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Online Essay Mills Undermine Education

2009 May 13

Essay mills like Essay Writers are, in my mind, an enabler of the worst type of academic fraud that can be perpetuated by an undergraduate.  These mills employ freelance writers to produce essays on-demand papers for students unwilling to write their own.  The student decides that they are not going to write a particular paper, logs into the website, and submits a request, after which a freelancer/ghost writer completes the project.  Personally, I consider this much worse than simple plagiarism.  I imagine plagiarism usually stems from laziness; you don’t want to write something, so you Google the topic and copy/paste.  But paying someone to fake ideas for you is a willful and purposeful attempt to deceive.

This recent video exposé at the Chronicle of Higher Education provides an enlightening journey into what exactly is involved on the freelancer’s side, and while watching it, I was surprised by a few things.  First, essay writers get paid a lot for what is by most accounts a very simple exercise.  One example is an assignment for which someone paid at least $25: a 5-page reaction paper relating class concepts to an episode of the TV show, 24.  Seriously?  When I assign reaction papers, if you’ve been following the class at all, a 5-page reaction paper would should be 30-60 minutes of effort.  It’s not a scientific/citations-based affair – you’re just supposed to give your reactions.  Based on the video, it would probably take 15 minutes just to set up the work order!

Second, according to the video, $5/page is actually low; $15/page seems to be the preferred rate.  Apparently I should have been paid about $2300 for my dissertation.

Third, another example was given hitting a little closer to home: someone wanting a ghost writer for the Methods section of their doctoral dissertation.  I thought Ph.D.-level work wouldn’t be part of this sort of thing, but evidently not.  Although I wonder about the quality of work for those papers.

Fourth, these papers are quite customizable.  British English or American English?  Want a ghost writer to continue a paper that you’ve already started?  Want to request a specific ghost writer, because you’re familiar with the quality of their work?  It’s all possible in modern essay mills.

As an academic exercise, I wonder first who these writers are and how the quality is.  And although there’s no way to ever know, for some reason, I always default to “graduate students low on cash,” just scraping by on the meager stipends of their programs, looking wherever they can for ramen-money.

And second, although I know I shouldn’t, I question which of my students might have used this or a similar service.  Since this isn’t a copy/paste affair, and since the work they are turning in is original although by someone else, there is no way to ever catch them, aside from a sudden and shocking increase in quality from one paper to the next.  But one can easily imagine a student with enough cash using such a service for every paper they ever needed to write.

At the end of the video, the speaker mentions that such a thing wasn’t possible without the Internet.  I think that’s a bit of an oversimplification.  Back in high school, I remember other students identifying me as a “good” student and asking me to write their papers in exchange for money.  I never did it, but I imagine there were many who did.  What the Internet enables is a worldwide, organized system by which such freelancers and unethical students can find each other – now you don’t even need to be on the same continent as the person for whom you are writing the paper.

It makes me wonder – what’s the future hold?  If the introduction of the Internet enhacned this method of cheating so dramatically, what other methods will be invented in the years to come as the technology continues to improve?  Is it overly cynical to think that students will identify every new cheating method and use them as soon as they can, in an effort to bypass their education, just to get the grades they want without any learning required?  And as essay-purchasing and other similar methods become more popular, more such services will appear, prices will drop, and even more students will partake in these deceptions.  It creates a downward spiral, at the end of which is the collapse of the value of education: if you can’t trust that any student did any work for their degree, then no degree holds value.  What do we do?  Can it be stopped?  I wish I had the answers.

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  1. Fletcher Christensen permalink
    May 13, 2009

    …it is only my well-developed sense of morality that keeps me from signing myself up as a freelancer to earn a buck right now, when I could really use some cash. I find this despicable….

    …but I’m sure I’d be pretty good at it.

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