Katherine Donnelly: 'It is not a victimless crime, and students themselves are at risk'
There is nothing new about academic cheating. For as long as universities have been around there have been desperate, lazy or unscrupulous students who have contracted parents, siblings, friends or others to help with an assignment, and go on to present it as their own work. It may be unpaid, involve payment of money or other favours.
What is different now, according to Professor Cath Ellis of the University of New South Wales, Australia, is the way these contract-cheating transactions occur.
She is a leading researcher in this field and in a recent study highlighted how emerging technologies facilitate new ways to procure and produce bespoke academic work. Websites offering a service to write individual assignments on demand, free of concerns that they may be found out ripping off someone else's work.
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She recalls how the internet made cut-and-paste plagiarism relatively easy until the arrival of software packages such as Turnitin, which allow higher education institutions to detect evidence of copying. Students can't do that any more because they are going to get caught.
It drove a new industry in bespoke writing, which took hold in about 2012, facilitated by online money transfer services such as PayPal. Prof Ellis describes it as a "very sophisticated, well-functioning industry", often with a central hub, producing offshoots tailored to particular markets.
The massive growth in such services is why Prof Ellis was invited to Dublin yesterday, to talk to Irish higher education institutions. She says the incidence rate could be 6-10pc.
Another expert in the field, Professor Michael Draper, who addressed the same meeting, found as many as one in seven (around 14pc) of recent graduates may have paid someone to do an assignment for them.
Figures like that represent a serious threat to academic integrity, but the two speakers also pointed to the risks to students. Prof Draper spoke of anecdotal evidence of students being blackmailed, with sites asking for more money if they are not to reveal to their college or employer about the use of the service.
Whistleblowers have told Prof Ellis of cases where writers have identified a student and their college, even though the student thought that could not happen.
The new focus of this anti-cheating activity does not aim to criminalise students, but they need to be aware that it is a crime, and they too may be victims.