Academic Plagiarism: the use of custom Essay writing services

What is custom essay writing academic plagiarism?

This lesson explores how academic plagiarism has changed over the last few years with students using custom essay writing services. These companies will write essays for university students for a fee and the students are handing them in as their own work. This is known as ‘contract cheating’ and is incredibility difficult to control especially when these writing websites are legal and universities seem to be burying their heads in the sand over it.

Academic Plagiarism: the use of custom essay writing services

By C.Wilson (April, 2019)

What is Plagiarism? Plagiarism at university is a form of cheating and is a serious academic offence. It arises from work submitted that is not the student’s own and has been taken from another source usually including lack of referencing, poor paraphrasing or completely copied. The most common forms of plagiarism are: copying, collusion, fabrication or misrepresentation, unacceptable proofreading and commissioning work / buying essays. The focus of this article is on buying essays.

The evolution of plagiarism: Universities use Turnitin plagiarism software to identify copying and collusion but plagiarism has recently evolved into the use of ‘custom essay writing services’ or ‘writing mills’ which circumvents Turnitin completely. A basic explanation of a custom essay writing service is that a student contacts an essay writing company with their assignment brief and is offered a price for a fully written essay that is guaranteed to be ‘100% plagiarism free’. These services are widely available on the internet and at this time of writing (April, 2019) they are legal in the UK. In fact, the scale of the problem seems to be severely underestimated with figures varying from 20,000 known bought essays a year (Yorke, 2017) to estimated hundreds of thousands of possible graduates using writing mills (BBC News, 2019). What is clear is that paying a third person to write an essay for you is considered ‘contract cheating’, a fraudulent behaviour that is a serious academic offence. This article will refer to custom essay writing services, writing mills and contract cheating as the same term.

What are custom essay writing services? A quick search on Google will highlight that there are pages and pages of custom essay writing services available. They also aggressively advertise on social media, in and around universities and even on direct transport links to education establishments. These services will write anything from a piece of computer code through to a full PhD. The process is quick and simple. For a 3,000-word fully written custom business essay with Harvard referencing will cost around £330 for 2:2 up to £720 for upper 1st ( The sites all claim to have a pool of professional academic writers, offer complete confidentiality and are 100% plagiarism free. With regards to ethical rationalisation on contract cheating, this is often in the small print whereby many (but not all) state ‘our papers are for research purposes only and not to be submitted as your own work’, and/or ‘we provide model answers that you need to rewrite into your own words’. However, research by Medway et al (2018) found that some sites did acknowledge that their essay could be handed in as it was. Overall, with claims that the essays have 100% originality or 100% plagiarism free, it seems reasonable to assume that these essays are written to be handed in as the student’s own work.

Why do students cheat? Unfortunately, there is not one specific answer. Generally, poor time management and multiple deadlines are considered the main reasons (Rogerson, 2014). There is also the pressure of such a high investment and fear of failing (Medway et al., 2018). Of course, it is also seen as an easier option to obtain a higher grade especially when there seems to be a lack of legality over the use of writing mills. Much of the research for this article points to international students are four-times more likely to use these than native students (Mostrous & Kenber, 2016). The evidence suggests key factors are differing cultural interpretations on what is considered cheating and/or not being able to meet the academic conventions of analytical or critical evaluation. A key point here is that many universities are accepting international students with lower English abilities and thus language competence is significant reason to have someone else write your essay (ibid).

Associated problems using essay writing services. The key problem is that using custom essay writing services is academic misconduct and is becoming deemed an ever-present threat to academic integrity. The QAA Report (2016) states that when a student submits work that is not their own it compromises the fairness of the assessment process, brings the validity of the qualification into question and poses a threat to the reputation of that university. What seems much more significant is that students are paying huge amounts of money for a university education and knowledge learning which is based on having a series of lectures / seminars and then extensively researching that given area to independently and individually shape that knowledge and understanding, this experience and comprehension is then shown through a written paper. If a student fails to follow this process of self-discovery, then they have failed to thoroughly educate themselves and maximize their investment. Thus, when graduating they are falsely claiming to be a competent qualified professional. Furthermore, The Times (2018) warns that students who have used writing essay websites could be identified in the future through confidentiality leaks or even future software that identifies patterns and similarities in the way the shadow author has written contracted essays. This would lead to a degree being formally revoked and ending their career.

Possible ways to limit contract cheating: It is true to state that a student who has used custom essay writing services is incredibly difficult to identify. Students can claim a variety of reasons why their essay is above their usual standard of writing; ‘a friend checked it for me’, ‘I had a professional proofread’ or ‘I’ve used translation software’. There has to be a multi-facetted approach to solutions beginning with all U.K. universities strongly condemning all forms of plagiarism but in particular focusing on the use of custom essay writing services. It seems fair to suggest that universities need to play a much more leading role in discouraging custom essay services by firstly providing much clearer rules on what is and what is not acceptable in regard to supporting students in understanding contract cheating and proofreading rules. This information should be clearly visible around universities on noticeboards, university websites and assignment briefs. Unfortunately, much tougher penalties need to be applied with instant expulsion for any type of work expected to be not the student’s own. Coughlan (2018) emphasises that U.S. universities use ‘honour codes’ which act as a deterrent whereby students sign a declaration of plagiarism and are completely clear on what is plagiarism and the consequences of contract cheating. In addition to awareness building, as plagiarism has evolved so should writing procedures. A possible change would ask for a closer working academic relationship between students and tutors. This could be done through the student providing evidence on the process of their essay writing (outline, first draft, second draft, final draft) to the extent of even providing the sources and content where they had paraphrased certain elements if questioned. Assessments should also evolve to clarify a student’s understanding of their work through the student presenting their essay to a group of tutors or a ‘viva voce’. A simple guide would be if a student was unable to explain their research or answer questions on what they had written, this would constitute as a fail. A final point, is that legislation needs to be brought in to shut down writing mills in the UK. The QAA Report (2016) and leading Russel Group Vice Chancellors are presently calling for a ban on writing Mills in the U.K. and their subsequent advertising. This would follow similar regulation in line with New Zealand and America.

Final thoughts: Whether custom essay writing services can be completely controlled remains to be seen. The recent media attention and a recognition of the problem is a positive step forward but universities need to stop focusing on ratings and rankings and start to show more commitment in tackling fraudulent academic misconduct that is becoming an epidemic. What is true is if this is not addressed it will affect academic integrity, the fairness of assessment processes and the reputation of the U.K Higher Education system. 

(c) Text written by C.Wilson (2019) for Academic English UK.


BBC News. (2018). ‘One in seven’ paying for uni essays. [online] Available at:   [Accessed 3 Apr. 2019].

Coughlan, S. (2019). PayPal urged to block essay firm cheats. [online] BBC News. Available at:  [Accessed 3 Apr. 2019].

Medway, D., Roper, S. and Gillooly, L. (2018). Contract cheating in UK higher education: A covert investigation of essay mills. British Educational Research Journal, 44(3), pp.393-418.

Mostrous, A. and Kenber, B. (2016). Universities face student cheating crisis. [online] Available at:  [Accessed 3 Apr. 2019].

QAA (2016). Plagiarism in Higher education. custom essay writing services: an exploration and next steps for the UK higher education sector. [online] Available at:  [Accessed 3 Apr. 2019].

Rogerson, A. (2014). Detecting the work of essay mills and file swapping site: some clues they leave behind. 6th International Integrity & Plagiarism Conference: Conference proceedings, [online] pp.1-9. Available at:  [Accessed 3 Apr. 2019].

The Russell Group. (2018). Call for ban on essay mills. [online] Available at:  [Accessed 3 Apr. 2019].

Times Higher Education (THE). (2018). Tempted to pay for your essays? Here are six reasons not to. [online] Available at:  [Accessed 3 Apr. 2019].

Yorke, H. (2017). More than 20,000 university students buying essays and dissertations as Lords call for ban on ‘contract cheating’. [online] The Telegraph. Available at:  [Accessed 3 Apr. 2019]

Dictogloss: What is plagiarism?

This is a nice way to begin this lesson through asking students what they know about academic plagiarism at university. This is then followed by a dictagloss activity where learners are required to construct a short text (3 sentences) by listening and taking notes. In small groups they try to reconstruct the text. There are many key skills used in this type of lesson; listening, note-taking, communication with other students, grammar and vocabulary development.


Dictogloss: Academic plagiarism

A definition of plagiarism, the different forms of plagiarism and custom essay writing services. Key language areas: gerunds (ing forms) / plagiarism terminology. Example /  more dictogloss lessons / Level: ***** [B1/B2/C1]  / TEACHER MEMBERSHIP / INSTITUTIONAL MEMBERSHIP



More information on Dictogloss lessons: go here

Video: Academic Plagiarism: the use of custom essay writing services.

The above text has been transformed into an listening lecture with PowerPoint. There is also a listening test worksheet.


Academic Plagiarism- Lecture Listening Lesson 

This lecture focuses on academic plagiarism, what are custom essay writing services and the associated problems and solutions. It includes a video, test questions, tapescript and PPT (see example).  Level ***** [B2/C1] / PPT link in download /  Video [12.00]   / TEACHER MEMBERSHIP / INSTITUTIONAL MEMBERSHIP

The above text has been used to create two reading lessons:

Reading Test: Academic Plagiarism – the use of custom essay writing services / writing mills

The text discusses what is academic plagiarism, what are custom essay writing services and why university students use them. It highlights the key problems associated with using these sites and offers possible solutions to prevent students using them. The reading test worksheet tests headings, T/F/NG, short answers, summaries and vocabulary (see ExampleLevel ***** [B2/C1] TEACHER MEMBERSHIP / INSTITUTIONAL MEMBERSHIP

Academic Plagiarism: Summary  Reading & Writing Lesson

The text discusses what is academic plagiarism, what are custom essay writing services (writing mills) and why university students use them. It highlights the key problems associated with using these sites and offers possible solutions to prevent students using them. Students take notes on key idea and write a summary of 200-250 words. The summary writing task consists of a note-taking worksheet, a summary writing task, critical thinking questions, sample notes, a sample summary and sample critical thinking answersExample. Level ***** [B2/C1] TEACHER MEMBERSHIP / INSTITUTIONAL MEMBERSHIP

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