Call for student essay-writing services to be outlawed to preserve academic integrity
UK researchers are warning of an alarming rise in cheating in universities since the Covid pandemic hit, after detecting a tripling of requests to a major “homework help” website and an increase in the number of “essay mills” as courses and assessments have moved online.
Researchers at Imperial College London (ICL) studied requests to Chegg, a US-based homework support website, and found students were using the site to ask for help with exam-style questions and receiving answers live, potentially within exam time limits, raising concerns about the credibility of online assessment.
The warning came as the former universities minister Chris Skidmore introduced a 10-minute rule bill in the Commons seeking to outlaw essay-writing services in the UK, saying they threaten to “damage academic integrity beyond repair”.
“Each week that passes during the Covid pandemic, the situation is only growing worse,” Skidmore said, revealing that the number of such sites in the UK are proliferating, with 932 in operation, up from 881 in October.
“As students have been forced to study remotely from home, away from on-campus welfare and support, taking their studies and exams online, they are increasingly becoming prey to essay mills, whose number has increased dramatically as they seek to take advantage of the desperate situation many students face.”
Skidmore also cited the ICL research, which focused on requests submitted to Chegg by students in five subjects – computer science, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, physics and chemistry – and compared the number of requests between April and August 2019 with the same period in 2020.
The analysis found the number of requests had increased by 196.25%. “This increase corresponds with the time when many courses moved to be delivered and assessed online,” the paper said. “The growing number of requests indicates that students are using Chegg for assessment and exam help frequently and in a way that is not considered permissible by universities.”
The paper, written by Prof Thomas Lancaster and Codrin Cotarlan and published in the International Journal for Educational Integrity, calls for academic institutions to put interventions in place “to minimise the risk to educational standards posed by sites such as Chegg, particularly since increased online teaching and assessment may continue after the pandemic”.
It is not clear how many students in the UK use Chegg. It is not an essay-writing service but late last year it was reported that the University of Edinburgh had invested £865,000 in the US site, whose use by students has triggered investigations by American universities.
A University of Edinburgh spokesman told: “The university invests in Chegg via an externally managed investment portfolio which contains several dozen stocks, of which Chegg represents only a small amount – less than 0.7%. All of our investments are regularly reviewed and amended, if necessary, ensuring the university’s values are represented in the companies in which we invest.”
Essay mills have been a growing source a concern in the UK higher education sector in recent years, but the threat has been magnified by the pandemic as students reach out for their services on “a mass scale”.
Skidmore, whose bill has cross-party support, said students were being recruited as influencers and paid to distribute flyers on campus advertising essay-writing services. Some students have complained of being blackmailed.
“Be in no doubt that essay mills are seeking to ruthlessly take advantage of the pandemic,” he told MPs. “One site is even offering cut-price deals for essays, declaring: ‘To help you fight these tough conditions caused by the coronavirus outbreak, we have reduced the price of all our services by up to 50% – grab the offer now!’”
Universities UK, which represents the sector, the Russell Group of universities and the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education are supporting the call for legislation to ban essay-writing websites in the UK, following the lead of countries including Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
Responding to the ICL study, Candace Sue, Chegg’s director of academic relations, said: “We welcome discussion and analysis of this important issue. However, this study has basic flaws in methodology, mistakenly implying – without any clear evidence – that increased usage of Chegg correlates to an increase in cheating.
“With millions of students going online in a matter of months, students have lost valuable on-campus and faculty support services and our user growth reflects this. Chegg provides much-needed learning support to these students, including a significant number from low-income, first-generation, and minority backgrounds who have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.”
Sue said Chegg had recently launched “Honor Shield”, which works by blocking exam questions on the platform during designated assessment periods in the US, and said it would be rolled out elsewhere.
“The overwhelming majority of Chegg users are hardworking and honest, and they use our platform to supplement their learning. We take extremely seriously any attempts to cheat by those who abuse our offerings, and we invest heavily to prevent misuse of our learning platform.”