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By Claire Aitchison

Last month I had my head down writing a chapter for a forthcoming book on academic integrity. The invitation to contribute to this volume came about following a paper I gave with my colleague Susan Mowbray at the Quality in Postgraduate Research (QPR) conference earlier in the year.

In our presentation Shadow writers in doctoral education?: Shades of grey we reported on the initial findings of a research project investigating writing service providers (external to the conferring university) for doctoral scholars. The motivation for the project arose from a dilemma in my work at the time, whereby I needed to find external help for a doctoral student who was struggling with their writing. The university itself didn’t have the resources to provide individual long-term, one-on-one writing support for doctoral candidates.

The research, conducted with ethics approval, aimed to investigate the scope and nature of writing service providers available to doctoral scholars, and to get a better sense of who such providers are.

Our enquiries led us to realise that there was a considerable demand for this kind of support – and that there was an extraordinary variety of people and organisations promoting their services. Our study identified over 158 sites simply from entering 6 doctoral writing related internet search terms. Our analysis showed the diversity of service provision – from the fully legitimate, transparent and regulated – to the highly questionable.

In a world where so much of our life is lived on-line and serviced by markets – especially in education and research –perhaps it is not surprising that there should be a burgeoning of on-line commercial doctoral writing support. However, although we only scratched the surface, what surprised us was the global reach and diversity of such provision and, paradoxically, how little is really known about this clandestine world.

As we tried to interpret what was going on, we constructed this diagram. It aims to illustrate the range of services and their relationship to the market and to notions of teaching and learning. Of course there is also overlap and confluence with some service providers working across the fields we have designated. It isn’t a perfect representation and we will refine it further as we go.

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At one end of the continuum we located the market-based providers and at the other end we situated the free or ‘gift’ economy. The majority of fee-for-service providers at the market end of the continuum sell text-based services such as editing, proofing and formatting, and, it would appear, even contractual writing. This group includes highly professional enterprises allied to professional associations with transparent company and service details. There was also, however, a large number of providers whose advertising raised more questions than answers in regard to their business professionalism, capabilities and authenticity-let alone their capacity to deliver acceptable or quality product.

Moving along the continuum we identified others who were offering more developmental services such as extended 1:1 support, mentoring, coaching, and short courses for writing and research development, blogs and on-line conferences/training. Some of these providers were delivering to institutions as well as to individual doctoral students. In our interview phase, in general, we were impressed with the professionalism and expertise of these providers and of their genuine engagement with supporting scholars’ writing development.

At the ‘gift economy’ end of the spectrum we identified a small number of socially-networked, collaborative writing support opportunities in the form of blogs and online communities that showcased and shared research and writing interests. Our readers are no doubt are already familiar with these online communities.

While the research project was only small and far from conclusive, it raises some big questions for those of us who care about doctoral scholarship and writing. Pat Thomson recently wrote about some of these issues. In interviews, providers claimed that their clients included ‘all sorts’; working academics, native and non-native speakers of English and many whose experiences with supervision were unsatisfactory in one way or another. So why is there such a big market offering doctoral writing and research support? Does this healthy demand for external help signal a failure on the part of institutions to provide adequate support to their enrolled scholars? And how do/ should institutions interface with these providers? Is it acceptable, equitable or desirable for students to independently pay for such help? Or should we see it as a natural outcome-indeed a logical response-to a system that advocates autonomous doctoral scholarship?

Our investigations also raised serious questions about the quality and legitimacy of some services. The ‘industry’ isn’t regulated. As we explored the more questionable online sites, we became acutely concerned about the potential for fraud; for the flow-on negative effects for legitimate service providers; and for the potential undermining of the reputation and integrity of doctoral scholarship more broadly.

If anyone has thoughts or relevant experiences we’d love to hear from you. Perhaps you know of doctoral students or supervisors who have been ‘stung’ by dodgy companies? Perhaps you know of people who work in this field? Do you think this outsourcing of help might be changing how we work with doctoral students and how they work with us?

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