AustraliaGhostwriting services coaxing international students into cheating
University cheating crackdown could result in fines for helpful friends and family
Ambiguous wording in new legislation designed to prevent "contract cheating" in Australian universities could mean proof-reading and editing someone else's assignment is punishable by fines or jail time.
Sally Zhang* recently bought an essay from a ghostwriter for the first time — not because she struggles to write, but rather so she could enjoy an early holiday.
Ms Zhang, a Chinese international student who is undertaking a postgraduate degree at the University of Western Australia, took up the service on WeChat last month after being bombarded with offers from various ghostwriting agencies under the guise of friend requests.
"[The ghostwriting agencies] send me messages from time to time," she said.
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"They often post ads on their WeChat moments with tempting words like 'It's almost the holiday. Throw us your assignments, go and enjoy yourself."
Ms Zhang told the ABC she paid $600 for a 3,000-word project proposal and is still waiting for her grade.
However, businesses offering such services could soon be made illegal under legislation proposed by the Federal Government earlier this week.
People found guilty under the proposed law — which will make it an offence to provide or advertise so-called "contract cheating" services — could face up to two years in prison or a fine of up to $210,000.
Contract cheating is a booming industry
Contract cheating is when a student asks someone else to do their assignment or exam for them, usually for a fee.
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International students and academics the ABC spoke to described the proliferation of ghostwriting advertisements on social media platforms including WeChat and Facebook, university notice boards and even on the back of restroom doors at universities.
Tracey Bretag, an associate professor at the University of South Australia, said the services were also infiltrating university email inboxes, adding that Chinese international students were particularly vulnerable.
She said the emails from the ghostwriting agencies looked like legitimate emails from the university, so they could be especially confusing for students with poor English.
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"Our Chinese students told me that sometimes three times a day they get advertising about [these] commercial sites," she told the ABC.
"[It's] really overwhelming. You can see how tempting they are, even to good students."
Professor Bretag, whose research focuses on academic integrity, published her findings on contract cheating in Australian higher education last year based on the responses of 14,000 students and 1,100 staff across eight Australian universities.
The results showed that while only 6 per cent of students self-reported engaging in at least one of the cheating behaviours investigated in the study, 15 per cent of students had bought, sold or traded notes.
Separate research conducted in 2018 by Phil Newton from Swansea University in Wales, based on data dating back to 1978, found a global increase in the percentage of students admitting to using contract cheating services — increasing from an historic average of 3.52 per cent to 15.7 per cent by 2014.
While some cashed-up international students pay others to write their essays because they can, experts say others do it because they feel pressured to pass their courses.
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"We often realise their family made a big sacrifice to pay, they kind of can't afford the course to be [done] twice, they need to pass, so they are under a lot of pressure," the University of Queensland's Susan Rowland told the ABC.
'Not ethical' but lucrative
Xiao Xin*, who is now in her early 20s, decided to run a ghostwriting agency with her two friends in the short break between high school graduation and the start of semester at what she described as a "top North American university".
Ms Xin, who now works as a laboratory researcher, said many of the essays students paid her to write were easy — such as book and movie reflections — and the industry was lucrative.
She charged $US50 ($71.80) for 250 words and the agency earned about $US7,000 in one month.
"It's not ethical academically, and I feel regret. That's partially why we only ran it for a month and stopped doing it," she told the ABC.
"I have friend who's still doing the business. It's lucrative.
"Many of the writers are PhD [graduates] who can't find a job."
While some ghostwriters are professional writers, Ms Xin said many people, including herself, lied about many details such as their identity and how long their agency had been running.
Many agencies also claim to use Turnitin, an anti-plagiarism software used by universities that searches a variety of online and academic content, to check their work before sending them to student clients.
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The ABC emailed the company with several examples of websites claiming to be Chinese versions of Turnitin, or have been issued a licence by the software firm.
But James Thorley, a regional director of Turnitin, confirmed all but one of the examples were fake, adding they "are aware of the sites and are working with local counsel to reserve all legal recourse against infringing sites".
"Turnitin is not available for individual purchase; only institutions can buy licences," he said.
In a statement to the ABC, the company said it had developed a product called Authorship Investigate, which analysed submitted assignments and helped gather evidence needed to investigate potential cases of contract cheating.
"It is no doubt an important problem to solve, and legislation is part of the solution," Anna Borek, academic partnerships manager at Turnitin, said.
"Many of the universities we work with say they simply lack the time and resources needed to secure the proof they need to make an allegation of contract cheating.
"That is why we've collaborated with the education community to create technology that will help them build a strong case."
*Names have been changed to protect identities
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'Throw us your assignments': Ghostwriting services coaxing students into cheating
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