Can you trust the cheaters?

There’s an episode of The Sopranos, quite early on, where Christopher Moltisanti has someone impersonate him and take the stockbrokers’ licensing exam on his behalf so he can run a dodgy investment operation. By this point in the series, we’ve witnessed adultery, fraud, theft, violence, and murder but somehow this act of dishonesty really shocked me. It was so brazen: an invigilator calls the register in the test centre and someone whom the audience know is not Christopher Moltisanti raises his hand and says ‘here’. Of course, the ramifications of such academic misconduct reach far and wide – how many other brokers are operating with a licence they didn’t actually earn? How many bankers? How many pilots?

Twenty years later the exam-taking racket has grown and grown. Just as the shift of commerce to online has brought an increase in cyber theft, so digital learning and assessment is making students and institutions vulnerable to criminals who claim to be on the side of the learners. This past month members of the Educational Enhancement team went wading in the murky waters of paraphrasing tools, essay mills and exam personators, and are here to tell the tale. Short version, it’s a con.

At the bottom of the chain are the paraphrasing tools. These have simple interfaces and use jolly verbs like ‘spin’ which make the process feel like a game. Recently a Google Doodle honoured Irene Bernasconi so let’s use the first paragraph of Wikipedia’s article on her to demonstrate:

  • Original text: Irene Bernasconi was an Argentine marine biologist specializing in Echinoderm research and best known for her work in the Antarctic. She was the first echinoderm specialist in Argentina and spent 55 years conducting research into echinoderms found in the Argentine Sea.
  • Altered text: Irene Bernasconi was an Argentine sea life scholar spend significant time in Echinoderm exploration and most popular for her work in the Antarctic. She was the primary echinoderm expert in Argentina and endured 55 years leading examination into echinoderms tracked down in the Argentine Ocean.

The tool increased the word count by 24 words (almost 10%) and rephrased certain sentences. Now, if you run this new text through a plagiarism checker it shouldn’t hit as high as the original Wikipedia text would have. Take a closer look though, ‘marine biologist’, the official recognised term for this role, is now ‘sea life scholar’, Bernasconi’s most renowned work is now what makes her ‘popular’, and the ‘Argentine Sea’ has been renamed, erroneously, as the ‘Argentine Ocean’. Can you spot any other curious edits?

So surely no HE student would fall for this nonsense?  They could instantly spot that the rephrasing is utterly useless and so go back to writing their own essay, right? But wait, what’s that button at the bottom? Well, it says ‘Advanced Paraphrase’ and clicking it will take you to another site where the paraphrasing makes more sense but reverts in similarity to the original – no getting past the similarity checker here. Now what? Let’s take ourselves back to the beginning of this blog post: a tale of criminals exploiting the vulnerable. The new site offers the enticing ‘premium’ option and encourages students to sign up for a chargeable service and this service includes a built-in plagiarism checker so anyone who uses it doesn’t have to worry about triggering any alerts when they come to submit their work. You see how they hook you? Remember, it’s a con.

For obvious reasons, we won’t be sharing everything that we learnt as we investigated further. Let’s instead focus on how we can be certain that these sites and services are on nobody’s side but their own.

  • The graphics. From cartoon characters to industry-style branding and academic looking logos, these sites all employ the kind of visuals that appeal to viewers. No matter the cutesy or corporate graphics, these services are neither kind nor honourable. It’s a con.
  • The pop-ups. Try to navigate away from these sites and a pop-up will alert you to possible savings if you sign up there and then. Of course these ‘one time only’ offers will always be there. It’s a con.
  • The chat windows. Every site we visited had a chat window that opened instantly. The text used direct address and conversational language and featured avatars of smiley youngish people looking right out at us. Our suspicion is that these start as bots and a real person joins if the user engages but we can’t be certain of that. After all, it’s a con.
  • They’re watching you. A simple Google search for ideas such as ‘how to start a philosophy essay’ generated a page of results each of which was a link to an essay-writing service. This makes it really easy for students to stumble onto these sites unintentionally and that makes them vulnerable to all the tricks we’ve listed above. There are a few ways to get to the top of a Google results page but the key one is money. These criminal sites are able to invest in their prominence by spending the money they convince students to part with. Remember, it’s a con.
  • We’re onto them. The eternal tussle between the cops and the robbers is at play here. We know of a number of sites and have firewalls in place, and we also know ways to spot a script generated this way. Now imagine what happens if a student is discovered having used an essay-writing service and faces an academic misconduct panel – do they get their money back? Of course not, it’s a con.
  • It’s illegal. Earlier this year, the Skills and Post-16 Education Act 2022 stated that ‘it is an offence for a person to provide, or arrange for another person to provide, in commercial circumstances, a relevant service for a student in relation to a relevant assignment’. It should not be underestimated that these sites are being taken very seriously and are being called out for what they are, cons.

This is a conversation that is far from over. For now, please remember that no one is offering to write anyone’s essay out of the goodness of their heart and any site that offers illegal services is not one to engage with. It. Is. A. Con.

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Posted in Marking and assessment

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We are the Educational Enhancement team at the University of Sussex. We publish posts each week on using technology to support teaching and learning. Read more about us.

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