Detecting Essay Fraud

An international investigation shows the difficulty of monitoring and stopping academic ghostwriting.

June 18, 2015

A squat, anonymous office block on the industrial outskirts of Colchester, north of London, doesn’t appear to be the likeliest place for the headquarters of an international fraud operation.

But the Colchester Centre, among the warehouses and car yards, is home to Nexus Networks, a web development company that could be the hub of an academic ghostwriting racket that stretches from Britain to Pakistan, Australia and beyond.

Essay ghostwriting is just one part of a vibrant international black market capitalizing on the growing higher education market. Despite the long-running media coverage of local essay mills, these organizations represent the tip of the iceberg of an industry that spans essay writing, fraudulent qualifications and immigration scams.

The most common issue, ghostwritten essays, represents a “wicked problem,” said John Shields, deputy dean of the University of Sydney’s business school. “It’s deep and embedded and it’s hard to catch and kill,” he said. “In one sense, ghostwriting has emerged as an area of key concern in academic honesty because many universities are using a first-line defense in terms of [text matching software], and the simple plagiarism approach being detectable has forced those who, for whatever reason, choose to engage in dishonest conduct, to go one level deeper.”

An unofficial University of Sydney-related social media page offers links to ghostwriting services. On this page Eleanor Rose McCarthy, who claims to be a graduate from the University of Queensland, repeatedly advertises “online tuition services,” assuring “confidentiality plus premium quality work.”

But it is Jessica Stone who replies to inquiries for assistance, requesting payment of $85 for the delivery of a 1,200-word essay, to be deposited with Nexus Networks Ltd, registered in Colchester, population 121,000.

This is no amateur operation. The same company runs a number of bank accounts around the world, including one in the name of Thi Ngoc Bao Nguyen in Australia. Once a request is received, it is likely farmed out to a number of freelance “academic writers,” largely in Pakistan and India.

The Australian, as part of a joint investigation with the Australian network Triple J’s Hack program, obtained one such essay and identified its most likely author as Samina Ahsan or Tehniat Ahsan, both freelance academic writers in northeast Pakistan. Both advertise ghostwriting services independently of Nexus Networks, offering essay writing for as little as $7 an hour.

Australian universities were forced to investigate hundreds of undergraduate students late last year after Fairfax Media revealed MyMaster, a Sydney-based service, had potentially assisted thousands of students in sitting exams and completing assessments.

The University of Sydney last year investigated 31 students, with several others currently under scrutiny for more recent dishonest conduct. Despite the threat to the integrity of degrees, Shields said that he is not confident anything more than “direct means” can be used to identify ghostwritten essays.

“An examiner using [text-matching software] and not making any judgment calls would be likely to mark this on its merits,” he said of the essay our investigation produced.

The software, Turnitin, detected no plagiarism, although it matched the source to a submission at the University of Cape Town and two submissions at the University of Maryland.

“But because there are absolutely no text matches, it makes me suspicious because almost everything that’s submitted has a few strings of words that are replicated from a source a student has read. Every academic piece has that, it’s normal, and there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that,” Shields said.

Suspicion led Shields to further scrutinize the essay, and to conclude, based on syntax, that it was most likely written by an Indian or Pakistani writer.

The university also turns to other methods to detect ghostwritten essays.

“Believe it or not, students actually do turn in other students who are a little too high on the bravado when it comes to these things,” Shields said. And his faculty has recently introduced new assessment protocols requiring formal examinations, which are then compared with a student’s performance in online submissions to check for anomalies.

But it is not just essays available for sale online. Earlier this year Axact, a Pakistan-based software development company, was found to be the front for 470 fake colleges in the U.S. Axact defrauded thousands of students with a complicated network of fake accreditation bodies, recruitment agencies and language schools.

Earlier this year the Australian higher education regulator requested assistance from the Chinese Ministry of Education to investigate allegations that fraudulent degrees for local institutions were being made available online for as little as $3,500. One company that purports to provide degrees charges $2,200 for a bachelor's degree for the University of Hertfordshire in Britain, claiming it can “sandwich” buyers’ details into the institution’s graduate database.

In a lengthy note to potential buyers, Documents Center, based in Shenzhen, China, claims it has access to official university email addresses and can forward the fake degree to prospective employers. It also notes the process with which the qualifications can be used for immigration purposes.

The University of Hertfordshire said it had investigated the issues and believed “it was very difficult for a purchaser to do anything about the claim of getting on to our in-house databases once they had handed over money.”

A representative of Documents Center declined to comment, and despite repeated calls, Nexus Networks did not respond. A staff member at the Colchester Centre confirmed the company continued to operate from the premises.

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