User reviews for ghostwriting services
A case study of using text analysis to explore how students review services that write papers for them
Students in higher education can easily find companies that will write papers for them for a fee, called ghostwriting services. Purchasing written assignments is a form of cheating that carries consequences as severe as expulsion, yet ghostwriting services work hard to empathize with students and convince them that it is perfectly acceptable to engage in this behavior. This study investigated how ghostwriting websites legitimate their services and how student users respond to their persuasive tactics.
Screenshot of with arrows pointing to the words "The professional essay writing service for students who can't even."
Ghostwriting services use interesting rhetoric to convince students to purchase written assignments rather than doing the work for themselves.
Connection to UX research
The methods I used in this study, corpus analysis and critical discourse analysis, can be used to analyze the content of any product or app. Quantitatively analyzing user reviews in comparison to website or app content can reveal how much users subscribe to an organization’s claims about itself or its product. User reviews also provide insight into users’ reasons for using a product and their user experience. 

My role
individual researcher

Core skills
• corpus linguistics
• critical discourse analysis
• analysis of multimodal texts

I collected text and screenshots from the homepages of 10 academic ghostwriting websites. I analyzed the texts both quantitatively using corpus linguistics software called Lancsbox and qualitatively by coding features of the screenshots in NVivo.

First, I identified words that were used frequently on the websites’ homepages. 
Word cloud with the words "write," "writing," "essay," "service," "paper," and "order" emphasized at the center.
A word cloud visualization of frequent words on 10 ghostwriting services' websites included words related to writing, like “essay” and “paper,” and words related to the service, like “professional” and “online.”
Further analysis showed that two frequent words, time and help, often appeared in the websites’ explanations for why students should use their services:
Word cloud with the words "time" and "help" circled.
For example, one website said, “it is okay to admit that you could use assistance. It might be that there is not enough time.” This is one example of how ghostwriting services take advantage of vulnerable students by responding with empathy to their feelings of needing help and being pressed for time. 
Screenshot of text with arrows pointing to the words "It is okay to admit that you could use assistance" and "It might be that there's not enough time."
Next, I examined user reviews to see how students responded to these tactics. 
Screenshot of text with arrows pointing to the words "It is okay to admit that you could use assistance" and "It might be that there's not enough time."
Screenshots of typical user reviews from three different ghostwriting services’ websites. 
Student users claimed that the services saved them time and helped them get better grades. Often, they also thanked the services for helping them. Even if these reviews are manufactured by the websites, they are presented as real to students who visit such websites looking for help. 
This analysis showed how user reviews play a role in lending credibility to the websites’ services by echoing the websites’ claims about themselves. They also provide information about how and why students use these services.

Based on the findings and my own experience as a writing instructor, I developed guidelines to help instructors deter students from using ghostwriting services:
Text reads "What should instructors do about this? Help students understand that writing is a process, not a product. Assign multiple drafts so students get credit for engaging in the writing process. Make sure students understand the expectations for assignments. Teach students where to find legitimate help and how to recognize when 'help' crosses the line into cheating. Teach students to be critical consumers of information and to evaluate the credibility of claims they read online."
This study was presented as an invited guest lecture for the Canadian Consortium on Second Language Writing (see recording below). In 2022, I adapted it into a short talk that made me a semifinalist at Grad Slam, a competition where graduate students present research and creative projects in just 3 minutes.
Recording of my invited talk for the Canadian Consortium on Second Language Writing in 2021.

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