Tempting snakes

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It is some time since I last wrote about Viper, a free service which called itself a “plagiarism checker,”  housed on a site called ScanMyEssay.  It is worth writing again, because there are a number of changes in Viper’s  services and in the Viper business model.

In those earlier posts, Authentic Authenticity (published September 2013)  and Snake (in the grass) (March 2016), I advised against Viper because among other things:

you needed to download software to your computer, and the software would upload your document to the scanmyessay database for text-matching (and there was no telling what that software might do to or with your files, to your hard drive, to your computer);

the Viper/ScanMyEssay site promoted a number of possibly unethical services, including editing, feedback and critique (of own work), as well as a direct link to essay writing services (for those who could not be bothered to write their own work);

its terms and conditions included the note that, after 9 months, work submitted for a “plagiarism check” would be published on one of their sister sites, available for others to see and use (though many people do not read terms and conditions as closely as they should – if they read them at all).

Viper front page, ca. 2016

The danger of that last practice is that a student might find work uploaded for “plagiarism checking” and then submitted for assessment could be questioned at a later date when used by someone who had found that same work on one of the sister sites. At the time of my posts I knew of one case in which an IB extended essay had been questioned years later;  I have since heard of a second, similar case.  Viper was dangerous.

So, can a snake change its spots?

It can certainly change the way it looks; here is Viper’s current home page.

There are other changes too.

Viper no longer requires users to download its software, it is now cloud-based and documents can be uploaded for checking directly;

Viper no longer directly offers editing services or promotes essay writing services;

while Viper continues to offer free “plagiarism checking,” it now offers a premium service as well;  documents submitted for free checking are still published on one of Viper’s sister sites with the lag before publishing reduced to three months, while documents submitted for the premium service are not published on the sister sites.

A closer look at each of these changes is advisable.

1>  The first change listed must be an improvement.  It is not clever to download and install software from a company which offers and promotes possibly unethical services;  it might well contain malware of some kind or other.  The danger of this practice is in fact highlighted in a caveat on the About Viper page

Viper is no longer available as a downloadable software application!

If you have an older version of Viper installed, it will no longer function. We recommend that you uninstall any older versions of Viper as these are no longer supported. Please do not install any “free download” versions of Viper you may find on freeware and shareware sites – none of these applications are supported by Viper and may contain malicious scripts.

“Versions of Viper software found on freeware and shareware sites … may contain malicious scripts” we are told.  Even if there were no malicious scripts in the original Viper software – and we do not know that this is the case – this certainly illustrates the danger of downloading software from possibly untrustworthy sites.

And – oh good – if you wish, you can connect your Google Drive to Viper, allowing Viper to scan documents stored on your Google Drive (as noted in ScanMyEssay’s Privacy Policy).

Say again?  “By connecting your Google account to Viper, the app will be able to view (read) files within your Google Drive storage and upload a copy of the file to the Viper servers for scanning.”  It is not clear from this if you give Viper access only to the files that you want scanned, or if you give Viper access to all the files stored in your Google Drive.  Me, I would not care to take the chance.  Would you?

2>  Links to other services

The links to other services are no longer obvious.   There is a note at the foot of every page that

ScanMyEssay – Free Plagiarism Checker, Scanner and Detection Tool. Viper and ScanMyEssay.com are trading names of All Answers Limited

but there is no live link to All Answers Limited.   The Terms and Conditions page does include links to two of the sister sites, but there is no overt temptation to use these services (as there was in the earlier, pre-cloud version).  I come back to the sister sites shortly.

3a>  Free service

Where the earlier service might upload work submitted for plagiarism check to a sister site after nine months, ScanMyEssay now publishes work uploaded for the free scan service after just three months. The delay was (and is) supposedly to allow for submitted work to be assessed by the student’s institution, after which they and you have no further use for it – says Viper.

This is stated openly on the How does Viper use my essay/dissertation? page:.

As noted earlier, anyone else unethically using work obtained from a sister site (ie. submitting it as their own work) could well trigger a misconduct investigation of the earlier (and presumably original) work even years later. The reduced publishing delay could be a particular problem for students writing longer projects, if they use Viper for a “plagiarism check” early in their process.

This could be even more problematic for IB extended essay students, who might well submit their essay for scanning just before completion in October, November or December, even though those essays will not be uploaded to IB’s eCoursework system until January at the earliest, possibly even March – well over that 3 month delay.  Turnitin and other services may have found and indexed the uploads to a Viper sister site – and could have a time-stamp which suggests the essay was published on the sister site before the extended essay reaches the IB examiner marking it.

And, as noted earlier, IB may investigate cases even after the end of the examination session, perhaps years later.  Be aware – the free service is fraught!

(For southern hemisphere students and anyone performing an immediate retake, add 6 months to these dates, and the same caveats apply.)

3b>  Premium service (part 1)

A major change to the business model is that ScanMyEssay now provides a premium service as well as the free service. One of the big advantages of the premium service is that essays uploaded by paying customers for “plagiarism checking” are not published on one of the company’s study sites; as shown in that last screengrab. The wording reads:

When you scan your essay using a premium scan, your work will never be published on any of our study sites. You have complete control of your documents and can choose to delete them whenever you like.

The cost is not extortionate. The Pricing page shows that one credit costs UK£ 3.00 or US$ 3.95 or 3.30 €uro with discounts for those buying more credits at one time (up to 50 credits for UK£50.00 / US$66.00 / 55.50 €uro), and one credit buys one scan of one document of 30,000 characters.

I am not sure about the math(s) here – a document of 30,000 characters / 5000 words would mean that words used average 5 characters each, assuming a space after each word and a period at the end of each sentence; a 4000-word IB extended essay would need word-length of average 6.5 characters.   I think that most students would struggle to keep down to that, even excluding tables of contents, lists of Works Cited (references/ bibliographies), captions and footnotes and anything else not included in the extended essay word count.

But even at 2 credits per extended essay, the price may be affordable. Just not as enticing as the price structure suggests.

Of more concern though is that disclaimer: “When you scan your essay using a premium scan, your work will never be published on any of our study sites.”

What, I wonder, is a study site?  The All Answers company website mentions and links to four services, UKEssays.com, UKDiss.com, LawTeacher.net and NursingAnswers.net.   Each of these offers a range of services.  UKEssays, for instance, offers examples of coursework for free and essay writing and other services at a cost.  The note on UKEssays free Coursework page states

The coursework below were written (sic) by students to help you with your own studies. If you are looking for help with your coursework then we offer a comprehensive writing service provided by fully qualified academics in your field of study.
(The sic is my interjection; it is not on the webpage – JRR.)

Much free coursework is available on the site – and there are also links to a Coursework Writing Service, where a student can buy essays written for different levels of education, different subjects, and to a specific grade.  A 4000-word A-grade IB extended essay in history, for instance, would cost a mere UK£ 493.00 – with the caveat that the custom-written essay is provided for reference and teaching purposes only and should not be submitted as the student’s own (a get-out clause common on many, possibly most, contract cheating/ essay writing sites).

There is a note (on a page headed Essay Buying Guide) that

Typically, a student will only need to buy one or two model essays before they understand how to write and reference work themselves.

Once you have the skills, you can begin to create your own work from scratch.

Wow! Just short of £1,000 and you can learn how to write an essay – now go do it.

Or you can submit the bought custom written essay/s as your own – although (as discussed) this voids any guarantee that it might have regarding the quality expected or the absence of plagiarism by the actual writer…

I cannot help thinking, what a shame that schools do not teach essay writing. What a shame that teachers do not give feedback on student writing.  What a shame that schools do not make examples of essays available, in the school library, for instance. In the case of extended essays, what a shame that IB does not publish samples of extended essays on the extended essay website. What a shame that nothing is available on the internet to help students with their research and writing, that books on writing and on subject content cost well into the thousands of pounds and dollars and euros.  What a bargain, this service that UKEssays offers!  How scrupulous of them to teach students how to write, to say their custom-written essays are merely to help students see what good essays look like.

What are you saying, voice in my ear? That none of this last paragraph is true, that the opposite surely applies?  Ah, voice in my ear, do you not recognize irony?

3b>  Premium service (part 2)

I see that All Answers Ltd has found itself in trouble on several occasions just recently.  In March 2018, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) ruled that the company (trading as UKEssays)  had published misleading claims of endorsement by various media outlets when in fact those the press had only named them in stories on contract cheating and had not endorsed their services; ASA also ruled that AllAnswers had not made the dangers of submitting custom-written essays sufficiently clear, indeed were giving the impression that purchasers could and should submit the essays they had bought and could expect the “guaranteed” grades  (ASA Ruling on All Answers Ltd t/a UK Essays); that the advice not to do so was well hidden in the site and unlikely to be found.

There has also been a court case regarding their tax liabilities, with the court again finding against them (All Answers Ltd v The Commissioners for HM Revenue and Customs: [2020] UKUT 0236 (TCC)).  Tax and money troubles indeed: I see also that UKEssays has yet to confirm its accounts with Companies House (statement due 8 January 2021).

Scrupulous, not necessarily!  (Though the change of model in 2017 may well have been due to the case with the ASA?)

So I cannot help also wondering about that disclaimer, “When you scan your essay using a premium scan, your work will never be published on any of our study sites.”  What if AllAnswers keeps its word and does not publish work which has been scanned for writers paying for the premium service. Does this also mean that they do not sell on the work as a custom-written work; that is, after all, not publishing?  Let us take another look at the How does Viper Use my essay/dissertation? page again:

On the one hand, we are told that (unlike less scrupulous (?) sites and companies) they do not “resell your writing,” but that by uploading your work you give them a “a licence to use it in a particular way, which we have carefully outlined above” :

Do you have copyright to my work?

Absolutely not! Your work is still your own. You effectively give us a licence to use it in a particular way, which we have carefully outlined above. We don’t have the right to do anything else with your work, and you will always own the copyright. Be very wary of other scanners and websites – when you upload work to them, you might be granting them an irrevocable licence to do whatever they want with that work. Read their terms! Some sites have a very wide licence which allows them to publish or resell your writing wherever they like, in any form they like, without giving any credit to you. We never remove author information from essays unless you want us to, as we don’t ‘edit’ the essays you scan.

which sounds good – until you read the paragraph “carefully outlined above” in the section What happens to my work?:

When we assess your essay as being particularly good, we sometimes allow students to access it from a range of other websites under strict guidelines … On occasions, we may make access to such uploaded example essays subject to an access fee for the end user.

In other words, they do not sell your work, but do they make it available “subject to an access fee.”  Splitting hairs?

In case you are wondering about the sister sites, there is a certain similarity between AllAnswers’ sites:

        

 

 

 

 

 

 

[Top left: UKDiss.com; top right: NursingAnswers.net;
bottom left: LawTeacher.net; bottom right: UKEssays.com]

I guess you could call it the house style?

I generally advise against using any service which claims to offer “plagiarism checks.” There is no such thing. Such services offer text-matching services but they cannot tell if matched text has been plagiarized or not, that is a matter for a human brain.  If a service makes claims that it can check for plagiarism, it is misleading you, touch it not.

In this particular case, whether it is plagiarism checking or essay writing – avoid like the plague, there are too many issues.  Viper and its parent and sister companies – do not be tempted!

 

 

1 thought on “Tempting snakes

  1. Thanks, John. Always so thorough and clear.
    One of my students dared to ask about ‘plagiarism checkers’ recently and they got the full lowdown on why that is not what they’re checking!! Probably an overreaction on my part, but made me laugh when I just saw it again in your article.
    All the best to you,
    Fran

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