My career as a writer probably started in the early 1950s when, as a ten-year-old Wolf Cub (Cub Scout), I was required to write an essay about my weekend camping experience in the Ceylon jungle with the RAF Negombo Jungle Rescue Team. The content of the essay was all mine but my dad helped me craft the words into sentences and corrected my punctuation errors. Did I cheat by asking my dad to help me construct the essay?
This question is prompted by a news item on today’s BBC website reporting that YouTube had taken down many videos that contained embedded plugs to an essay writing service called EduBirdie. My curiosity was piqued and I took a look at this service. Its tagline reads The professional essay writing service for students who can’t even. (who can’t even what?), followed by Get your essay written starting at just $18.00 a page. Further investigation revealed that this service acts as an agent for many writers and researchers (described as “super smart nerds”) who, for a fee, will write almost anything you want and then send it to you for you to pass on as if it were your own work. In particular, the website targets students at high school/university who need to submit a piece of written work as part of the requirements of their educational course; a term paper (essay assignment), research paper, thesis, dissertation, scholarship entrance paper, and so on. The list of topics is comprehensive and the website lists a number of people who provide these writing services; people with PhDs, people who use the title Professor, and people who claim to be professional writers. The website also stresses that whatever a writer produces will be checked for plagiarism before delivery and thus will withstand that form of scrutiny by whoever assesses the work. In other words, you can pass the work off as if it were all your own work and the chances of getting caught out are slim.
We could consider the ethics of all this. Is it fair that Student A in a group submits a term paper (an essay on a subject relevant to a particular course) that he or she has written from scratch, whereas Student B in the same group submits an essay written by an anonymous third party but submitted under Student B’s byline? There has, of course, been much discussion about this and I don’t want to repeat well-known arguments for and against such practice. (This HuffPost article is a good summary of these arguments.) I am more concerned with where you draw the line between helping and cheating.
As my own writing skills have developed since the early 1950s, so too has my desire to help others improve their literary efforts. During my professional career, I wrote and had published just under one hundred technical papers and two technical books. The papers were published in professional journals and trade magazines, workshop and conference proceedings, and, towards the end of my career, on various websites. In almost all cases, my papers and books were reviewed by my peers and by editors and often suggestions were made, and usually accepted, on how to improve my submission. In turn, I also reviewed papers and books and almost always would propose improvements with suggestions for restructuring a sentence, changing the grammar, adding extra detail, removing redundant detail, and many other changes aimed at enhancing the professional image of the work, and hence of the author of the work.
Since retirement, I have helped family and friends in a variety of ways:
- criticism and enhancement of résumés and job application covering letters;
- detailed copy editing (grammar, punctuation, fact checking, style, etc.) of blogs destined for another blogging website;
- creation of several e-books and printed books starting from the raw material of Word files and various forms of graphics;
- helping my granddaughters with some of their homework assignments;
- critiquing essays written as part of a BA university course;
- creating articulate letters written to various authorities and service suppliers.
All this support has been done in background mode and my name has rarely appeared on the final submitted work—possibly an acknowledgement at the back end of a book, or a verbal “Grandad helped me” comment to the teacher. Were these members of my family and circle of friends cheating when they asked for my help? Of course not. We all rely on others now and again to help solve a problem and calling upon someone whose skills are better than yours is not cheating, but where do you draw the line?
I looked at the websites of several essay writing services. (When I googled “Essay writing services” this morning, Google returned 647,000 hits. It’s big business.) The sites I looked at were clearly targeted at students who didn’t have either the time, inclination or skills to write a coursework essay and were not concerned about the ethics of paying someone else to do it, but the sites also offered a range of writing services: write from scratch, or flesh out an outline, or copy edit something already written. If I was a student asked to write, say, 5,000 words on the effect of climate change on the Great Barrier Reef, I could go for any one of these options. At what point does help become cheat? Consider the following scenarios.
Scenario 1. I could scrape together a few facts gleaned from Wikipedia and elsewhere, lay down a basic essay without too much regard for grammar and structure, and then send it off to a professional copy editor for polishing. The editor will carry out a comprehensive grammar check, should check the validity of the stated facts and may add new facts, and may suggest a complete restructuring of the essay including other ideas for improving the essay’s content and appearance. If I accept all these recommendations but don’t acknowledge the editor’s assistance, is this cheating?
Scenario 2. Alternatively, I might gather together a collection of headings and sub-headings with maybe a few hyperlinks to particular websites, and then ask the contracted essay writer to fill in the detail. I’ve done the work of planning the essay and structuring its presentation but I rely on the essay writer to do the grunt work of turning my outline into a literary work of art. Is this cheating?
Scenario 3. Or, I just say to the essay writer, “Write me a 5,000-word essay on the effects of climate change on the Great Barrier Reef suitable for submission as a Grade 12 term paper in a United States high school (or Year 12 in a UK Sixth Form college).” The essay writer then does as instructed and the student submits as if it were his or her own work. Is this cheating?
Clearly, the answer to Scenario 3’s question is “Yes” but what about the other two scenarios?
I wonder how an essay assessor will make the help or cheat decision if it is found out that a student has made use of an essay writing service. It’s a blurred line.
I would like to acknowledge the assistance of professional essay writer, Dr Prof CleverRichard of Wakanda University. He wrote this whole blog for me so that I could spend time writing a PhD dissertation on the impact of spatial black holes on the world’s LGBT community for a university student friend of mine, so that she could spend time writing a review of all mainstream movies made in Outer Mongolia since the 1890s for a friend of hers, so that he could write an opinion piece on the endangered black panther species of Wakanda for Dr Prof CleverRichard of Wakanda University.
What goes around, comes around!
Footnote: see also my short follow-up posted one day later.