Under the leadership of Turkey’s governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), higher education has been greatly expanded since the early 2000s. Yet this growth has been followed by increased demand for essay-writing services – a development that, as an investigation by Inside Turkey reveals, threatens academic standards.
Essay-writing has been offered for a long time by individual freelancers via closed networks, but in recent years firms have been more openly advertising “consultancy” services online. While on the face of it they purport to offer copy-editing, proofreading, translation and other legitimate services, what these firms really offer clients is to write the draft of a thesis or dissertation, usually in Turkish or English. They conceal their activities via techniques such as invoicing for “office work”, and some are even accepting payment by crypto-currency.
To uncover the full extent of this shadow industry, Inside Turkey contacted 20 essay-writing firms that advertise their services online, posing as a master’s student from Istanbul University. Over the phone and by email, the firms all had similar processes. First they asked for some basic information about the topic, length and preferred language. Then, after a small up-front payment, the project was assigned a ghostwriter to contact the student as required.
The final draft was passed through Turnitin, an online service widely used by universities to detect plagiarised essays, to prove that it contained sufficient original content. The rest of the fee was paid on receipt of the finished essay: in general, the services charge the equivalent of five euros per page for a master’s dissertation and seven euros for a PhD thesis. Original research costs an additional 200 euros.
Although the essay-writing firms were not accepting in-person visits during the pandemic, three companies arranged video calls to discuss their services. Their representatives replied frankly to questions about the process.
“It’s not illegal, perhaps somewhat unethical,” said a male consultant representing a popular firm. “But there is no risk of getting caught and this is low-hanging fruit.”
Others gave assurances that their writing teams contained highly-qualified academics, and that a final draft could be ready in three months.
“The only thing you should worry about is defending your thesis,” said the consultant.
According to Academic Integrity Turkey, an anti-plagiarism campaign group, there are at least 520 essay-writing firms operating in the country. Many reach customers via easy-to-find websites and social media accounts. One firm boasts that their website has received 3.6 million visitors over two years, while some even produce annual reports to demonstrate their effectiveness.
One firm, in operation since 2008, claims to have produced 2,297 thesis drafts and 1,530 other essays in 2019. Taking into account the usual fees, this would give the company an annual revenue of around two million euros.
One reason this market has grown is that higher education has rapidly expanded: since 2002, the total number of universities in Turkey has risen from 93 to 207, while undergraduate enrollment has grown by almost 500 per cent and postgraduate enrollment by nearly 400 per cent.
“New universities are contributing to the overall increase in the number of students, but I don’t think they have the determination or skills to counter such academic dishonesty,” said Serdar Sayan, an economics professor at TOBB University of Economics and Technology in Ankara. “I would guess that the total customer base of this market is growing faster than the rate of increase in university students.”
According to Tevfik Uyar, a prominent author and academic based at Istanbul Kültür University, the expansion of higher education has led to a drop in standards.
“New graduates are not able to find jobs, and employers do not consider graduates of new universities satisfactorily qualified,” he said. This encouraged graduates to pursue further study to remain competitive on the jobs market.
As the number of theses submitted annually to Turkey’s National Thesis Centre has boomed – growing from 14,389 in 2002 to 88,271 in 2009 – so too has the lucrative, if unethical market in ghostwriting. Turkey’s recent political and economic turmoil has also helped ensure a supply of willing ghostwriters.
Selim, a 34-year old from Ankara, lost his job in academia after being purged by a presidential decree issued after the failed coup of July 2016.
“This was the most appropriate solution to make a living, given the circumstances,” he told Inside Turkey. Selim said that he earned the equivalent of around 450 euros a month and had written 11 theses so far. His customers, he said, were people who thought having a degree would boost their reputation and career prospects.
Yet there are signs that the expansion of higher education in Turkey has come at the price of academic standards. In 2017, a study of 470 master’s dissertations and 130 PhD theses by Boğaziçi University’s Centre for Educational Policy Studies revealed that around a third of them were heavily plagiarised. According to the SCImago Journal and Country Rank, an international indicator of the quality of scientific papers, the number of uncited studies from Turkish universities – an indicator that work lacks academic influence – is rising too.
Essay-writing services are not illegal in Turkey, but the national Council of Higher Education, which supervises universities, strongly discourages plagiarism and unethical behaviour. Students can be suspended if they are found to have submitted work that is not their own, while a member of academic staff can be sacked if they are found to have ghost-written an essay for someone else.
Given that so much information about essay-writing firms is publicly available, measures could be taken to crack down on their operations. But for now, they continue to operate largely unimpeded.
“Ghostwritten essays are a direct result of prioritising quantity over quality,” said Kaan Öztürk, an expert on data science and a scholar. “The current regulations contain tough measures against academic dishonesty, but these are not being implemented.”
Other experts made practical suggestions for how standards could be enforced. According to İnayet Aydın, a professor in the Faculty of Educational Sciences at Ankara University, stricter criteria for student admissions and academic appointments are necessary, as well as tougher sanctions for ethical violations. A representative of Academic Integrity Turkey said closer scrutiny of Turnitin activity logs by universities that use the software would help detect the activity of essay-writing services.
The Council of Higher Education did not respond to requests for comment.