When it comes to academic plagiarism, despite all of the advances in detection technology, there has been at least one way that, theoretically, a student could plagiarize successfully: Using an essay mill.
The reason is simple: Plagiarism detection systems don’t detect who actually wrote the paper, just that the paper is unique compared to the other works it has seen. If an essay mill sells a truly unique paper to a student, then that paper will appear to be unique. End of story.
But are essay mills truly something to be worried about? Should educators be making essay mills a priority or worrying excessively about them? The answer is probably not though the “Why?” is much more complicated to answer.
The Resurgence of Essay Mills
Last month, I talked about how hired plagiarism has made a comeback and essay mills have been seeing new life due to better plagiarism detection and cheaper labor, in particular offshore.
While all of this is true, it’s also true that essay mills are not a new phenomenon. They’ve been advertising in the backs of magazines and newspapers long before there was an Internet.
However, as was also discussed in that article, it isn’t just essay mills that are resurging as a source for plagiarized content, it’s also freelancer sites, forums and more that are becoming places to obtain plagiarists-for-hire.
But just because a method of plagiarism is on the rise doesn’t mean that it’s effective or that it can’t be easily defeated. Essay mills have a lot of problems that limit their usefulness as plagiarism tools and their impact on academics.
Essay Mills Do Garbage Work
Simply put, to attract customers essay mills have to churn out work quickly and cheaply while often talking about highly specialized subjects. As Dan Ariely found when he purchased a series of essay mill papers for a survey, the papers themselves were almost gibberish in many cases and even showed heavy signs of plagiarism.
While some essay mills probably offer decent work, there is so much garbage in the industry and little way to know which companies will provide good papers and which will provide bad ones. This is especially true since it can vary from topic to topic and author to author, as most essay mills employ a wide range of writers to fill requests.
This problem is furthered by the fact that essay mill authors aren’t (usually at least) in the class. They don’t know what the instructor wants and are limited to to guidelines set by the buyer (the student), which are usually limited in nature. There’s almost no way an essay mill can cheaply and quickly produce a great paper for a student, especially on an advanced assignment.
At best, buying a paper from an essay mill is like playing Russian Roulette with five bullets in the gun. The odds are against the cheater and the consequences for losing dire. Only a fool would play.
Even if a student is able to get a decent essay, it’s going to require a great deal of editing and revising to make it presentable so it isn’t as if a student can forward the essay mill paper directly to their instructor and expect an A. An essay mill is barely a shortcut at all, even when things work out well for the plagiarist.
Essay Mills Are Easily Defeated
But even if a student is able to a good essay mill that produces an “A” worthy paper, an instructor can easily defeat the plagiarism by taking simple steps such as being aware of the student’s writing style/capabilities and asking questions of a student to understand their knowledge level of the topic.
Simply put, no essay mill is a substitute for knowledge and that’s what instructors should be looking for.
However, that’s not nearly as effective as crafting pointed, detailed assignments that are unique and original. Essay assignments that ask students to compare things or write about personal experiences are much more difficult to fake than ones that simply deal with recalling information.
You can also craft assignments to limit resources that are available, such as requiring use of the classroom textbook, or require examples from in-class lectures.
In short, the less an assignment focuses on things that can be easily Googled, the better it is for preventing all types of plagiarism, including from essay mills.
Are essay mills a problem for schools and universities? Yes. They can and do enable cheating and they have a negative impact on the education of all students, not just the plagiarists.
But that being said, essay mills aren’t the nuclear weapon that will defeat plagiarism detection and bring chaos to written assignments in the classroom. They’ve been around for decades and haven’t done so yet, they aren’t likely to take over now.
In fact, the increased competition among essay mills, especially on price and turnaround, seems to be driving quality down. While more and more students are turning to such sites, they most likely either aren’t turning in what they get (realizing it’s garbage), are receiving a poor grade for turning in shoddy work or are being caught as if they were a traditional plagiarist.
The much bigger threat, at least in the short run, is from students finding classmates to write papers for them. That classic tradition puts an end to a lot of the problems essay mills have, such as not knowing the instructor, the assignment, etc. and can reasonably assure high-quality work. Still, as mentioned above, crafting smart assignments and asking questions can help with this problem as well.
All in all, students who use essay mills for plagiarism, most likely, don’t come out much better than those who use Wikipedia. They usually just come out a great deal poorer and more frustrated.
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