A CTV News undercover investigation has raised questions about businesses that sell custom essays to students. 

University professors say they are always on the lookout for students who plagiarize, but work from so called “essay mills” is the most difficult to catch.

CTV’s Investigators sent an intern with a hidden camera into the Vancouver and Toronto offices of Essay Experts. The company calls itself Canada’s number one essay writing service and says its essays are original and custom tailored to the student’s needs.

The intern and the Essay Experts employee agreed on a price of $170 for a six-page first year Shakespeare essay. At the Vancouver office, the intern signed an agreement saying she will use the paper for research only and won't just hand it in as her own.

“Can I get in trouble for handing this in?” she asked

“No, you will not get into trouble. We do this all the time -- not only for undergraduate, we do this for graduate students as well, for PhD and Master's,” said the employee.

When she asked again about the agreement the employee said if the essay was handed in as is it would be plagiarism.

“This is a legal business for us,” he added. “You get the paper delivered to you, at a bare minimum you gotta change at least three words... then you can put the cover page on it and all that stuff... so we're in good legal standing.”

Robert Gordon who was the head of SFU’s Academic Dishonesty Committee scoffed at that message.

“That's nonsense, of course it's plagiarism. Worse -- it's cheating,” he said. “It's submitting an entire piece of work that's not your own work.”

At the Toronto office of Essay Experts, the employee did not ask the intern to sign any agreement about how the essay could be used.        

“What happens if they are suspicious? Could I get it in trouble?” asked the intern.

“It's only if they're familiar with your way of writing we recommend reworking it in your own words, but if she hasn't seen anything, it's very unlikely,” said the employee.

When contacted after the undercover sting, Essay Experts management said the incidents in the hidden camera footage do not reflect standard company practice.

Management thanked CTV for bringing the matter to their attention and said they would be talking with all employees to ensure they’re clear on how to operate. They also did not agree the essay could be handed in as the student’s own work just by changing three words.       

After CTV received the purchased essays, UBC English Professor Tiffany Potter marked them and was not impressed.

“I don’t think they got their money’s worth,” said Potter.  She found an incorrect historical reference and poor grammar. She gave one a C and the other a C minus.

Potter wants students to know that if they are panicking about their assignment, the first step is to talk to their professor about a possible solution.

She catches about six cheating students a year in cases that invoke serious penalties from the university. Penalties can range from a minimum of a zero on the assignment to being expelled from school.

“The idea that this is some kind of remedy is so crushingly misguided.”         

With a report from CTV British Columbia's Mi-Jung Lee and Jon Woodward