Anger at online essay service
Lawmakers are calling for police to investigate the 'unforgivable fraud' of a company based in Hong Kong that sells academic papers to university students worldwide.
The calls came after an investigation by the South China Morning Post found that online business Ivythesis (www.ivythesis.com) has for 10 years been supplying students from as far afield as Africa and the Middle East with essays - for HK$125 a page.
The Post obtained a 2,000-word essay from the website, which one academic said 'isn't too bad'.
A Filipino woman living in Hong Kong, Melodia Lustria, is involved in the company, which promotes itself online and posts sample essays on Facebook and Twitter.
Education lawmaker Cheung Man-kwong described the operation as an 'unforgivable fraud' and urged the commercial crime bureau to investigate the company.
It is unclear how serious the problem of academic ghostwriting is in Hong Kong, but Cheung said: 'The bureau should tackle this issue because the company is based here and it encourages people to fraudulently obtain their degrees.'
Tanya Chan, vice-chairwoman of the Legislative Council's education panel, said the authorities should crack down on the company, since it encouraged students to deceive their universities.
But a police spokesman said the case would only be followed up if complaints were received.
The process is simple. The Post sent an e-mail to the company's website editor, 'Vic Fabe', giving the topic for an academic paper. After HK$1,000 was paid into Lustria's Hang Seng Bank account and a week's wait, the Post was sent the requested six-page paper reviewing the city's public-service broadcasting.
Baptist University associate journalism professor Judith Clarke said the essay looked like it had been written by a 'mediocre undergraduate' student. 'It really passes muster as a rather lacklustre essay by a student in the upper forms of a school, or even a very mediocre undergrad,' she said.
If submitted for assessment, Clarke said it would get a mark that 'isn't too bad'. She said the essay had the right level of English to make it look like it came from a student who 'did the work but just wasn't much good at organising his or her thoughts and putting them into English'.
But she said the paper was poor in terms of its structure and establishing an argument. 'I think the writer has just taken the various reports put out by the government, pulled out some sentences and mangled the English so badly that it makes the reader think that with better language the essay could be quite good,' she said.
Lawyer Daniel Wong Kwok-tung warned that hiring ghostwriters for academic papers could be a criminal offence under common law. 'It could be a conspiracy to defraud by the payer and the persons involved in the company, as they are using deception to get an academic degree.'
He said the penalty for a first offence could be as harsh as imprisonment, but it would be difficult to provide the evidence for a conviction.
A police spokesman said each case was considered individually in accordance with the evidence.
'Should anyone consider that a crime might have taken place, a report should be made to the police. Officers will take the appropriate follow-up action.'
Local universities - which do not list the hiring of ghostwriters as an offence in their rules - reported only a couple of plagiarism cases last year. But they said anti-plagiarism software was used, and copying others' work could result in expulsion.