Essay Mills: 4 Cautionary Tales

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The pressure of academic deadlines is something that every student faces during their college career. The stress can be so intense that some turn to using essay mills. Essay mills are, unfortunately, legal companies who write essays for students in exchange for a fee, usually based on essay length and due date. Doing a quick search on Google, “help writing college essays,” yields some legitimate looking websites offering real help, but paper mill websites are lurking in between. 

The market for essay mills is growing swiftly. Each year, these paper mills pump out essays to tens of thousands of students. Although just one of the many forms of plagiarism, essay mills are particularly scary for the integrity of a higher education degree, because a large percentage of the papers are original pieces of work that are virtually impossible to catch via typical plagiarism checkers.

These companies appeal to the anxiety of stressed out college students on deadlines and it may sometimes feel like an easy solution to lighten the load a little by using the services of one of these companies. But, is it worth it? A student could gain a better grade with a moderate-to-good-quality paper by using one of these services, but there are also huge risks involved that the student is probably unaware of.

While a student considering this possibility is not likely to be concerned about the damage they are doing to the school’s reputation, or the devaluation they are doing to the degrees of fellow students, you may be able to appeal to their own self-interest.

How can you discourage your students from utilizing these tempting, crafty services? Outline the following risks to them:

1. The essay mill may never deliver a paper: Picture this – a student has a deadline of a few days, gets caught up in work for other classes and totally forgets about the paper. He or she reaches out to an essay mill, pays upwards of $200.00 for a standard-issued paper, but the deadline comes and goes. No paper is delivered, and it never will be. The mill has shut down the account and cannot be contacted. It’s the perfect crime! Yes, many take a student’s money and never deliver the goods. Why wouldn’t they? There is not a lot of fear that the student will log a formal complaint.

2. Essay mills blackmail students: According to The Guardian, there have been cases of blackmail from these types of organizations. “[Students] have been asked to send more money to avoid having their names handed over to the university.” When you run with dogs you pick up fleas. Why would they trust a complete stranger with their personal reputation? Why would they risk the money they have invested up to that point in their education to get expelled over a $200 paper?

3. Essay mills often write low quality papers: Students who use essay mills are most likely using them as a last resort. Still, receiving a paper which hardly makes sense, strays off topic, or is littered with grammatical errors but having to pay steep prices is probably not what the student had in mind. Some companies promise grades no lower than a B, but then deliver C’s. Students, even those with questionable integrity, hate paying for something they didn’t get. Dr. Dan Ariely, behavioral economist at Duke University, did a little experiment of his own. He requested four different essay mills to deliver a 12 page paper. The subject? “When and why people cheat”. Economists are such wry characters.  What he received was timely, yet extremely dissatisfying. “A few of the papers attempted to mimic APA style, but none achieved it without glaring errors,” he writes. “Citations were sloppy. Reference lists contained outdated and unknown sources, including blog posts. Some of the links to reference material were broken.” He added, “The writing quality was horrible.” What’s more, essay mills claim to produce completely original work, but Ariely and his lab manager Aline Grüneisen submitted the papers to, which reviews papers for plagiarism, and “two of the papers were 35% to 39% copied from existing works.” So, the papers would have yielded a C- to D grade, and likely would have called the student into question for plagiarism anyway. In this case, D is for “Dangerous”, not “Degree”.

4. Student may fail a course or not receive a degree: While essay mills are not yet illegal, each institution uses its own discretion when they catch someone who uses such a service. Many schools have strict honor codes. The institution can decide to fail that student and/or to completely expel him or her. Strangely this, apparently obvious, deterrent may be the least effective. Students are generally pretty aware of the consequences, and this is the consequence most teachers communicate to them. Not that this should be made less clear, but, if you’re worried about the threat of essay mills, consider flipping the conversation – make them afraid of being cheated themselves by businesses who obviously don’t worry much about integrity.

National Union of Students (NUS) Vice President for Higher Education Sorana Vieru urges “those who are struggling to seek support through their unions and universities rather than looking to a quick fix, and be aware that using these websites could cost not only money but jeopardize their qualifications.” 

In addition to educating students about the risks of using essay mills, faculty can also be proactive by utilizing an online proctoring service for high stakes papers. As part of our process, ProctorU ensures no unpermitted programs or applications are running on the test-taker’s computer. In addition, we have web cam recordings of the student’s face and computer screen running through the entire exam. These steps would ensure the student could not copy and paste content from any outside sources without raising suspicion. The online proctor would be able to confirm that the essay was written by the student in his or her own words.

Weigh in — Have you caught students submitting a paper mill essay? What actions should you take to rectify the situation? How does this version of “cheating” compare to other forms you encounter? These are questions to discuss with your fellow faculty members and administration to make sure you’re covering all the bases of potential breaches of academic integrity.