite American Novel
Q&A with Ted Gioia
The Jazz Pianist JFK Saved
A Look Back at Martin Gardner
Robert Heinlein at One Hundred
The Fourteen Skies of Michael Chabon
Is Bird Dead?
Philip K. Dick's VALIS
Why Lester Young Matters
Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire
Making a Case for Clark Ashton Smtih
Who is Grace Kelly?
Italo Calvino's Winter's NIght
Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude
Could Chet Baker Play Jazz?
Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow
The Jazzy Side of Frank Zappa
Fritz Leiber at 100
Günter Grass's The Tin Drum
David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas
Harlem Jazz: 12 Essential Tracks
Mark Z. Danielweski's House of Leaves
The Postmodern Mystery: 50 Essential Works
Art Tatum at 100: 12 Essential Tracks
J.G. Ballard's Crash
Interview with Dana and Ted Gioia
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
Robert Johnson and the Devil
Fear and Self-Loathing in Scandinavia
Herbie Hancock: 12 Essential Tracks
Remembering Drums of Passion
Three Existential Horror Novels
Keith Jarrett: 12 Essential Tracks
In Defense of The Hobbit
Brad Mehldau: 12 Essential Tracks
David Foster Wallace's The Pale King
The South Asian Tinge in Jazz
Assessing Brad Mehldau at Mid-Career
Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian
Can Clubs Legally Ask Musicians to Play for Free?
Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones
Lennie Tristano: 12 Essential Tracks
Virginia Woolf's Orlando
Why Cool is Dead
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
The Pianism of Denny Zeitlin
The Chronicles of Narnia
David Bowie's Jazz-Oriented Valedictory
Tito Puente: The Complete 78s (1949-1955)
Toni Morrison's Beloved
The Tragedy of Richard Twardzik
Michael Chabon's Telegraph Avenue
The Science Fiction of Samuel Delany
Can Tarzan Survive in a Post-Colonial World?
Ian McEwan's Atonement
Can a Dictionary be a Novel?
New Details About the Young William Gaddis
Interview with Ted Gioia (on Delta Blues)
William Gaddis's JR
Roberto Bolaño's 2666
Talking to Myself About the State of Jazz
Harper Lee and Her Great Southern Novel
Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain
Italo Calvino's Neglected Sci-Fi Masterpiece
Philip Roth's American Pastoral
Ken Kesey's Novel-in-a-Box
How I Learned I Was a Jazz Fan