What is Next for Essay Mills?

If you own an essay mill or a cheating website, the last few years likely haven’t been very easy.

In many countries, there’s been an ongoing campaign to make such sites illegal, including, in some cases, ordering local ISPs to block access to them. Likewise, payment processors have become less and less keen to work with such sites, with PayPal announcing they were severing ties with essay mills in April 2019.

However, as damming as those campaigns may have appeared, they’ve also had little impact. Essay mill and other contract cheating sites still thrive online, and many still take PayPal the same as they did in 2018.

But then came a different kind of threat. In November 2022, OpenAI officially launched ChatGPT to the public. This effectively blew the starting whistle on the public use of generative AI and represented an extinction-level threat for essay mill websites.

The problem is simple: Why should a student who is interested in cheating on an assignment pay money for a human-written essay when they can freely generate multiple versions of it with a simple prompt? 

This has been felt by the companies in this space. Chegg, widely considered to be the most popular cheating website, saw its shares drop nearly by nearly half in May after it disclosed that ChatGPT was eating into their business. 

But essay mills and cheating sites have always proved resilient. Just because generative AI likely means a major shift in how students cheat on essays and exams, that doesn’t mean that essay mills are going to go away.

However, it does mean that they are likely to change both what they offer and how they try to sell their product.

1: More Aggressive Marketing

Essay mills and cheating sites have a lengthy history of aggressive, manipulative and even exploitative marketing. This has included infiltrating private student groups, spamming students on X (Twitter) as well as other social platforms and using emotional/manipulative language to make students question their own abilities.

On this front, things are likely to get even worse and, in some ways, they already are. 

Yesterday, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that Chegg had enlisted the aid of TikTok influencers to promote their site in Australia. Many of the paid promotional pieces were filmed on university campuses, giving them an additional feeling of legitimacy.

Whether it’s more money being spent on promotion, more aggressive infiltration of student spaces, even more manipulative messages or a mix of all three, essay mills and cheating websites are going to ramp up their marketing efforts.

It’s also worth noting that the effort likely also try to cast doubt on AI and AI-related tools. While this might not be seen as a bad thing for teachers, it’s important to remember that essay mills also work to cast similar doubt on a student’s own work.

After all, it’s much easier to convince a student to pay for an essay if they think it’s the only way they can get a decent grade.

2: Specialization and Focus

For much of the history of essay mills, the focus was on longer, more complicated projects. This was because, in the pre-internet days, the turnaround time and expense of such services made it impractical for shorter assignments with tighter deadlines. Especially if you needed or wanted a custom paper.

However, the internet changed that. Both turnaround times and costs plummeted, and essay mills began to do more and more work on essays that were general knowledge and were smaller assignments.

The essay mill industry, as well as the broader contract cheating industry, put a focus on quantity over quality. The focus was on putting out large amounts of “good enough” work, rather than churning out small quantities of higher-quality work. 

However, that low ground is clearly being occupied by generative AI. If essay mills are going to survive long term, they’ll likely need to pivot back to providing specialized services and focus on the types of works where an AI system would likely be inadequate. 

This puts a new focus on larger projects, including theses and dissertations. While services already exist to write such projects for students, and we’ve seen PhDs lose their degree over them, the industry as a whole is likely going to have to refocus in this direction if it wants to compete with generative AI.

3: Higher Costs

This one may seem counterintuitive, and it may take some time to unfold, but it’s likely essay mills will be forced to raise, not lower, their prices.

The problem is simple: No matter how cheap an essay mill gets, it will be more expensive and less convenient than a free AI. As such, there’s little incentive to cut prices to try and better compete. 

Between that and, most likely, seeing a decrease in sales, sites that want to maintain their income will need to increase their prices and, at the same time, offer services and guarantees that they hope will justify paying.

Some of this will obviously come from the increase in specialization that’s likely coming. But it will be interesting to see what additional justifications essay mills provide for the price.

In the end, if the industry is likely to sell fewer essays, it will likely seek more money for those essays and they will have to find reasons, both marketing and practical, to justify those price hikes.

4: The Use of AI

Perhaps the most obvious next step, and the most ironic, is that we will see essay mills turn to AI to generate their content.

As we discussed above, essay mills are famous for putting quantity before quality. They have a long history of paying writers very little and tasking them with insanely high volumes of content

Those writers, either with or without the permission of the sites they work for, are likely turning to AI to lighten that burden 

In that regard, this likely less of a “next step” for essay mills and more of a current one. However, given that essay mills are already struggling to compete with AI in the cheating and plagiarism marketplace, reckonings here will be very difficult for essay mills to justify.

After all, why should a student pay for a paper primarily written by AI when they can do it themselves for free and more quickly? For most essays, the only advantage contract cheating offers is the human element. However, it’s likely that many of the papers essay mills are churning out are not as human-written as they are marketed as being.

Bottom Line

Unfortunately for academic integrity, essay mills will likely find a way to survive. Their importance has already been significantly decreased. AI has grabbed the headlines, has high levels of awareness with students, and provides both an immediate and free way for students to generate an essay.

Essay mills, on the whole, just can’t compete.

But by changing their marketing, shifting their focus and, yes, using AI, it’s likely that essay mills can carve out a niche for themselves in the future.

If beepers/pagers can find multiple niches in the 2020s, essay mills can find at least one post-AI. Though that niche will definitely be smaller and less lucrative, it means that they and cheating sites will remain a threat to academic integrity for some time.

We’ve seen this in other black hat industries. Though Google “destroyed” content farms and article spinning in February 2011, the techniques stayed around and have remained threats, albeit smaller ones, for webmasters and authors even today. They also evolved and found new markets, such as creating automated “paraphrasing” tools meant to help bypass plagiarism detectors

So while it’s virtually certain that essay mills will have a decreased presence in the coming years, don’t expect them to go away or disappear. They will shift focus and adapt, they will find niches that AI can’t or won’t serve and will still attempt to sell their services to students at all levels.

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