Experts say 'predatory' essay writing firms are thriving, and there's no law to stop them
Nursing professors say a term paper purchased by CBC did not raise red flags
A CBC News investigation has revealed how fast and convenient it is to purchase a custom academic essay that can go undetected by university professors and plagiarism software.
The term paper was purchased through a self-described custom essay writing service that is based in Toronto but serves post-secondary students across Canada.
The real-life assignment was provided by the Ryerson University school of nursing, which agreed to analyze the purchased essay.
"It was very disturbing to me, because I would expect to see this paper," said Corinne Hart, an associate professor of nursing at Ryerson, who assigns the essay in a third year course. "Now I feel really suspicious about other papers."
Academic integrity experts say businesses that sell custom-written papers are proliferating across the country. There are also concerns that the companies are becoming bolder and more sophisticated as they grow.
"I see these as predatory companies," said John Paul Foxe, director of Ryerson University's academic integrity office.
"They will go so far as to say, 'If you engage with us, you're not cheating, you're not doing anything wrong, you won't get caught.'"
That practice has been dubbed "contract cheating" in the academic integrity field.
While universities and colleges do not allow students to submit work that isn't their own, companies that sell custom essays are fully legal in Canada.
Essay company explains how to hand it in
During a hidden camera interview at an essay writing store in Toronto, a representative said the company would not sell a paper to a student who intended to submit the paper as their own work.
The company, which is one of several in Toronto alone, insists that it provides work for "research purposes" and buyers must sign a contract agreeing not to submit the work as their own.
However, the staff member also explained how some minor alterations to the purchased essay would make it fit for submission.
"You just take it and paraphrase it into your own words, that eliminates any issue with plagiarism," said the staff member. "Then you can't say you used someone else's work as your own."
The company guarantees that its papers are produced by native English speakers who have masters or doctorate-level degrees in relevant disciplines, and that each paper is a new and original piece of work tailored to the specific assignment.
The company said many of its customers use the purchased essays as a guide to help them produce their own work.
"A lot of people don't know how to write papers, they don't know APA format, and they don't know how to cite things," said the staff member.
According to the company's website, it has produced more than 100,000 custom essays over the past 18 years.
"I've seen it around, I know people who use it," said University of Toronto student Fatima Zafar, standing near a light standard covered in an essay company's flyers.
"Sometimes friends joke about it, but I don't know if they're for real or not," said York University student Pedro Charneca.
$226 for a B-range paper
The paper obtained by CBC News was written on the topic of gun violence in Toronto. It did not raise any red flags in a brief analysis by nursing professors.
The essay was eight pages long, took seven days to write and cost $226 before taxes.
Hart said she likely would give it a B or B-, while nursing program director Nancy Walton said it looked to her like a B+ paper.
"If I had read this without knowing that it was even suspicious of being a contract cheating paper, it would not have occurred to me," Walton said.
"We would never want to think that a nursing student is engaging in contract cheating, but I guess ... I really might not know."
Academic integrity experts say a lack of research and awareness also has made it difficult to combat contract cheating.
While essay writing companies plaster university and college campuses with flyers every semester, the actual number of students buying papers is practically impossible to determine.
A 2018 study by Swansea University in Wales found that contract cheating has been self-reported historically by 3.5 per cent of students. Foxe said he believes the problem likely is more widespread.
"I would expect it to be somewhat higher than that," he said of the self-reported figures. "By virtue of the fact that these companies are expanding at the rate they're expanding, that tells us that these businesses have customers."
Foxe said he regularly deals with contract cheating issues. In some recent cases, he said, the essay writing companies have even tried to blackmail students by threatening to report them unless they pay additional fees.
Canadian laws 'a bit behind the times'
While experts acknowledge that online access to these services is widespread, they say that cracking down on the businesses operating within Canada's borders could be effective.
The Academic Integrity Council of Ontario (AICO), an organization that represents 30 universities and colleges, is calling on the provincial government to make essay writing services illegal.
"We're a bit behind the times here in Canada," said Amanda McKenzie, AICO's former chair, who also works at the University of Waterloo.
McKenzie said laws targeting essay writing companies have been successfully introduced in New Zealand and Australia, where more than 70 post-secondary students were expelled in a contract cheating scandal in 2015.
She said companies in Canada should no longer be allowed to operate under the guise of providing "research" assistance.
"They know that students are going to take that material and probably turn it around and submit it," McKenzie said. "It's why the student came to them in the first place."
Hart agreed, and said any measures to cut down on cheating and dishonesty should be pursued, especially in a field where graduates have significant responsibilities for health and public safety.
"As nursing students they're looking after people, and there's an expectation of ethics and of truth telling and all of those things that buying a paper basically negates."
In a statement to CBC Toronto, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities said officials are aware of the issue, but that it should be addressed by institutions and individual students. There are no plans to introduce legislation targeting the companies, the spokesperson said.