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Custom essay writing websites: ever justified?

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Custom essay writing websitesOver the past few years, custom essay writing websites have become a hotly debated topic in the world of academia. There are now numerous websites offering to create tailor-made essays for any student with the means to pay. Offered as model answers or research aids, they promise to ease students’ workload by providing a valuable source of references – but they are faced with strong opposition from universities.

Plagiarism is a major issue for universities, and in the past students have been caught attempting to cheat on assignments by handing in an essay they have bought as their own work. For those that can afford it, the opportunity to buy a bespoke essay rather than spending several consecutive all-nighters poring over textbooks may seem an attractive option.

Although most companies are adamant that the essays they provide are not intended to be used in this way, it appears that there is often an implicit understanding that cheating does occur. 

Essay Writer, which the Sunday Times called Britain’s biggest online provider of custom essays and dissertations, makes it clear that the company will not be held accountable for how its essays are used. In a list of FAQs, it states that “Essay Writer will not be held liable for your choice of action with regards to the written essay you purchased from us.”

Despite the assertion that their essays are not intended to be used in place of students’ own work, this statement seems to imply recognition of the fact that they sometimes are. Academics have criticised services such as this because by providing a fully confidential, ‘plagiarism-free’ service, they enable dishonest students to cheat. When TNS contacted Essay Writer to ask about this, they declined to comment.

These services do not come cheap. A 3000-word, 2:1 standard essay from essaywriter.co.uk would set an undergraduate back £362, rising to £1088 for 11am next-day delivery. Despite this, thousands of students are parting with their cash every year in order to guarantee a good grade, believing that it will eliminate the stress and risk factor of relying on their own abilities.

In reality, however, purchasing an essay online is far from risk-free. Students who use even part of an essay that they have bought in their own work can easily be found guilty of plagiarism, thanks to ever-more stringent measures to prevent cheating. Most universities now use anti-plagiarism software such as Turnitin, and tutors who are familiar with their students’ style of writing are able to pick up on differences in the tone of their writing.

One student at the University of Leeds said that she was tempted to cheat using a bespoke essay-writing service for her end-of-year essay assignment

She said: “Final year is so stressful and I was worried about whether I’d get a 2:1. I knew that if I said I just wanted the essay as a model answer they would write it for me and I started to wonder if it might be worth paying just so that I knew I’d be guaranteed a good grade.”

Like many students, she was wary of the claim that the site produced ‘plagiarism-free’ essays, opting to do the assignment herself rather than trying to hand in a bought essay as her own work.

She added: “I decided it wasn’t worth it in the end. It just seemed too risky to me.”

The risk of getting caught is enough to deter many students from cheating by trying to pass the work off as their own. Because of this, some purchase essays to use as research aids when completing their own assignments in order to avoid being guilty of plagiarism. However, this entails problems of its own.

While many arguments against the use of custom writing essay websites rest on the assumption that they will be handed in as students’ own work, many universities have condemned their use as model answers or study aids. A great part of the skill required to write a good essay is the ability to critically analyse sources, identify the arguments and construct a unique argument based on this analysis. It can be argued that a custom-written essay eliminates the need for this process by providing a ready-made clear and consistent line of argument fit to present to a tutor.

TNS has discussed custom essay-writing websites in the past. In 2010, we found that Jed Hallam, a company spokesman for UKEssays.com, had told the University of Nottingham’s Impact magazine that the website was merely “a search engine for academia”. He denied that using it allowed students to do less work than if they found their own references, saying that the essays are intended to be used for research and that “by giving [students] a list of sources and references we are probably increasing the amount of research they have to do!”

Hallam’s statement has been met with scepticism as it seems to contradict many websites’ claims that custom writing websites reduce students’ workload. Bespoke essays provide students with far more than the catalogue of resources which might be found through a search engine. They also provide ideas and a clear line of argument to be used as a basis for the student’s own essay.

In order to learn more about their services, I spoke to a member of support staff at UK Essays. In response to the question “If I used the same arguments but wrote them differently, would that count as plagiarism?” I was told “No, because you will still write your own work. The researcher's work will show you how to write the work and what sources you can use.”

I was also told that I would not need to reference the essay in my bibliography, and was discouraged from telling my tutors that I intended to use the service: “Most universities are against the service because they think that the client will hand in the work as their own… because we're not a private tutor and the help is in paper form, it raises eyebrows!”

It is a common misconception among students that copying the ideas but not the phrasing of someone else’s work without referencing it does not count as plagiarism. However, the University of Leeds defines plagiarism as presenting another person’s work as your own, including “any intellectual output” – which means that plagiarism includes copying arguments or ideas as well as text. Copying another writer’s ideas but not their words would certainly be considered plagiarism, meaning that any use of an essay written by someone else without referencing it is cheating.

In the face of such strong opposition from every major academic institution in the UK, any attempt to justify the use of bespoke essay-writing websites seems deeply flawed. The risks and ethical implications are greater than many people realise; and for students trying to get a good degree, the risk of being found guilty of cheating and thus jeopardising their academic career is far greater than any advantage a website such as UK Essays or Essay Writer might appear to provide. They are far from a risk-free route to academic success.

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