Last week, Slate published an anonymous article from an author who, according to their story, served as an essay mill ghostwriter for several months during the pandemic.
Their story starts as one that will be familiar to many. Saddled with student debt and facing dwindling job opportunities due to the pandemic, they were approached by a friend with a job offer.
That job was to serve as an academic ghostwriter for a popular essay mill site and, after applying and going through a brief interview, they had their first assignment within 24 hours. From then on, they worked on a steady stream of essays, anywhere between 10 per week during summer months to up to 40 per week during peak periods.
Though eventually, they decided they couldn’t justify the practice anymore and went back to their previous jobs as things began to open back up, they wanted to share what he had learned from his time working in an essay mill.
To that end, there were several key takeaways that, while maybe not completely surprising, are definitely worth noting.
1: The Pandemic Increased Essay Mill Business
According to the article, the reason the company was eager to hire them was because the site had seen a “30% increase” in sales as students moved to distance learning.
While it’s been widely suspected that the pandemic and the quick switch to distance learning had brought about more academic integrity issues, this is an interesting look at that from the supply side.
Simply put, this person’s site (and others like it) saw an increase in sales because more students were turning to them, the question is why?
2: Who Was Doing it and Why
Though many of the customers fit the mold of the stereotypical “lazy rich kid” many associate with essay mills, many more did not.
There were many non-native English speakers that were struggling with essay writing. In many cases, due to the pandemic, they had been separated from the writing centers and tutors they had come to depend upon and saw cheating as their only hope.
Others, were simply people that were facing problems outside the classroom. Whether they were single parents trying to juggle work, kids and school, students facing mental health issues or just students that got overwhelmed, many clients simply felt like they didn’t have a choice, even if they couldn’t afford it.
3: The Role of the Parents
It’s often assumed that parents are a non-factor in these issues as they are either unaware of the cheating or, at the very least, discouraging of it. However, this was not the case according to this article.
Some parents even went as far as to request and purchase the essay without the student’s involvement. This was especially common with wealthier students, whose parents were taking every shortcut possible to give their kids an advantage.
However, this means that we can’t dismiss the role of parents and family in contract cheating and that this may be an area calling for greater outreach.
4: The Money
The cost of an essay mill paper varies wildly from site to site and service to service. I managed to purchase an article for my site for just $10 on Fiverr, and many such sites employ relatively cheap labor from around the world to keep their costs low.
However, the anonymous author of this story was able to make some fairly decent money through contract cheating. Though that amount would dip below $500 per week during summer months, during peak times it was up to $2,000 per week.
However, to get to $2,000 per week, they had to write some 40 essays, something they described as “a numbing amount of writing.” While this is difficult to translate into a likely annual income, it’s safe to say that it’s more than many freelance writers make today. However, it comes at the expense of having an absolutely insane workload (not to mention the ethical issues).
5: The Desperation
While there are certainly students who can do the work but chose not to and writers that actually want to and prefer to write for an essay mill, it’s also clear that this is a system largely driven by desperation.
Students that are desperate to get the grades they need turn to writers in desperate for work to complete an unethical transaction that it is probable neither party is happy about participating in. Students are often spending more than they can afford to get essays from writers carrying extremely high case loads just to make ends meet.
While difficult to have much sympathy for those that write for and those that use essay mills, many of those that are involved in the system do not feel that they are there by choice. It’s a port of last resort for everyone involved.
As this conversation around contract cheating continues, stories like this one are important. They give us a peek behind the current on who is engaging in these practices and why. That why may give us answers into what we can do to prevent students from ever considering one in the first place.
We can’t stop every lazy student who doesn’t care about cheating or every unethical writer who’s looking for any paycheck, but much of what makes this system work is built upon people feeling that they are desperate and have no choice.
Fortunately, much of this is related to issues we can address. Though educators can’t fix systemic issues that put students in bad positions, they can work to support those students and give them better alternatives.
Someone who knows that they have a choice isn’t going to be nearly as desperate as someone who feels that they have nowhere to turn.