An industry whose sole purpose is to help students violated the most basic tenets of academic integrity was never going to be the pinnacle of ethics.
The fact that there is a seedy underbelly to the contract cheating (sometimes referred to as the essay mill) industry should surprise no one. However, what may come as a surprise is the depths to which the industry will go to earn revenue.
It’s easy to dismiss the contract cheating industry as a black market filling an existing demand. However, it’s misdeeds go well beyond that. It’s an industry that doesn’t just fill the demand but seeks to create it (through any means necessary) and it does so in ways that are more nefarious than many expect.
The contract cheating industry isn’t simply “giving students what they want”, it’s an industry that actively exploits its customers, its workers and its partners, compounding it’s already unethical nature.
To understand how it is so exploitative, we have to take a look at just some of the ways that the industry goes beyond academic integrity.
1: Spam Marketing
Essay mill sites aren’t allowed to advertise on most traditional marketing channels. So, they have to get creative.
One of the most common approaches is to engage in spam-like behavior whether through email or, more likely, social media. Contract cheating spam bots are particularly active on Twitter as they respond to students who post concerns or complaints about their current projects.
However, such companies also have a reputation for infiltrating private student groups, usually intended for a class or a semester. This has happened both on Facebook and on messaging services such as WhatsApp.
If you’re a student, it’s a safe bet that you’ll receive spam about contract cheating. These companies are aggressive, bold and are not hesitant to use spam tactics to get their message heard.
2: Exploitative Marketing Message
When those companies are spamming, they’re usually doing two things. First, they’re trying to reach students that are vulnerable and afraid while also misleading about their purpose.
The essay mill spam bots on Twitter, for example, target almost exclusively students that are frustrated or worried about an assignment. These are students who may have legitimate issues with their work and need actual help.
Though the marketing message is often blunt and to the point, they often present themselves as tools to assist and help students succeed. Students that have no interest in cheating can still get sucked in.
However, they’re often at their worst when they ARE being blunt. Essay mills make ridiculous claims such as “a guaranteed grade” or “100% plagiarism-free.” These claims are false and one site’s ads are actually banned in the UK for being misleading.
In short, the contract cheating industry seeks out vulnerable students and targets them with misleading and outright false information.
3: The Service is Often a Scam
Many students that do put down money on an essay mill or other contract cheating service find out that they had been scammed.
Essay mills routinely deliver either poor quality work, work after the deadline or simply nothing at all. Worst of all, since the student has already paid, there’s little that they can do. Despite the promises of guarantees, there’s almost no way to get your money back from an essay mill.
Part of the problem is that contract cheating companies are often fly-by-night operations. A recent study by Dr. Thomas Lancaster in the International Journal for Educational Integrity found that, of contract cheating posts on Fiverr, most (58.8%) were dated from within the last month. Only 2.2% of the ones they examined in June 2016 were still active in October 2018.
It’s very easy for these companies (and individuals) to create a slew of different identities and simply shut down one and reopen another when necessary. The guarantees such providers make are functionally meaningless and a company you buy from today could disappear tomorrow.
However, even if the transaction does go off without a hitch, the lack of ethics sometimes doesn’t end when the essay is delivered.
Some students have found themselves the victim of blackmail by their essay mill. The approach is very simple, the mill tells the student to pay more money or they will turn over their name to the university. It’s especially nefarious since it is often the essay mill that pressured the student into using the service in the first place.
Though it’s unclear just how common this particular behavior is, it has been widely reported and cited, making it a real risk of using a contract cheating service.
5: Exploitative Labor Practices
Some might think that a silver lining of this industry would be that it’s at least a way for writers to make a living. However, that appears to be untrue.
According to the same study by Dr. Lancaster, the industry thrives on using low-paid labor from countries such as Kenya, Pakistan and Nigeria and the mean pricing per 1,000 words is just $5.73.
This is actually representative of a massive price drop in online essays. His June 2016 study (this one looked at October 2018) found that the mean rate, assuming that essays were 2,000 words long, was $31.73, representing a drop of over 80%.
However, as low as those rates are, the fact that individual workers are taking those amounts means that they are likely still making more there than they are using essay mills as middlemen.
In the end, it’s not just students being exploited by contract cheating websites, very little of the money spent on essays goes to the writers. As Dr. Lancaster put it, “Academic ghostwriting is a high turnover, low paid profession.”
6: Exploiting Payment Providers
Though it might be more difficult to sympathize with payment providers and processors, the truth is that nearly all of them ban essay mills and contract cheating services from using them.
The reason is quite simple: In addition to the legal concerns, there’s a high rate of chargebacks associated with such services. Because of this payment providers such as Stripe have long banned essay mills as “high risk” services. The last major provider, PayPal, put in place their own ban in April 2019.
However, essay mills seem to have no problem collecting payments, including through PayPal. This is because, due to their fly-by-night nature, they can be difficult for payment providers to spot and shut down. If they are shut down, it’s often easy to set up a new name and account.
Though payment providers can and should do more to stop essay mills, it’s also easy to see how they are being exploited too.
7: The Academic Impact
Finally, this issue should go without saying: Contract cheating is bad for students and academia at large.
Essay mills harm the students that actually put forth the work by letting those with the means simply pay to complete assignments. Even if the ghostwritten work is mediocre, it is still a slap to the students that put in the effort and actually tried.
However, it also cheats the students that are using the services. Assignments are there to assess how students are doing. Yes, a bad grade can hurt a student but it can also point to weaknesses that need to be addressed. Without accurate assessment, instructors have no way of knowing what issues a student is facing or how to help.
Every dollar that the industry makes comes at the expense of academia and that harms literally everyone that’s a part of it.
To be clear, no one expects the contract cheating industry to be a paragon of ethics. It’s an industry born from an unethical premise so it was always going to have serious issues.
However, even I am surprised at the depths that the industry has sunk to. It’s one thing to sell essays so students can cheat in a class but it’s another to do it while exploiting workers, circumventing payment provider blocks and even blackmailing your own customers.
Sadly, those depths are likely to only get lower. As new laws and regulations come online to battle contract cheating, such as a new one in Australia that threatens to jail providers and their advertisers, expect to see the industry sink even lower.
One thing that it’s shown time and time again is that it is unwilling to work within any regulations placed upon it, instead, it’s an industry that works to get around such regulations.
Until the risk is sufficiently high to deter contract cheating, expect this problem to keep getting worse.