SINGAPORE: It’s an open secret on many campuses here.
With assignment deadlines looming, students have the option of burning the midnight oil, or turning to an alternative: Online services offering to complete essay assignments for a fee.
Such services are widely available on Singapore-based online marketplace Carousell, with a simple search turning up more than 15 different user accounts offering ghostwriting services or assignment help for two to three-figure sums.
Originality, they say, is guaranteed. So is complete confidentiality: A necessity given the hefty penalties schools impose on students caught submitting work that is not theirs.
“We all knew about it, but it was all really hush-hush and no one really talked about it,” said Mike*, a private university graduate who bought two essays online.
“I think even the professors themselves know, but everyone just pretends it doesn’t happen.”
A "SURE-PASS" GUARANTEE
Some providers cite years of experience helping students, while others appear to be students themselves, looking to earn some extra cash in their free time. One service says they have a “team of Rafflesians ready to help”, while another says their writers are graduates of “elite junior colleges with placements in top universities.”
One listing was manned by a “perfect scorer at the A levels” looking to earn some extra cash before starting university. Since January, the provider has extended services to about 30 customers, most of whom were from polytechnics or private universities.
“I consider myself to be a quick learner, to the extent that I am able to digest hundreds of pages of textbook and lecture content sent to me by clients and produce original group project work over the course of a few days,” said the provider in an email response to Channel NewsAsia.
“I always request (my clients) to send me any and all material relevant to the assignment, however tangential they might be. I also do my own readings, trawling Wikipedia pages and their sources, and accessing online libraries I have at my disposal to gain a thorough understanding of the subject.
“If I am not confident of delivering to satisfactory standards – think distinction or high distinction – I simply do not accept the assignment,” added the provider. “In part, this is to protect my own reputation as an essay service provider and ensure customer satisfaction.”
Whether it is a one-man show or a full-time business, customer satisfaction appears to be their top priority.
Take Inkmypapers.sg, which bills itself on its Carousell listing as “the most established essay writing service in Singapore”.
Boasting a sleek website, automated ordering system and a team of six full-time writers, Inkmypapers says it is the “only essay writing service” that provides a “sure-pass” 200 per cent money-back guarantee on any essay which receives a failing grade.
Its founder, who wanted to be known only as Nick, said they have served more than a thousand students since 2009.
“I started out unofficially because my sister asked me for help,” he explained. “She was a stewardess previously and couldn’t find time to work on her essays. Then when I went to university, I got someone to help me as well.”
“But the quality was really lousy,” he said. “Ninety per cent of the cheap services you see online are really just Indian companies disguised as US, UK or Australian companies ... so I decided to start a business myself.”
A LUCRATIVE BUSINESS
And it is a lucrative one. The base rate Inkmypapers charges is S$8 per 50 words, which works out to about S$160 for a thousand-word essay. However, fees can go up to as much as S$1,000 depending on the length, level of complexity and the deadline for the essay.
They receive about 30 to 60 requests a month, most of which are for business and psychology essays. While most of Nick’s clients prefer not to reveal their personal details, he estimates that 90 to 95 per cent of them come from private universities.
Mike is one of them.
As a part-time student at a private university here, he commissioned two essays from Inkmypapers on financial management and budgeting before he graduated about two years ago. He paid about S$480 for each essay.
“As a working adult with two kids at home, it was totally impossible for me to write quality essays on my personal time, because I have to juggle work, studies and family,” he said. “I know there is a risk, but frankly speaking there is no way (the professors) could catch us.
“Plagiarism checks like Turnitin can check if students have lifted information from the Internet, but not if we got it from a third-party service provider.”
While Mike said he received good grades for the essays, he added that as a precaution he would never “submit (the essays) wholesale”.
“I usually try to understand what they are saying, and if I have any doubts I will correspond with them, make some changes and proofread it,” he said. “So it’s a two-way process”.
PUTTING IT TO THE TEST
But with so much emphasis on quality, does the final product really measure up?
Channel NewsAsia approached several providers anonymously to commission a sociology term paper for university-level submission. We were quoted fees of between S$60 and S$250, and eventually hired a provider which promoted itself as having writers who are graduates of “elite junior colleges”, and being “so good, our competitors have resorted to defaming and imitating us”.
Confidentiality was assured regardless of the provider approached. When asked about the profiles of the writers, one said the writer would be a “Raffles graduate with 8 distinctions” studying in a top university overseas. Another – the one eventually hired – was said to have been written by a student currently studying in Yale-NUS.
It was a remarkably hassle-free transaction. After emailing the provider the essay question and deadline, we were told that we would be sent a screenshot of the essay once it was completed. Payment of S$60 would then be due via a bank transfer.
The provider did not ask for any lecture notes or additional materials. Nonetheless, we sent them an assigned class reading and brief lecture notes.
The essay was completed within two days – a day before the scheduled deadline. Once payment was made, the provider emailed a link to the full essay on Google Docs. We asked the provider to make one revision on the basis that the essay did not completely answer the given question, and it was returned the next day with slight edits to the thesis statement and topic sentences.
“Feel free to add on,” we were told, because “the sociology part was just researched from scratch”.
The good news was the essay came back clean on plagiarism software SafeAssign. But the bad news: it was graded as an 'F' from the lecturer who set the question.
“The essay is not adequately referenced, and reads like a back-cover summary of what you’d find on the back cover of a text,” said sociology lecturer Kriston D’Amuro from the SIM-UB undergraduate degree programme in Singapore. “The first thing that came to mind is that they’ve taken one assigned reading, resummarised that and tried to link current events to a history that was presented. It doesn’t draw any connections to anything we’ve done in the course or any other reading,” he added.
“The only additional reading incorporated here are news articles. This is insufficient for an essay of this type. And nowhere here is there an argument on why it is sociologically interesting,” he said.
“It doesn’t answer or even address the question, so straight out of the game it would be a failing essay.”
Dr D’Amuro added that the essay “reads like it was written by a student”, but “not a student who has attended a single one of (his) lectures for the module.”
“It’s a very elementary, basic student essay,” he said. “There’s an introduction, body and conclusion, but it’s clear to me that this is not written by a professional because the way the language is used is not interesting or punchy.”
“It’s too repetitive and doesn’t have those stylistic features I would expect a professional writer to include.”
Citing the essay’s lack of references, he added that it was also clearly not written by a researcher. “You would expect someone who does research for a living – even if it’s not sociological research – to have a very dense writing style,” he explained. “Lots of information, multiple citations ... this has none of those things.”
“In my opinion, it’s more likely a polytechnic or JC student wrote this. I would be shocked to see this submitted by someone who wants to pass.”
"NOTHING NICE HAPPENS" TO STUDENTS CAUGHT
Submitting an essay of questionable quality is just one risk that students face when they employ ghostwriting services, as schools mete out harsh penalties to those who submit work that is not theirs.
A spokesperson from SIM Global Education said they have not come across cases of students getting others to do their assignments. Kaplan Singapore, on the other hand, has seen students submitting ghost-written essays for courses.
Such students can be identified through plagiarism detection software, or when lecturers compare their performance in assignments to how well they scored in other assessments like exams or quizzes, said Rhys Johnson, chief operating officer and provost of Kaplan Singapore.
“Penalties can range from being required to redo the assignment through to expulsion, depending on the severity of the case.”
As Dr D’Amuro observed wryly, “nothing nice happens” to students he catches for academic offences.
“It’s a guaranteed fail at the absolute least,” he said, noting that while he has not come across any students who have submitted purchased essays, he has seen “three to four” cases where he has failed students for outright plagiarism from websites.
“In those cases, I’m not so friendly,” he quipped. “I give them the link to the page that they have plagiarised from as the feedback, and a note: look familiar?”
In more serious cases, students could be subject to academic sanctions or expulsion, he added.
But ultimately, he said the best defence for lecturers comes in the way they structure their courses.
“I have writing-heavy courses with rounds of feedback, drafts on various parts with a large number of written assignments,” he said. “That way I can learn their writing habits, and I have a wealth of material to compare their work to.”
*Names have been changed to protect identities.