A couple of years ago, I was trawling Google in search of freelance writing jobs when I came across an advert from a company looking for “academic ghost-writers”. They wanted university graduates to produce papers for students, who would presumably then submit them as their own essays. It sounded a combination of boring and morally dubious, but I was struggling to find enough writing work to live off at the time, so I applied anyway. What can I say? The life of a freelance writer isn’t easy, and I had to eat!
I was asked to submit a scan of my degree certificate, and then given access to a huge database of essays to pick from. There were fucking tonnes of them – more than I’d previously envisioned. I’d thought that there would maybe be one or two per week, but there were pages and pages, and the list was constantly replenished. The essay-cheating industry was clearly a lot bigger than I’d originally thought.
The essays weren’t restricted to my subject either; I’d got an English degree, but was allowed to try my hand at whatever tickled my fancy. A lot of the papers were on ridiculously complicated subjects, and had got stupidly tight deadlines. At first, I only picked English essays, and was cautious to choose ones without much time remaining on them. None of the best-paid papers seemed to fit these criteria though, so I started branching out a bit and doing other subjects. Fuck it, I thought to myself. This is the only way I’m going to be able to make this pay enough.
After a while, I realised that the clients would accept literally anything I wrote, provided I made some vague attempt to follow their instructions. There were two reasons for this: firstly, the majority of them seemed to know so little about their subjects that they couldn’t tell a good essay from a bad one. I was producing Masters and PhD level work for people who had less knowledge than me about the things that they had chosen to study. Secondly, 90% of them were from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates, and had such a shaky grasp of English that they didn’t understand most of what I wrote. This meant that I could literally just write whatever came to mind.
Many of my clients had clearly never actually done any of their own work. Sometimes, they would give me feedback from their tutors to integrate into their essays. When I asked for clarification or further information about anything, they’d tell me outright that they had no idea what any of the feedback meant. One guy who I did a sociology dissertation for didn’t even know who Marx was. I wondered how they’d managed to get so far through the education system without learning anything. Even if they had all their papers ghost-written for them, they surely still had to have passed their exams? Or maybe there was some way of getting other people to sit them for them? I guess in some countries, money can buy anything, including an education.
After a while, I started taking on papers in every subject area. I completed a maths paper by stringing together a load of complicated yet meaningless jargon and inventing some nonsensical, technical-looking equations. I came up with a design for an “inverse radiator” that pumped freezing cold water around its pipes to lower the temperature of the room, and submitted it as part of an engineering dissertation. The clients accepted the vast majority of what I sent to them unquestioningly. On the few occasions when they did complain, it was usually about incorrect referencing or missing out something from the instructions. I eventually discovered that the site had a policy of only giving refunds within 3 months of purchase, so if the clients didn’t realise their essays were shit when they were first presented with them, they couldn’t then complain when they got their marks.
Every now and then, I would be given essays that another academic ghost-writer had written, and told to and transform them into something that the client was satisfied with. Presumably, these papers were so terrible that even the customers had picked up on how shit they were. They were usually written in incomprehensible broken English, which I later found out was because the majority of other writers were from either India or Kenya.
The idea of rich Saudis and Emiratis being able to buy their way through life despite being thick as pig shit really began to rile me after a while. I also started to think a lot about the extent of academic cheating in some countries. There were literally around 50 essays added to the database each day by Saudi students alone, which suggested that a fairly substantial proportion of the country’s qualifications must be gained by paying other people to do all the work. There are no doubt people working in hospitals over there who know literally nothing about medicine, and lawyers who have never read a legal textbook in their lives representing people in court. With all this in mind, I gained a sense of satisfaction every time I submitted a particularly poor essay.
After working for the company for a year, they decided to make their writers take a grammar test to try and weed out the ones with a poor grasp of English. The only problem was that the company was run by Ukranians, whose English was just as bad as the ESL writers. The test involved choosing the sentence that was grammatically correct from a list of four possibilities. All of the sentences were complete gibberish, so I ended up failing. This was infuriating, given that I was probably the only writer they had who was actually born and raised in England, and had a degree in English. The pay was shitty anyway though, so I wasn’t too gutted.
If I learned anything from my time as an academic ghost-writer, it’s that if you’re going to cheat then at least be good at cheating. I also learned how lucky I am to live in a country without a strong cheating culture. It was obvious that professors at Saudi and Emirati universities must have been turning a blind eye to what was going on. Some of the time, I would be asked to complete an essay that a student had already started, so half of it would be in a totally different style. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out something was wrong.
The next time I’m at the doctor’s, I’ll thank my lucky stars I don’t live somewhere where there’s a strong likelihood he’s basically unqualified. The same when I’m driving over a bridge – I’ll know the engineer actually completed an engineering degree. I’ll also rest safely in the knowledge that the vast majority of the prospective doctors and engineers that I wrote for failed horribly, and are no doubt now the laughing stock of their universities.
words by @nickchesterv