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Essay mills and their growing threat to UK academic integrity

Gill Rowell
Gill Rowell






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Custom writing services, also known as essay mills, have been an ever-growing concern for educators across the world since the start of the coronavirus pandemic—and are becoming increasingly prolific in the UK in particular. With the accelerated shift to remote learning, and with many students feeling anxious about their studies and career choices, essay mills have traded on the current situation, and are profiting in the process.

The damaging impact of custom writing services

Students have found themselves bombarded with social media adverts offering ‘coronavirus discounts’ from commercial writing services - some even before they have begun their course of study. New research has found a substantial rise in the number of essay mills since the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic, with the QAA reporting at least 932 sites currently operating in the UK, a dramatic rise from 635 only three years ago.

This is an issue that Turnitin is passionate about. Custom writing services are a major threat to academic integrity worldwide and by increasing the prevalence of contract cheating and diminishing the significance of degrees and qualifications, they have the potential to seriously jeopardise institutional reputations.

Not only do essay mills harm student academic integrity and institutional reputations, but they also often rely on the exploitation of graduates both domestically and overseas, working long shifts writing essays for as little as less than £1 an hour or selling their own essays on to commercial writing services in return for a fraction of the profit.

Supporting legislative action

The Essay Mills (Prohibition) Bill, led by Chris Skidmore MP, former UK universities minister, has already received its first parliamentary reading and garnered cross-party debate, with a second reading expected in the coming weeks.

Earlier this year, we shared our insights with Mr Skidmore and our evidence was cited in his speech to the House of Commons, introducing proposed new legislation to prohibit commercial writing services operating and advertising in the UK.

Turnitin is proud to be standing alongside major higher education bodies, such as the National Union of Students and the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC), along with academics from across the UK, to raise the need for legislation that specifically outlaws essay mills.

We are supporting activities that will penalise commercial writing services themselves, rather than students using them, by outlawing their operation and preventing them from targeting students through clever advertising.

Combined with the right policy framework at the institution level, awareness and engagement amongst both instructors and students, and the adoption of the right technology to support prevention and investigation, legislative action will help to counter the threat essay mills pose to the entire education sector.

As students, educators and institutions continue to adjust to the changed circumstances resulting from coronavirus, it has never been more important for legislative and institutional frameworks to align in tackling custom writing services.

Designing the right solutions

The solutions and resources we offer are designed to tackle issues such as contract cheating. In 2015, the MyMaster cheating scandal rocked the Australian higher education sector. Shortly after, many of our Australian customers approached us to partner with them on a solution. But contract cheating is not just a cause for concern in Australia. This issue is global. We created Turnitin Originality in response to the growing need across the whole higher education sector to address essay mill use.

Turnitin Originality provides instructors and educators with the tools they need to address historically nebulous behaviour, working with students to ensure that they understand the seriousness of contract cheating.

By providing insights based on a student’s body of work and their progression over time, Turnitin Originality helps educators identify and compile information to manage contract cheating cases.