My campus is full of flyers, typically attached to lightposts and so, advertising to write essays for money. There's plenty of such services offered on the internet as well. Presumably, many students make use of such service.

Clearly, it is unwise for students to make use of such services, and I suppose it violates regulations. How can a university deal with the issue of ghostwriting? That means: how to identify probable cases of ghostwriting; how to proof that ghostwriting took place; and how to sanction it? It seems considerably harder to tackle than plagiarism.

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    @MassimoOrtolano: And, as an add-on to your inquiry, how frequently does a supervisor usually discuss and get updated on the progress of the essay while it is being written? Apr 6, 2015 at 8:51
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    Note: this question was triggered by a TA friend who had a student who handed in an essay with the ghostwriter's bill still attached to it. Oops.
    – gerrit
    Apr 6, 2015 at 14:51
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    I wonder if there is some university policy dictating what can and can't be put on lightposts? I would personally look for fine print in the university's policy which may justify hitting them with punitive fines and fees. And these fliers have phone numbers, yes? How about a call from university admininstration, lawyers, and/or police?
    – Anonymous
    Apr 6, 2015 at 17:00
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    How should the university deal with it? Exams.
    – A E
    Apr 6, 2015 at 20:36
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    When they are MBA students, just give them their degree. They understood all they need to know for their future career.
    – Philipp
    Apr 7, 2015 at 7:40

5 Answers 5


First, let me say that you should read the answers to my related question. One answer is quite clear that you should not even bother checking (the author of that answer did admit being uncomfortable with that answer...as I am).

This is a significant problem at my university. One way we try to address it is that we have students verbally answer a quick, random question about their assignment.

Good news: This does catch some students when they can only answer "uh, ah, ummm."

Bad news: Some students still use ghost writers and just memorize the paper so they can answer any question about it. If the assessment covers all the learning outcomes then it can still result in students learning.

One thing that I generally do is, throughout the semester, I keep track of the "quality level" I see each student is at. This takes several sessions and when classes are quite large there might not be enough interaction to support this strategy. However, if you do have this information, you can use it to compare to the overall quality of their written work. If they never know anything in class but they write "golden" work, then it is a warning sign.

It is important that it is just a warning sign because there are some students who write well but are not so great at in-class interaction. You always need to use your judgment.

As far as how we handle it, we consider using a ghost writer an identical offense to plagiarism with identical punishments.

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    To whoever is flagging as "obsolete" - the above is not obsolete, as it serves a purpose; informing earthling that the change was made. Earthling has no other way of knowing that the edit was made. (earthling - if you're the one putting the flag in, put your name there... I can't see who submitted the comment flags.)
    – eykanal
    Apr 6, 2015 at 16:48
  • @eykanal I did not flag anything on this page.
    – earthling
    Apr 6, 2015 at 22:26
  • This is a good answer. We blame students' laziness for their plagiarism. However it is 'laziness' on the part of teachers which allows it. (NOT REALLY LAZINESS AT ALL - almost all lecturers I know are very diligent - more like a system which doesn't allow teachers to spend enough time and effort properly assessing students). If teachers had resources to individually track learning and orally examine whenever necessary, this time of plagiarism simply wouldn't make any sense.
    – jwg
    Apr 7, 2015 at 8:45
  • @eykanal when someone edits a post, the author gets a notification that an edit was made.
    – corsiKa
    Apr 7, 2015 at 17:07
  • @corsiKa - if an edit is made to the opening question, no notification goes out to the authors of the answers.
    – eykanal
    Apr 8, 2015 at 3:03
  • The infamous ghostwriter services for theses in humanities, law and similar in Germany are very careful as to how they advertise their services because otherwise they could be sued for assisting fraud and similar reasons. Something similar might apply to your legislation, but if nobody ever considered acting legally against these services, it is likely that at least some of them are legally attackable. In this case, a collective strike against these services may at least weed them out. Obviously, you need to speak to a lawyer with expertise on your legislation and such issues about this.

    If no such law exist and the problem is sufficiently serious in your country, universities could even lobby for a law against this. At the very least your university could ban the respective advertisements on its grounds. If these services are operated by graduates of your university, it may also be able to simply revoke their degrees, depending on your university’s statutes and, again, your legislation.

    While these services may reappear under a different guise, they may be more difficult to find, more expensive (due to the risks involved), more shady and similar and thus less attractive for students to use. Also, depending on your legislation, you may obtain information on students who used these services and punish them, which could have a strong deterring effect.

  • You can increase controls as to whether students wrote the essays themselves, e.g., they have to be able to answer questions about them, and to increase the punishment if they didn’t.

  • Your university can set up fake services and severely punish everybody who uses them. Again, this depends on your legislation and university’s statutes and you should definetely consult a lawyer about this.

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    Perhaps it should be noted that whether your last point is feasible or not also depends on the country and legislation.
    – DCTLib
    Apr 6, 2015 at 9:10
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    @DCTLib: I should add a disclaimer that I may not have added enough disclaimers …
    – Wrzlprmft
    Apr 6, 2015 at 9:15
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    Whether a university can ban advertisements also depends on the country, jurisdiction and university. Some US campuses cannot prohibit free speech on campus, especially if they are public universities. It would be extremely tricky, if not impossible, in those cases. So 'the very least' a university could do might be rather undoable.
    – cfr
    Apr 7, 2015 at 3:27
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    +1 for suggesting legal action against ghostwriter companies.
    – einpoklum
    Dec 7, 2017 at 12:50

I have a friend who works for one of these kind of companies and she gets a lot of mixed reactions when she tells people what she does. The companies that offer this say that they are providing examples and their work should not be submitted, therefore avoiding any legal responsibility themselves.

You definitely have to approach this problem by deterring the students.

For GCSEs in the UK, the government tried to reduce this kind of cheating by reducing the coursework components and having any coursework be completed under observation but that would be too difficult in university probably.

The following ideas at a university could be tried:

  • Run stings where students are punished or pay for failing essays.
  • They could run feedback sessions in the middle of coursework writing, where students can talk about their ideas and progress, perhaps keeping tabs on the coursework process could spot people who haven't written it themselves.
  • Put posters up warning about the punishment if caught, a kind of "we are watching you".
  • Ask for submission of drafts and/or notes.
  • Finding some way of logging the research done for an essay might help. For example having to access your sources/scan them in from on campus (library or network) could be something that might prevent outsourcing essays.
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    "but in the end she is just trying to make money" - a contract killer can say the same. Upvoted your answer for the various suggestions that touch upon continuously getting updates about the progress of the work, rather than just requesting to see the finished document. Apr 6, 2015 at 9:42
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    If these companies are really just seeking to provide 'example' essays, then wouldn't a better business model be to sell subscriptions to a database of essays? If a student wants to see an example of a particular essay (say one that matches an assignment description) a student can pay an additional fee to have a new essay written and added to the database. If these companies are really morally upstanding, they should provide easy access for instructors (maybe for a fee) to compare electronically submitted essays against the database for any plagiarism. Apr 6, 2015 at 15:39
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    @O.R.Mapper the (or, a) difference is that contract killers are directly performing an illegal action: the killing. Ghostwriters are not. It's not illegal, and presumably not even immoral, to write an essay for someone. The unsavory action is when the person for whom the essay is written tries to pass it off as their own work. So it's a difference between doing something bad yourself, versus doing something innocuous with the knowledge that someone else will use it to facilitate something bad.
    – David Z
    Apr 7, 2015 at 8:02
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    @DavidZ: Writing an essay for someone with the goal of helping them cheat (I doubt anyone can take seriously the pretext that it's just an "example", when that example just happens to be (1) made in a way that it exactly fits a custom essay task, (2) is made upon request when such a task is assigned and (3) is presumeably completed just within the time limits for submission of that essay) is deeply immoral, and - with respect to the "laws" relevant in this case, namely exam regulations, honor codes, or whatever the respective university calls them - probably downright illegal. Apr 7, 2015 at 9:04
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    @O.R.Mapper That is a rather perverse comparison and only likely to start a pointless discussion. Downloading music is also downright illegal while around a hundred million people are perfectly legally involved in the business of killing six million tobacco users per year. How is any of this related to the answer? Not at all.
    – Lilienthal
    Apr 7, 2015 at 11:26

Here is a suggestion (which might or might not be legal in your jurisdiction, and deemed acceptable or not by your administration; check before acting!).

Put up some of flyers yourself --- then refer any student who contacts you for appropriate disciplinary action.

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    What makes you think that all the students who contact you would identify themselves? you would only punish those without technical skills who use their real name on the internet, feel happy, and ignore the smart ones - this is as bad as not taking an antibiotics course all the way through and leaving the strong ones behind Apr 7, 2015 at 14:40

Put some fliers up yourself. Again, state that the work provided is for reference only, and should not be submitted. When contacted, provide different previous years' papers.

When these papers are submitted, hit them with plagiarism violations.

To make this more ethical, warn the students at the start of the year that this would be happening. And of course, don't keep the money, but put it into a charity fund.

Of course, before deciding any course of action, consider consulting the ethics board at your institution.

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    This is called "fishing". In my opinion, it's not ethical. I am not sure it's leagal.(I am not a lawyer).
    – Nobody
    Apr 8, 2015 at 2:59
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    It's interesting, as it affords a positive benefit (a reference) to those that simply want a reference, and a negative "benefit" to those that are attempting to cheat. But I will certainly concede that it's in a bit of a grey area. Apr 15, 2015 at 1:51

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