In 2012, Bruce Ross posted an online advertisement offering to help students write their academic papers. The Vancouver-born journalist was working at a local newspaper in small-town British Columbia and seeking a way to supplement his modest income. For $20 per page, Ross wrote in his post, he would pen a paper on any topic for students struggling to meet their deadlines. It wasn’t long before he picked up a steady stream of customers. Within six months, Ross (not his actual name) was making over double, as a ghostwriter, of what he was earning in his day job as a reporter. About one year later, he handed in his resignation to the newspaper and moved to Costa Rica to focus on his growing clientele of students.

The product of that move was My Essay Writer, a website that promises students high grades and a fast turnaround. Today, Ross, now based in Miami, oversees a team of twenty full-time writers who crank out dozens of essays for clients per week, including post-secondary and high school students from around the world. He estimates about 10 percent of his clientele comes from Canada.

Paying third parties to complete your coursework is called contract cheating. While it seemingly represents a breach of academic integrity, it is technically legal in Canada—and data suggests it’s become prevalent across post-secondary institutions. According to academic ghostwriters like Ross, their work is fair game in a world where post-secondary institutions are failing their students with false promises of prestige following the completion of their degrees. “Colleges are basically businesses,” he says. “People look at what we do as a ‘no-no’ in a moral sense, but they don’t really question the ethics of what the school system is doing to a lot of the students, making these promises to them.” Amid reports of growing financial pressures and mental health challenges, these services have become a lifeline for some, says Ross. A line on his website echoes this sentiment: “You shouldn’t be spending your best years stressed out over assignments that have nothing to do with your career goals.”

Ross’s business, however, is facing a threat: artificial intelligence. Since ChatGPT launched last year, the popular chatbot has opened up a convenient new pathway for students who need to submit essays, while bringing the issue of cheating into sharper focus for schools. For decades, custom essay-writing services have gone largely unchallenged—but could ChatGPT and tougher anti-cheating measures finally put them in peril?

Statistics on the scope of the contract-cheating industry in Canada are sparse, but the global market for custom essay-writing companies is estimated to be worth up to $21 billion (US). A 2006 study by the University of Central England suggested that Canada was among the top four countries where students engage in contract cheating. A more recent study, from January 2020, estimates that over 70,000 post-secondary students in Canada were likely taking part in contract cheating at least once per year. That represents about 3.5 percent of the country’s post-secondary students.

Reliance on these services appears to have worsened during the pandemic as learning went online. A study by Alberta-based MacEwan University found that, during 2019/20, contract cheating increased nearly tenfold, due, at least in part, to the impact of the pandemic on students. These incidents are also taking place against a broader rise in academic-integrity breaches aided by technology such as ChatGPT.

The custom essay-writing industry can be traced as far back as the 1930s. Student newspapers, such as the Varsity of the University of Toronto, first posted advertisements for custom essays in the 1960s. In fact, seeing these advertisements on Canadian campuses was, until recently, quite common. Early attempts to stop the industry went nowhere. In April 1972, the Ontario legislature floated the idea of passing a new law to stop companies from helping students cheat. However, the proposed legislation failed to make it past first reading. In 1989, the Ontario court brought a landmark case against Custom Essay Service, an essay company that had been operating since the 1970s. The company was charged with one count of conspiracy to utter forged documents and seven counts of creating them. The case was eventually dismissed—but not before over 100 students faced disciplinary charges for purchasing papers from the company.

Experience has shown that students can pay a steep price for relying on these writing services, up to and including having their credentials withdrawn by their universities. Some students have also been blackmailed by the contract-cheating companies after they tried to cancel their payments.

Sarah Elaine Eaton, an associate professor at the University of Calgary’s Werklund School of Education, has been sounding the alarm over contract cheating in Canada for years. Since 2018, she has been working with teams across the country to establish anti–contract cheating measures in post-secondary institutions. A key part of that has entailed trying to get contract cheating incorporated within the definitions of academic misconduct at colleges and universities. However, Toronto Metropolitan University and MacEwan University are currently among the few post-secondary institutions that clearly incorporate contract cheating in their academic-integrity policies. This has implications for how the trend is actively tracked, says Eaton: “If universities aren’t recognizing contract cheating, or they’re subsuming it under plagiarism or collusion, then we’re not getting any data about the rates that are happening on our campuses, because they’re getting classified in inappropriate ways. You can’t solve a problem if you don’t name the problem.”

Even with such policies in place, detecting contract cheating can be tricky. Turnitin, the plagiarism-prevention software, is already used in Canadian universities and colleges to assess similarities to existing texts. But the software requires several writing samples from the student in question to accurately assess the authorship of the text, and it has been criticized for its low level of accuracy. It’s often up to the class instructors, or markers, to flag cases of cheating based on their assessment of the patterns in the tone, substance, or grammar in a student’s work.

According to Eaton, when it comes to government action on contract cheating, Canada has a long way to go compared to its counterparts in the Western world. In recent years, England and Australia have played leading roles in cracking down on cheating services. In 2020, for example, Australia passed a law making it a criminal offence to provide such services. And in 2022, the English government followed suit by outlawing any advertisements for them. Eaton attributes these countries’ success to the national quality-assurance bodies within their higher education systems that have led anti–contract cheating reforms, which have been supported by their governments. In Canada, education policies are provincial or regional responsibilities, and by and large, according to Eaton, these “quality assurance bodies have not paid much attention to contract cheating at all.”

While there are no large-scale legislative efforts to tackle contract cheating in Canada, there are some specific initiatives aimed at bringing the issue to the attention of decision makers. In 2018, the Academic Integrity Council of Ontario created a sub-committee to reduce contract cheating in that province’s post-secondary institutions. That led to awareness initiatives, prevention strategies, and an articulation of clearer policies and procedures. And following the inaugural Canadian Symposium on Academic Integrity, held in Calgary in 2019, three similar networks were established, in Alberta, Manitoba, and British Columbia, to do the same.

Academic-integrity experts say awareness is key to pushing their agenda. However, Eaton suggests that post-secondary institutions are often reluctant to talk about the reality of contract cheating. At the University of Calgary, where she works, she says, she still finds advertisements for “Write my essay” around campus. “We’re still very much at the place [where] schools don’t want to air their dirty laundry, they don’t want to talk about taboo topics. And I think the way to address it is for schools to get together and the provincial councils to get together, acknowledge that it happens, and then work to find solutions.”

Why are students drawn to cheating in this form? According to those who work closely on these issues, several factors are at play. Amanda McKenzie, who leads the Academic Integrity Office at the University of Waterloo, says students struggling with the pressure to perform, coupled with poor time-management and organizational skills, often turn to these services: “When students get into a time crunch and get into a corner, they rationalize they can do anything that they can to maintain their work or hand it in even if they have to engage in misconduct to achieve it.”

She also attributes this to the commodification of education—the idea of a degree as an economic stepping stone as opposed to a means for learning and social or personal development. Over time, McKenzie says, post-secondary institutions have tended to emphasize performance, grades, and outcomes instead of learning and processes. When students feel disconnected from the process of learning, as many clearly did during the pandemic, she says, they are only more likely to engage in cheating.

Scholars have further suggested that systemic challenges in the academic world are shaping the growth of the contract-cheating industry. On the teaching side, work assignments can be precarious and larger class sizes can create more impersonal experiences. This almost inevitably trickles into the student experience, including a sense of dissatisfaction, which, according to at least one study, may increase the chances of students turning to contract cheating.

For his part, Ross says there is no one type of student that is drawn to his services. What they share in common is simply the fact that they are stressed. “[Schools] are telling students they can take a program, graduate, and get a job. And what they really end up with is $50,000 in debt and no job.” Cheating, he says, is often a last resort to simply get by.

Ross acknowledges that AI tools such as ChatGPT could be a threat to his work, noting he has seen a slight drop in demand in recent months. While a slew of other factors could be behind this, the popularity of the chatbot is hard to ignore. A study published by Academica Group early this year found that 43 percent of the 626 post-secondary students surveyed reported having used the AI-powered tool for their school assignments. However, only 4 percent of those queried said they used it to “write” a whole assignment.

In anticipation of these changes, Ross is already diversifying his business. For example, he’s hoping to launch a tutoring division to help students approach their assignments more effectively rather than simply producing papers for them.

Part of his business strategy is also letting his clients know that his team is made up of “human writers, not robots”—something he believes helps him stay competitive. When it comes to using ChatGPT, Ross says, he has no plans to use it in his own work “because schools have tools to detect AI.” And as these detection tools become more sophisticated, he says, he could actually see students increasingly turning to custom essay-writing services to avoid getting caught. He adds that he has no interest in getting students into trouble: “We had the option in the past to reuse papers we had already written, but we never did that since Turnitin would see it and the client would fail.” That means they would have to refund the clients and lose referrals and repeat orders; in other words, it would be bad for business.

Ross’s website currently has no section that explicitly warns students of the consequences of submitting work that they did not write themselves, such as getting expelled if they are caught. Ross says students are encouraged to use his company’s work as samples to guide their own writing (though it’s clear from the site that they also expect you to simply hand in the essays they write).

When asked if he would have used cheating services himself when he was a student, Ross says he would have—if he had the money. He describes himself as a rebellious teenager until he got into a car accident when he was twenty-one. That forced him to take his educational goals seriously. “I went from one teacher in my first year failing my essay and telling me she thought I was an ESL student to winning second place in a provincial newspaper-writing contest four years later,” he says. And while Ross won that writing contest fair and square, he still believes that his clients, often struggling toward their own goals, should have the opportunity to do the same by whatever means it takes.

Katrya Bolger
Katrya Bolger is a journalist whose work has appeared in the Globe and Mail, the Montreal Gazette, and New Canadian Media.