Universities Fail to Deal with the Newest Form of Plagiarism: Ghostwriting
Increasing Numbers of Students are Using Ghostwriters
In early 2016, I wrote an article on ghostwriting—more specifically, on the quality of the output of the ghostwriting industry. This article was the first study into the actual quality of ghostwritten papers, as opposed to the relatively common, and quite honestly redundant, studies conducted into whether students are purchasing assignments. I say redundant because the existence of ‘contract cheating’ is indisputable; we know that students are purchasing assignments—academics know, students know, universities know and, obviously, ghostwriters know.
The reasons for the growth of ghostwriting firms (which now number in the hundreds, in addition to thousands of independent contractors) are numerous and extend across the full spectrum of technological, sociocultural and economic. These reasons include the advent of (and ease of access to) the internet, an unprecedented number of enrolments in tertiary education, the idea of common right to information, an increasingly commercialised view of education and, most importantly, the thinly veiled corporatisation of Australian universities eager to enrol full fee-paying foreign students regardless of their competency in English or academic writing.
Custom Essays Evade Traditional Approaches to Plagiarism Detection
The purveyors and overseers of ghostwriting are unified in their use of the Machiavelli-esque phrase, ‘ethically questionable but not illegal’, to clarify the status of their craft, to justify (or reassure) the actions of those utilising their services, and no doubt as a self-description. The ghostwriting industry, as opposed to the ‘essay mills’ of yesteryear, produces tailor-made, original essays on a contracted basis; it is staffed by recent graduates, unemployed academics and entrepreneurial ‘writer-managers’ who preside over and coordinate a growth industry, with individual firms commonly reporting an annual turnover exceeding €2 million. It is this creation of original work that situates ghostwriting as a peculiar problem in academia. This is not to say that there is any question that the submission of a ghostwritten paper constitutes plagiarism. Despite the objections to decrying ghostwriting as cheating based on parallels with lawyers writing their clients’ contracts and ‘autobiographies’ being written by ghostwriters (including the best-selling autobiographies of both presidential candidates in the 2016 US election), there is no rational argument that can justify that the submission of someone else’s work as one’s own in the field of academia does not constitute plagiarism. Cue reference to authoritative source—Macquarie Dictionary, if you would be so kind:
1. the appropriation or intimidation of another’s ideas and manner of expressing them, as in art, literature, etc., to be passed off as one’s own.
2. a piece of writing, music, art, etc., appropriated or commissioned from another and passed off as one’s own.
Both of these definitions are rendered and expanded in the respective Academic Integrity statement (or equivalent document or policy) of every accredited university in Australia. Consequently, one who engages in either of the aforementioned forms of plagiarism, whether knowingly or unknowingly, is a plagiarist and in contravention of university policy and academic ethics.
But I digress.
The peculiarity of the problem posed by ghostwritten articles is that the much-touted plagiarism-detection software—the proliferation of which has roots in the same causes as that of ghostwriting and has accordingly mirrored this phenomenon (Copyscape, Turnitin, Toast, PlagiarismChecker and PlagTracker to name a few)—utilised by most universities are less plagiarism detectors per se, but rather text-matching software for comparing the student’s work against existing texts. The paradox here is that while the student who has submitted the essay has committed plagiarism by presenting someone else’s work as their own, the essay is an original piece and thus is not plagiarism in and of itself; a ghostwritten paper is not plagiarism, but a student’s act of submitting it as their own work is. Consequently, where a pre-written, previously submitted essay from an essay mill would be detected by text-matching software, a ghostwritten paper will not be.
Study Findings: Custom Essays are Receiving Passing Grades at Australian Universities
The consensus of the academic orthodoxy and university administration is that the output from ghostwriting is of such poor quality as to amount to nothing more than a Clear Fail (i.e. 0–39%) and is accordingly a matter of little to no concern. (And those papers that are not failed on the basis of their poor quality will, by dint of their plagiarism, be detected by the appropriate software—the fallacy of which has been discussed above). My aforementioned journal article—Ghostwriters guaranteeing grades? The quality of online ghostwriting services available to tertiary students in Australia—sought to investigate the accuracy of this dismissive (and, in retrospect, unbelievably naïve) attitude. I procured the services of 13 ghostwriting companies (all of whom advertised as essay writing services and were as difficult to find as typing ‘buy essay’ into google.com.au) for the writing of two essays—an undergraduate and a Masters essay, both 2,000 words in length. I forwent the offer of ‘premium-quality’ output from these services, requesting simply a standard quality essay, and received 26 allegedly university-standard essays (13 undergraduate-level essays, and 13 Masters-level essays). I presented these 26 essays to three separate academics (all of whom were currently or previously employed by a Go8 university at Level B or above) who were under the impression that they were grading real students’ papers for the purposes of ensuring consistency in grading.
The results were unsettling. The average grade from all three academics resulted in 11 (84.62%) of the undergraduate essays and seven (53.85%) of the Masters essays receiving a ‘pass’ mark or higher. The relative cost of the ghostwritten essays was reflected in their quality and subsequent grades, meaning that submission of ‘premium-quality’ essays from any of these ghostwriting companies would have almost certainly achieved a ‘pass’ or higher. Almost all of the essays (12 undergraduate and 12 Masters) contained errors in referencing, with over half using a different referencing system to that requested. The instructions provided by myself (set question, required sources, required number of references and required referencing system) were followed by six of the undergraduate essays and only three of the Masters essays. Additionally, finer elements within the ghostwritten essays reveal their true nature to an observant marker—the use of a thesaurus to replace words (in an effort to avoid text-matching) resulting in nonsensical sentences, title pages with prompts for insertion of personal information left blank, file properties indicating a creator other than the submitter, and the use of American English when requested to use British/Australian English. However, despite all these shortcomings, none of the undergraduate essays and only three of the Masters essays were flagged as containing plagiarism by Turnitin, the most commonly used plagiarism-detecting software by Australian universities.
What can be concluded from this? First, and most importantly, while the output from the ghostwriting industry is of a quality proportionate to the expenditure outlaid, even the ‘standard quality’ output from ghostwriting companies is sufficient to earn a minimum of a ‘pass’ grade in most instances, countering the primary basis of the unconcerned position taken by Australian universities. Second, Turnitin (and by extension other text-matching software) is woefully incapable of detecting plagiarism in any but the most shoddy of ghostwritten essays—there goes academic orthodoxy’s secondary justification for their comfortable position of non-caring. Third, ghostwriting essays do leave indicators that can be detected by academics: overall essay presentation, language style (American as opposed to British/Australian English) and, crucially, accuracy of referencing remain strikingly poor (at least in standard quality ghostwritten essays).
A Successful Response Will Require Systemic Change
The bottom line is that the ghostwriting industry produces essays of a quality and originality sufficient to receive a passing grade and avoid detection by text-matching software. Ghostwriting services are easily accessible and commonly used by tertiary students at an undergraduate and postgraduate level. It is not hyperbole or melodramatic to complain that academic and university standards are not simply at risk, but under direct assault—and the public perception of universities and the standard of their graduates is suffering accordingly.
What then is to be done?
As discussed above, ghostwriting essays remain prone to detection by academics. However, an issue arises when academics are required to grade hundreds of papers from their own discipline and those of their colleagues. A professor with 200 papers to grade in three days is not likely to be overly concerned with a blank title page, slips in language or the name of the file creator. The problem is that what a professor in such a circumstance chalks up to a student’s lack of attentiveness is likely something more sinister, for in academia a series of sins of omissions usually indicate the sin of commission. A reduction in the workload of university professors and teaching assistants (TAs) is thus the first step in countering the proliferation of ghostwriting.
Corresponding with this must be a willingness on the part of academics to report suspected plagiarism, a less convoluted administrative process for handling reports of plagiarism and, most importantly, willingness on the part of universities to pursue these allegations (and indeed applaud such allegations as an act aimed at the protection of the university’s academic policy and reputation). Currently, complaints of plagiarism often fall afoul of universities’ reluctance to investigate, essentially condoning academic integrity to be sacrificed on the altar of the profit motive.
Effective Student Support by Universities Will Undercut Demand for Ghostwriting
The most crucial element of any approach, however, must focus on reducing the need for ghostwritten essays—eliminating demand in order to disrupt supply. Students resort to procuring ghostwritten essays for the reasons mentioned at the start of this article: shifting attitudes towards education and the ownership of information, ease of access to ghostwriting services and a lack of confidence in their own work. The first of these must be clarified early, if not immediately, in a students’ studies; university policy on plagiarism, the nature of plagiarism (inclusive of ghostwriting), and the standards of intellectual property and acknowledgement of ideas in academia cannot be treated as assumed knowledge and must be communicated to tertiary-level students upon their induction into university. The other two matters relate to students’ own uncertainty in their academic ability, which is certainly understandable. How can students be taught that the textual finesse of a scholarly, peer-reviewed, published work is, by dint of that very status, a form of expressional mastery consummate with the writing style and nuances of its relevant discipline and thus requires neither modification nor improvement, yet at the same time be told that the contents of said work must be paraphrased? Students, already unsure in the face of the labyrinth of university policy, virtually ignorant of the ethics of academic writing, and commonly struggling with the basics of referencing, paraphrasing, manipulation of language and written expression are overwhelmed into a (justified) fear that they lack the knowledge and language skills required. In such circumstances, a desperate resort to a ghostwritten essay with a quality guarantee is an understandable, if unethical, decision. The solution to this, though, seems obvious enough: students must be given the tools to succeed, but also instructed in the use of these tools and monitored to ensure that they are comfortable in utilising them. Providing students with a guide on APA referencing and expecting flawless referencing is the equivalent of giving someone a rod and asking them to fish: the goal may be achieved, but only by way of chance or one’s own initiative. Students must be instructed in proper referencing and citation techniques, written expression, research methods and paraphrasing. A certain level of competency in basic academic skills must be imbued in all new undergraduate students (which again, requires the reduction of academics’ current workloads to permit time to deliver this instruction), and additional tailored support must be available for those students requiring it—non–Native English students in particular. Married to a firm (and articulated) policy of academic integrity and the requisite dedication of all parties to academic standards, the spectre of the ghostwriting industry may yet be exorcised from the field of academia.