The devil’s in the detail – counting unique and organic contract cheating sites targeting higher education students in the UAE as a call to delegitimize them
International Journal for Educational Integrity volume 18, Article number: 21 (2022)
When considering a paradigm shift in higher education, it is imperative to focus on removing obstacles against maintaining integrity in academia. One such obstacle is contract cheating sites that have mushroomed disproportionately during the 18 months of emergency distance learning threatening graduate quality and university reputations (McKie, Essay mills targeting students as pandemic crisis shifts HE online, 2020). It was sharply brought to focus in 2015 due to a mass-scale scandal involving 16 universities and more than 1000 students leading to a subsequent law making such services illegal in Australia. Contract cheating is a mushrooming industry that is constantly targeting often unsuspecting students under the guise of legitimate help. Moreover, these services in turn began black mailing students after delivering services (Draper et al., Int J Educ Integr 17:13, 2021). It is therefore vital to explore the existence and number of such websites that target students in UAE, sometimes using university logos to show legitimacy to understand the extent of the problem. This is primarily because an accurate measure of the extent does not currently exist (Newton, Front Educ 3:67, 2018). Curtis et al. (Stud High Educ. https://doi.org/10.1080/03075079.2021.1972093, 2021) have reported on self-reported cases from students which can be varied and often under-reported. This study is an attempt at using Boolean search technique to count unique and organic websites that have manifested. Coded analysis was used to collate the websites and count the total number of searches. For a total of 34 unique and organic websites, 29 showed a z score higher than the mean value 2.94, at standard deviation of 1.89, positing that the probability of appearance of these 29 websites across different search engines, different browsers and across separate search keywords was significant. This demonstrates the aggressive nature of these sites and their considerable efforts to offer a service that is harmful and detrimental to the students and education sector. This study is a milestone towards developing a nation-wide understanding of contract cheating in the UAE. It is also positioned as a proposal for higher education sustainability in the nation to look to ban services that offer to write assignments for students with or without a fee as a top-down approach to tackling the issue.
Essay mills and ghost/contract writers have existed long before the COVID19 pandemic. These services complete assessments for students often in exchange for payment, who then submit the assessments for grading; this is known as contract cheating (Clarke and Lancaster 2006). As early as 1940s, some studies recorded that such ghost-writing services were offered for higher education students with brick-and-mortar firms providing these services across many states in the USA (Singh and Remenyi 2015; Stavisky 1973). While academic misconducts such as exam cheating, fabrication, misappropriation, plagiarism, and such are governed by individual university constitutions, rules, and policies; academics, researchers and lawmakers have been grappling with the “third party” involvement of contract cheating which is also difficult to detect and goes beyond the jurisdiction of an institution. Draper and Newton (2017) identified the stakeholders involved in contract cheating as governments, regulators, university, staff, students, websites, advertisers, essay companies, and writers among others; and particularly described third party as the stakeholder that “contribute[s] to the work of the student, such that there is reasonable doubt as to whose work the assessment represents” (para 1). The issue then becomes the external influence yielded by the “third party” and their marketing strategies to reach students, and “convince students that they need these services, often presenting their offer as a support service, rather than one that is helping students to cheat by design” (Lancaster 2020, para 1).
Contract cheating is a major concern for higher education institutions. A study by Newton recorded a staggering 15.7% of students using essay mills, which can amount to more than 31 million students from around the world (Newton 2018). In Australia, this figure was 2–4% through self-reporting (Bretag et al. 2019); however, a recent study has shown that 1 in 10 students may contract cheat, suggesting self-reporting may not be the most accurate way to determine the current scenario when recording instances of contract cheating (Curtis et al. 2021). This problem seems to have been exacerbated by the onset of the emergency distance learning and hybrid learning models that institutions scrambled to adopt at the advent of the COVID19 pandemic in 2020. Essay mills mushroomed globally offering services and discounts to students to not only complete their assessments such as reports but also take their exams online (Hill et al. 2021).
It then becomes vital to explore the existence of such websites that target students in the UAE, and more specifically to discover how many websites exist that offer unscrupulous services in the nation. It is believed that the results will contribute as first steps to recognizing (and taking firm actions against) contract cheating as an academic and social menace which in turn will pave way for future policy and possibly legislation discussions surrounding the legitimacy of such services as legal businesses.
This paper proposes to conduct an internet/web-based search and survey to identify unique and organic websites that specifically target and promote essay mill services to students in the UAE, believed to be a crucial step towards recognizing the proportion of the problem. The remaining paper is organized in the following manner: the next section delves into academic integrity and its importance in higher education, then moves to look closely at contract cheating a bit further. The next section then identifies the research objective of the paper and how it positions as a step towards a paradigm shift in the higher education scene in the UAE, followed by the results, discussion, and conclusion.
Academic integrity and paradigm shift in higher education
Academia has seen tremendous number of changes due to many factors such as globalization, demand for higher quality education, and so on, some slow and some radical leading to paradigm shifts (Blessinger et al. 2018). The education sector post-COVID19 pandemic is seeing a shift once again, this time not just due to the fourth industrial revolution but also because of the challenges that have been posed due to emergency distance learning, and other hybrid models of teaching and learning that have taken precedence.
Change is the most inevitable constant, but sometimes the sector is slow to adapt. Technology has and continues to shape how we view teaching, learning, and assessing students. The fourth industrial revolution has pushed us to look beyond traditional sources of knowledge to see how we can enhance student capacity to make them future-ready. Where artificial intelligence is producing content (Marr 2019), digitized lessons and grading software are helping single instructors manage huge classrooms (Analytics Insight (AI) 2021), and robots replace mundane tasks performed by humans (Gentile et al. 2020), originality and integrity in assessed work in academia has become of vital importance (Eaton 2021).
Academic integrity has been defined by the European Network for Academic Integrity (ENAI) as “Compliance with ethical and professional principles, standards, practices and consistent system of values, that serves as guidance for making decisions and taking actions in education, research and scholarship” (ENAI 2018). Over the last decades, higher education institutions, faculty and researchers have focused more and more on upholding academic integrity to address quality of education, value of degree offered and ultimately to prepare graduates for the workforce (UOW 2021).
There is enough research addressing the concerns surrounding academic integrity and upholding its values of fairness, courage, trust, honesty, respect, and responsibility (ICAI 2018). Studies have highlighted importance of policy and procedures (Bretag et al. 2018), strategies on how to promote integrity (Bertram Gallant 2008), assessment design (Rogerson 2017) and so on. Most studies show a paradigm shift in the sector with more institutions and quality assurance bodies looking to ensure integrity is maintained and tracked. Joint collaborations, memorandums of understanding, networks, funding, and projects that involve researchers and academics representing global teams have been forged to tackle the various issues.
Contract cheating – a social and academic menace
While academic misconducts can take many form (Newstead et al. 1996; Khan 2014), the one we focus on in this study is contract cheating, the behaviour where students get someone else to complete their assessments possibly for money or some other exchange and submit the work for grading. As mentioned before, contract cheating is not a new phenomenon. But, ubiquitous nature of the internet, ease of doing commerce over the web and internationalization of higher education have helped this industry grow to the $1 billion that BBC claims it is (BBC News 2019).
The issue of detection of contract cheating is an alarming concern for academics. While text-matching software help to certain extent in recognizing similarity of submitted text that may lead to identifying alleged cases of plagiarism (Eaton et al. 2020); identifying an assessment that was a product of contract cheating can be challenging to prove, and more challenging to penalize (Rogerson 2017).
Contract cheating was propelled to the limelight as a global menace after 16 universities in Australia had to investigate nearly 1000-students for using one essay mill (Visentin 2015). Known as the ‘MyMaster’ essay cheating scandal, the case made headlines internationally as it uncovered the depths of the issue, leading to expulsions, revoking of already-conferred degrees, suspensions, and fail grades among degrees of severity and punishments that followed. It ultimately led to law making such services illegal in Australia (TEQSA 2021).
The phenomenon of contract cheating is difficult to detect, yet more sinister as it minimizes capacity and knowledge building in students and poses serious threat to institutions’ reputation through poor graduate-quality and ultimately poor performance in the job market (Lancaster 2016). Unfortunately, during the pandemic, alongside increase in online learning, contract-cheating services also flourished, targeting unsuspecting students online, taking advantage of their vulnerability (McKie 2020). Moreover, these services in turn begun black mailing students for more money after delivering services (Draper et al. 2021).
Bretag and Harper (2017) posited that systemic approach is crucial to tackling contract cheating, with academic integrity central to “wide range of institutional activity and processes, including: student recruitment, orientation and induction; policy and procedures; teaching and learning practices; working with students; the professional development of staff; and the use of technology” (Morris 2018; para 4).
In fact, Khan et al. (2020) posited that contract cheating is a social menace, looking at the issue as a multi-faceted problem like other social issues such as drug addiction, alcoholism, bullying and so on and proposed ways to tackle it holistically with awareness programs, legislations and so on.
One of the methods that is gaining momentum more and more is that of a legal approach to tackle this issue. Australia, New Zealand and 17 states in the USA have all introduced bans as law against essay mills (Busby 2018). Draper and Newton (2017) postulated that in fact a ban on essay mills is likely to work towards minimizing contract cheating. Similarly, Khomami (2017) and Marsh (2017) also posited that government institutions should work to eliminate essay mills. But these studies came to this conclusion in the heels of studies by UK’s Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) that reported on how 100 or so essay mill websites were in operation within the country, and comprehensively looked at how the industry works, advertises, targets victims (students). Ireland followed suit and banned essay mills in 2018 (McKie 2018), and UK confirmed its legislation and ban in 2022 (QAA 2022).
United Arab Emirates and higher education
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a hub for higher education, having expanded exponentially in the last decades (David 2017). Founded in 1971, this young nation is celebrating its 50 years, with a population of 9.9 million strong (Macrotrends 2021) showcasing a diversity of population from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, Philippines, China, and many others (Edarabia 2021). Since the first higher education institution launched in 1976, the country has focused on enhancing the quality of education and the education system. The Commission for Academic Accreditation (CAA) was established as the Federal Government’s Quality Assurance Agency (CAA 2021), having now accredited over 1000 programs across seven emirates (states) that include federal, local government, private and semi-local government institutions and over 250,000 students in higher education sector (CAA 2020). While there are institutions spread across the seven emirates, most are in the capital Abu Dhabi and the next bustling city, Dubai. Abu Dhabi has the ADEK (Department of Education and Knowledge) whose main purpose is in developing and promoting an education system that “promotes a culture of creativity, sustainability and excellence, with a focus on developing human, social and economic capabilities” (ADEK 2021). Dubai has a further local governing body overlooking licensing and quality of institutions called Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) that supports the schools, universities, students, and other stakeholders (KHDA 2021).
While the country’s Vision 2021 National Agenda emphasized the development of a “first-rate education system” (Vision21 2018), the leaders of the nation put forward 10 guiding principles for the Next 50, which not only highlights education but also “digital, technical and scientific excellence […] openness and tolerance, preservation of rights, rule of justice and law … [among others]” (Nasrallah and Cherian 2021).
Quality education is not only the United Nation’s Sustainable Goal 4, but also at the heart of what the UAE promises potential students looking to the country for higher education, with a mobility ratio of 48.6%, higher than most countries globally (Shukla 2021). The Ministry of Education has forged memorandums and partnerships with external agencies such as TEQSA (Australia), QAA (UK), HKCAAVQ (Hong Kong) and others to raise the “bar of quality of the higher education landscape in the UAE” (CAA 2020, p8). KHDA worked with TEQSA to develop the Toolkit to support quality assurance agencies to address academic integrity and contract cheating (INQAAHE 2020). There have been two international conferences organized in the UAE on academic integrity in the past, one in 2016 in collaboration with International Centre for Academic Integrity (USA) (UOWD 2016) and a second one in 2020 bringing European Network for Academic Integrity’s annual conference to the UAE in collaboration with Dubai Tourism (UOWD 2020).
There have been some studies conducted within the nation to look at the status of academic integrity and misconducts. Of particular interest is a 2018-study presented at an international conference. Through a focus-group interview (n = 22), this study showed 86% of the students agreed that they knew someone who had in fact requested for third party help in writing an assessment (Khan et al. 2018, 2019). The study further postulated that although the results were indirect, the findings were significant as 77% of the students said they had heard of some student turning in work done by someone other than the student themselves and 91% had heard of students who may have received unpermitted help on an assignment (Khan et al. 2018, 2019). The authors pointed to the fact that they used focus group as a methodology that may have led to high confidence in anonymity and hence the result. Furthermore the study showed that students were surprised to find “[c]ompanies seem to know exactly who we are, where we study, and contact us on a regular basis, as if from a database of clients” (Khan et al. 2019; p207).
Three other significant studies on contract cheating have looked at the success of using awareness programs to inform students of the detriment of contract cheating (Khan et al. 2020); a study in 2020 that highlighted how savvy these essay mills were in targeting and marketing their services by ranking them and making them look innocent using bait and persuasion techniques (Daly 2020) and a further study that positions the contract cheating behaviour beyond a social issue to looking at it as an unwholesome demand derived from the Transformatory Consumer Research (TCR) which make contract cheating an addictive behaviour (Vel and Khan 2021).
Existing body of literature has already highlighted the importance of recognising contract cheating, detecting it in submitted assessments, having appropriate policies within institutions to set standards, and how countries are advancing towards legal actions to ban essay mills with some success. Australia’s TEQSA’s win against a foreign essay mill where the telecommunication companies in the country are now required to block the website(s) that are identified as essay mills (Ross 2021) is further proof that legislations can have a bite that can help higher education institutions handle third party interference.
Given that we have seen self-reported cases of contract cheating among students in the UAE, it is therefore the objective of this study to now identify and count the number of organic and unique websites that target students studying in the UAE. It is believed that this will help management, faculty and particularly policy and legislation makers to consider a similar path as countries like UK, Ireland, New Zealand, Australia, and USA to consider delegitimizing essay mills as a proactive method in making higher education sustainable and accessible to all.
To address this research objective, the study used a web-based research method using the web as a research resource (Allan 2016). This method was combined with content analysis “to determine the presence of certain words… to quantify and analyse the presence… of such certain words” (Columbia University 2019, para 1) that allowed us to identify and count the number of websites that represent essay mills targeting students in the UAE.
To narrow down the search, a Boolean search technique was used within each single search query to connect words. Boolean is a search technique that basically uses what is known as the Boolean logic, referring to the mathematician George Boole’s system of logic OR, AND, and NOT (Hansen et al. 2020). This allows combining single words or strings of words when searching on the web (Case 2020).
To triangulate results, two different and popular search engines were used, that is www.google.com and www.bing.com. Moreover, two separate browsers (Chrome and Firefox) were also used to ensure maximum convergence of results.
Terminologies selected to use were:
Another condition used to narrow down the search was the word “UAE” on websites which would have been used by the companies’ search engine optimization process (SEOs) to bring the website higher up in the ranking for searches by users. SEOs are basic improvements a company has made to their site to increase its visibility to the client and a great marketing tool to increase visibility and ranking of the websites in user search results, especially compared to competitors (Chaffey et al. 2009; Search Engine Land (SEL) 2021).
Studies have shown that optimization ranks searches on the first page for as high as 92%–95% organic traffic clicks (Shelton 2017). In fact, studies have posited that most users will not even go beyond the first five listings on a search engine results page (SERP) (Jacobson 2015). In fact, the illustration (Fig. 1) from Advanced Web Ranking visually shows how the click-through rate (CTR) of organic searches reduces drastically from the first page. Therefore, we counted results from the first page of each find in each browser for each string of word searches.
Websites may be deemed as unique and organic when their visitors are able to find them immediately by using a search engine (Omniconvert 2020). Organic refers to those users who land on a website without any paid advertisements and not referred by any other websites (Omniconvert 2020). We are not considering the other type of traffic here, namely ‘direct’ because that would imply the student already has the link to the site and simply visiting it. This method is significantly different from studies done in the past as those looked at the generic total number fed back by search engines such as “6,890,000 results”. For instance, Hill, Mason and Dunn presented a study in 2021 on identifying the scope of contract cheating services. The study used web- based analysis and online research method along with search strings ‘assignment help’ and ‘exam help’ through Google and Google Scholar and reported “Google search for the term ‘assignment help’ returned 279,000,000 results in 2020 and 302,000,000 in 2021” (Hill et al. 2021, p9). The study then, however, went onto to present summary excerpts from the sites that showed up on the first page without further clarifications or justifications.
The aim for this study was to identify, tabulate, code and then count unique and organic websites that were essay mill services targeting students in the UAE as shown in Fig. 2:
Identify – Recognise the unique and organic website by name of the site
Tabulate – For each search query, tabulate the results
Code – Use coding system for each unique and organic site identified
Count – Use formula to count the number of unique codes
Coded analysis was used to collate the websites and count the total number of searches.
It is very important to also identify the exclusion criteria for the study which will help to control the scope of the study (Patino and Ferreira 2018). In this case, the exclusion criteria refer to what we did not consider when counting the websites that appeared during our search query and what we did not specifically look for:
We did not focus on domains like .ae or .com or .org
This is because the essay mills did not necessarily use a particular domain to launch websites for their services. Therefore, it is believed including domains would make the search too restrictive and not give us a real count of the U&O sites.
We did not include general repositories or news sites
It is important to note here that essay mill services are companies that provide homework writing, assessment writing services to students. They are dynamic websites that are offering a service to the students, hence this exclusion.
We did not include Google Scholar or Journals
Results and analysis
To confirm that the sites were truly targeting students in the UAE, we further visited the websites identified to check the mention of the country “UAE” and/or any mobile number or WhatsApp number provided that was “local” to the country with code 00971xxxxxxx. The screen grabs for the top searches are given below (Figs. 3, 4 and 5):
Once we identified and tabulated the websites, we then coded the sites as shown in Fig. 6. This made it easy to calculate the frequency of the sites appearing across the different browsers and search engines.
Finally, the coded results were used to calculate the frequency of search yield, the z score, mean and standard deviation for accuracy as shown in Fig. 7.
As can be seen in Fig. 7, for a total of 34 U&O websites were identified after removing all duplicates across Google and Bing, and Chrome and Firefox. When calculating the z score, with the exception of five, all showed a z score higher than the mean value 2.94, at standard deviation of 1.89, positing that the probability of appearance of these 29 websites across different search engines, different browsers and across separate search keywords was significantly higher for students. More specifically, for the website codes A1 and A2, the z score was 4.44, showing that these two sites were 4.44 standard deviation from the mean value of 2.94, almost twice the value positing the greater significance in the sites being presented as search result to students. A5 and A7 ranked significantly higher than any other site identified with z score of 7.44 and 5.44 respectively!
Discussion and conclusion
The results presented in the previous section pose some significant findings that are believed to be vital in understanding how the essay mill market works in targeting students in the UAE. The top four essay mill sites seem to be common across both the search engines used, Google and Bing, and both the browsers Chrome and Firefox. What is also interesting to note here is that the four sites are all .ae domains. Although we did not specifically search for .ae domain, the result is significant that these sites appeared most through search and have the .ae domain, which is a country code top-level domain for the UAE. This could signify that the services are particularly targeting students in the UAE.
The four sites with the highest z scores also indicate that they prominently appear for the search query strings “essay writing and UAE” and “assignment writing and UAE” but not when “ghostwriting and UAE” are used. This finding is supported by similar findings by Daly (2020). In fact, sites that were found to use the tag or words or search criteria “ghostwriting” were significantly low in frequency when compared to the first two strings. This is important to note because it shows what users call such services and what they may be typing in when looking for such services.
The data obtained from this study highlights the significant number of U&O websites that currently exist within the first page of search. This demonstrates the aggressive nature of these sites and their considerable efforts to offer a service that is harmful and detrimental to the students and education sector, and their possible popularity. Moreover, while checking the websites for their target, the study also found some websites using logos of universities, names and such to make their services look more legitimate as shown in Fig. 8.
This finding is concerning because it poses the services as legitimate offerings there to help students with claims which are written to dupe students:
“Unlike other companies that offer similar services, our goal as the UAE best essay writing service online is to help you attain a higher level of understanding of the various ways that you can write better essays. In regards to this, we always ensure that we create top quality essays that are free of plagiarism and grammatical errors.”
Quoted from PeachyEssay.com
Given existing studies that already show that contact cheating is a social issue (Khan et al. 2020) and can be addictive (Vel and Khan 2021), it is crucial then that we deal with contract cheating service providers (suppliers) with same contempt we would a drug dealer and develop a zero-tolerance policy for the same.
This study is a position paper believed to be a milestone towards developing a nation-wide understanding of contract cheating in the UAE. A preliminary report was presented at the ADEK Higher Education Excellence Conference in November of 2021, a national-level event to discuss excellence in higher education, followed by a featured presentation at the QS Higher Ed Summit in 2022. Based on feedback from the conferences and the results presented in this paper, a proposal for higher education sustainability and a paradigm shift is suggested as below:
In 2020, a study in the UAE showed how contract cheating as a social issue can be defeated through awareness campaigns to bring about understanding in students (Khan et al. 2020). So, it is highly recommended that institutional-managements and policymakers recognize these services as detrimental to students’ learning experience and increase their awareness efforts of such behaviour as misconducts so that these can lead to dialogue towards a paradigm shift.
Besides a policy that clearly covers such misconducts and their consequences, faculty should be trained to restructure assessments and recognise and detect authentic vs contracted work submitted by students. Faculty should also be encouraged to report such cases and committees in charge of assessing such cases should be trained in judging them appropriately.
A further inspiration can be taken from countries such as Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, UK and many states in the USA, to look at banning services that offer to write assignments for students with or without a fee (Hare 2019) as a top-down approach to tackling the issue nation-wide, with possible implications of delegitimizing such services. Australian legislation success has shown that this can be done, even for essay mills that exist outside the country but cater to students within the country.
It is a need of the hour that higher education dialogue includes contract cheating as a menace that is plaguing the academic world. Irrespective of where we are located, this global menace is everywhere, tarnishing and maligning our students, belittling the efforts by our faculty and institutions, and quality assurance bodies to uphold integrity and provide quality education that is inclusive and accessible to all students who wish to pursue higher education in the country. Based on the findings of this paper, we call for delegitimization of essay mill services that target students in the UAE and revolutionize the region towards higher standards of education and expectations from institutions and students seeking degrees from institutions operating inside the nation to make UAE a trailblazer for this paradigm shift not just among the neighbours but the entire continent.
This study is an attempt at exploring the existing and proliferation of essay writing services that target students in the UAE and does not aim to malign any institute or individual.
Availability of data and materials
All data is already presented in the paper, however anonymised to remove actual identifying names of the companies.
United Arab Emirates
Commission for Academic Accreditation
Department of Education and Knowledge
Knowledge and Human Development Authority
Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agenc
Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education
Hong Kong Council for Accreditation of Academic and Vocational Qualifications
United States of America
Transformatory consumer research
Search engine optimization
Search engine results page
Identify, tabulate, code, count
Unique and organic
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Thank you to Centre for Academic Integrity in the UAE and University of Wollongong in Dubai for the support; the Department of Education and Knowledge (ADEK) in the United Arab Emirates and QS Quacquarelli Symonds Higher Ed Summit – Middle East and North Africa 2022 for the opportunity to present some of the findings at their annual conferences.
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Khan, Z.R. The devil’s in the detail – counting unique and organic contract cheating sites targeting higher education students in the UAE as a call to delegitimize them. Int J Educ Integr 18, 21 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40979-022-00114-z