Do essays lifted from the internet offer dishonest students a shortcut to top grades? Stephen Jones investigates.
Student plagiarism - or cheating as we once knew it - has grown apace in recent years. And while the really high-profile stuff is still to be found in the universities, schools and further education are increasingly troubled by it.
Of course kids have always copied one another's work, and lifted chunks out of books when they thought they could get away with it, but the rise and rise of the internet has undoubtedly elevated the plagiariser's art onto another level.
How easy is it though to find an essay that can be lifted more or less as it is from the net and passed off as "yours"? This was the task I set myself: to take one of my own essay questions and try to find an answer that would convince me. To put it another way, I wanted to find out if Sir could cheat himself.
I teach linguistics to access (A-level equivalent) students; and how and why language changes is a common and popular topic. So in order to maximise my chances of getting lucky, I chose the title: "Language doesn't decay.
Nor does it improve. It just changes over time through usage."
To "google" is, of course, one recent example of language change in action - a verb created from a proper noun - but instead of googling I decided to Ask Jeeves. Within a few seconds, I was directed to dozens of sites, one of which looked like an instant winner.
A-level-coursework.co.uk said it would deliver me an essay which answered my "exact question" at a guaranteed A or B standard. The piece would be custom-crafted rather than drawn from essays that had already been written.
All I had to do was type in my title and sit back and wait for an A-level coursework researcher (all guaranteed to have achieved an A or B grade at A-level themselves) to do my work for me.
There was, however, one little problem: the cost. A thousand words would cost me a fixed fee of pound;50. If I wanted it for next day delivery that would double to pound;100. To guarantee an A-grade, that figure would double again.
For my inner-city students, many on benefits or minimum-wage jobs, pound;200 would represent one, possibly two weeks' full income. There had to be a better (ie cheaper) way.
Turning again to the results of my initial search, I could see that most of them fell into one of two categories: those that offered pre-written essays for a fixed price - typically pound;20 for 1,000 words - and those that charged a flat fee for unlimited access to their bank of essays.
EssayCentre.co.uk was typical of the first category, claiming to be the "world's first, biggest and best student-to-student essay site". You could even look before you bought, by first perusing a sample section of each essay.
My search under "language change" returned a staggering 1,634 papers to choose from. The trouble was that most of them weren't on language change.
One or two touched on the topic, but it was difficult to see how papers on Morale in the Medical Field or Slobodan Milosevic's War Crimes Trial were going to shed much light on how the primary meaning of the word gay has moved from happy and bright to homosexual.
Turning to the second category, I found CourseworkInfo who, for pound;9.99 per month or pound;21.99 for a full year, will allow you to gorge yourself on their thousands of pre-written essays.
Repeating my original search terms, I was offered 76 essays, most of which were about literature. Three appeared to provide near matches to my own title, but on closer scrutiny it was clear that while some material would be useful, it would (a) require substantial re-writing, and (b) have to be supplemented by a considerable amount of material of my own.
Trawling these and similar sites had taken an inordinate amount of time.
Faced with such a task, one wonders if a "real" student mightn't come up with the revolutionary idea that it would be easier in the end to write the damned thing him or herself.
The other thing that struck me was that the sites' owners all appear to be in complete denial about how their customers are going to use their products.
Indeed some are so outraged at the thought that students might be planning to pass them off as their own work, that they spend any number of web pages inveighing against the evils of plagiarism. To me this seems a bit like the madam of a brothel standing at the door and delivering lectures on the joys of chastity.
By now it was becoming clear that the only realistic chance I had of getting the essay I wanted, was by paying A-level Coursework's going rate.
I went for the cheapest option, pound;50 for 1,000 words and a five-day delivery time. In the end it took six, but as my order went in over Christmas I could hardly complain about slow service.
The essay was e-mailed to me typed, double-spaced and complete with a short bibliography that (almost) conformed to the requested Harvard style. It was functional, generally quite literate and authentic in that it did read like a genuine student essay.
On the other hand it was also nebulous in character and anonymous in tone, with no discernable introduction or conclusion.
The real problem though was that the essay didn't answer the question set.
It touched upon it from time to time, but what I actually got for my pound;50 was not so much an essay on language change, as one on minority languages and the rise of English as a world language.
This may not altogether be the fault of the writer. Essays set in the classroom come out of a particular context and this governs the expectation of the teacher. For a distant writer to be able to plug into this would be well nigh impossible.
So could I cheat myself? On this showing the answer surely has to be no.
After a lot of time and effort - not to mention the fifty quid - I was still no further forward with my essay, and the (self-imposed) deadline was looming.
Perhaps I'd be better off trying that old standby about my printer not working instead.