Anti Essays Hack

On an unofficial University of Sydney Facebook group, someone operating under the presumably fake profile "Eleanor Rose McCarthy" has been advertising "online tuition services" for "academic writing".

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"Eleanor" sells ghost written essays on a topic of your choosing, promising "confidentiality plus premium quality work" that is "plagiarism free".

Unlike MyMaster, the Sydney-based company exposed by Fairfax Media who were charging students $1000 per essay, Eleanor's work is relatively cheap.

In a joint investigation with The Australian newspaper, Hack purchased a ghost written essay.

1200 words cost $85.

After emailing "Eleanor", someone called "Jessica" replied, asking for our essay topic, word count and any specific requirements.

We asked for 1200 words answering the following question: "Explain how cloud computing has changed the nature and organisation of multinational corporations in the past decade. Use two specific changes to illustrate your argument."

Within three days of first making contact, a 1200 word essay arrived. It costs $85, and we're given the bank account details of a company to pay.

The company is called "Nexus Networks Ltd", and is registered to an office in the industrial English suburb of Colchester, north of London. No one answered when we tried calling them during office hours, but the building switchboard operator confirmed they still lease space in the building.

Who are the ghost writers?

A quick investigation reveals the author is most likely someone in northeast Pakistan, who works as a freelance academic writer and charges as little as $9 Australian per hour.

While it may have been cheap, the essay was riddled with grammatical errors and wouldn't have gotten more than a low credit in a first year undergraduate Commerce subject.

It's not written by an Australian student because they use 'z' in authorisation, not 's'. My guess is, it's probably not written by a Chinese author either because the syntax is not English over Mandarin."

It took John Shields, the Deputy Dean of Education at the University of Sydney Business School three minutes to conclude it was most likely written by someone from the Indian subcontinent.

"My experience tells me that it's not written by someone who is English first language, because it misuses the definite article 'the' all the time, and it mixes case."

How do Universities detect ghost writing?

Professor Shields ran the essay through TurnItIn, an anti-plagiarism software that searches online content, academic journal articles, ebooks and submissions from Universities around the world, looking for a string of words that may have been copied without attribution.

TurnItIn didn't detect any plagiarism in our ghostwritten essay.

But it did match the footnoted sources to a paper submitted at the University of Capetown, and two submissions at the University of Maryland.

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Professor Shields thinks an examiner "would likely mark (the essay) on its merits". But his suspicions were raised by the lack of matches from the plagiarism software, because a normal submission would highlight anywhere up to 30 per cent of text matches.

"Because there are absolutely no text matches it makes me suspicious because almost everything that's submitted has a few strings of words that are replicated from a source a student has read. Every academic piece has that, it's normal, and there's nothing necessarily wrong with that."

So what can Universities do?

As the technology to detect cheating gets more advanced, so does the lengths to which time poor or lazy students will go to bend the rules.

Professor Shields says ghost writing is "deep and embedded", and surprisingly is just as common among domestic as with international students.

I'm very confident we can detect plagiarism, per se. I'm not confident that we can do anything other than using direct means to identify potential ghost writing and that's really an emerging art for us."

31 cases of academic misconduct were reported to the Sydney University Registrar last year. This includes plagiarism, student collusion, ghost writing and other types of cheating. 26 cases were undergraduate students and 5 postgraduate.

But there are hundreds of less serious academic offences that are handled at a lower level each semester.

Professor Shields is currently investigating five cases of potential ghost writing from his faculty, just in the last few weeks. He admits the system for catching cheats isn't perfect, and some students do slip through the net.

The most common way students are caught? By others dobbing them in.

Believe it or not students actually do turn in other students who are a little too high on the bravado when it comes to these things."

To combat cheating, the University of Sydney Business School have abolished take home exams. Students will instead be required to undertake formal exams at the end of each year, and their performance for the whole semester will be scrutinised to check for consistency.

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Lead image by HowToStartABlogOnline.net

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