Alarm over writer-for-hire firms
Universities are alarmed at the proliferation of writers-for-hire firms who charge cheating Hong Kong students thousands of dollars to pen academic papers, complicating efforts to crack down on plagiarism.
Half a dozen Hong Kong-based companies easily found on the internet are offering to prepare academic papers in almost any subject at undergraduate and postgraduate level - some will even put together PhD work.
One of the companies, the Norford Group, guarantees that its work is written by experts and is plagiarism-free. When approached by a student the company said a 2,500-word master's degree law essay would cost HK$2,860. Two days later, however, they raised the price to HK$4,650 after an assurance was sought that the work would include proper research.
Another, Portal Academia Hong Kong, charges up to HK$500 a page for an undergraduate paper, HK$900 for master's papers and HK$1,600 for doctoral level work. Worryingly for customers seeking flawless grammar, its website says: 'We are definitely expensive than other competitors in Hong Kong, but we are proud of it. We have the best people in town.'
Polytechnic University's dean of students, Arthur Mak Fuk-tat, said he was alarmed by the trend. Mak said it would generally be difficult to prove students were hiring others to do their work - but not impossible for experienced teachers.
'Students have their own writing style that doesn't easily change. I would ask my students to present their work in class to test their understanding of their papers,' Mak said.
'Those who know nothing about their own paper must have hired others to do the work. In those cases, I would give very poor grades.'
Chinese University registrar Eric Ng Shu-pui warned students of the consequences of using writer-for-hire firms. He said these businesses promote academic dishonesty, and might cut and paste other people's work from the internet, exposing the student to plagiarism charges.
'It may not be too difficult for those writers to do original work for a paper at year one or two level, but definitely not for doctoral papers which need a lot of original ideas and extensive research,' Ng said.
Ng said he had heard of a case in which a student at Chinese University who hired one such company submitted the paid-for paper and forgot to remove the firm's receipt.
Hong Kong's major universities do not keep a count of students suspected of hiring writers, but they do keep records of plagiarism.
Chinese University records about 100 plagiarism cases a year, compared with only five at Polytechnic University last year, three at the University of Hong Kong this year, no more than five a year at City University, and fewer than 10 a year at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
Chinese University records all cases of plagiarism, whereas other universities record only the most severe. The institution also uses its plagiarism-detection system VeriGuide to test almost all papers submitted by both undergraduate and graduate students.
Other universities, using a system called Turnitin, usually check only major papers such as dissertations. Punishments for plagiarism range from a warning to a failed grade to expulsion from university, depending on the severity of the offence and the academic level.
According to Mak, a PhD student was expelled from Polytechnic University in 2007 for using other people's data as his own research. He was the last Polytechnic student to be expelled for plagiarism.
The papers-for-hire business seems to be flourishing despite efforts to limit the avenues open for cheating.
A law student from Chinese University, who did not want to be named, spoke to a 'customer representative' from the Norford Group who said all its writers were native English speakers, many of whom lived outside Hong Kong.
'They are experts not only in the subject areas, but they have the skill of writing the essay on the same topic in different styles to avoid overlap with other students' work. From time to time, we receive a group order from four or five students who need to work on the same topic,' the customer representative said.
'But we need to know the purpose of the paper in order to tailor the paper for our customers, such as whether it is for undergraduate or postgraduate level. For instance, we would not provide the quality of a PhD level paper for customers who are undergraduates,' she said.
One thing the company cannot guarantee, the customer representative said, is the student's grade.
'But you should be confident in us,' she said, 'as our customers so far are happy with our work.'
Fair or foul?
Writer-for-hire firms can pen academic papers for university students
This is the price quoted, in Hong Kong dollars, for a 2,500-word master's degree law essay: $4,650