Sometimes as I decide what kind of papers to assign to my students, I worry about essay mills, companies whose sole purpose is to generate essays for high school and college students (in exchange for a fee, of course).
The mills claim that the papers are meant to be used as reference material to help students write their own, original papers. But with names such as echeat.com, it's pretty clear what their real purpose is.
Professors in general are concerned about essay mills and their effect on learning, but not knowing exactly what they provide, I wasn't sure how concerned to be. So together with my lab manager Aline Grüneisen, I decided to check the services out. We ordered a typical college term paper from four different essay mills. The topic of the paper? Cheating.
Here is the prompt we gave the four essay mills:
"When and why do people cheat? Consider the social circumstances involved in dishonesty, and provide a thoughtful response to the topic of cheating. Address various forms of cheating (personal, at work, etc.) and how each of these can be rationalized by a social culture of cheating."
We requested a term paper for a university-level social psychology class, 12 pages long, using 15 sources (cited and referenced in a bibliography). The paper was to conform to American Psychological Assn. style guidelines and needed to be completed in the next two weeks. All four of the essay mills agreed to provide such a paper, charging us in advance, between $150 and $216 for the paper.
Right on schedule, the essays came, and I have to say that, to some degree, they allayed my fears that students can rely on the services to get good grades. What we got back from the mills can best be described as gibberish. A few of the papers attempted to mimic APA style, but none achieved it without glaring errors. Citations were sloppy. Reference lists contained outdated and unknown sources, including blog posts. Some of the links to reference material were broken.
And the writing quality? Awful. The authors of all four papers seemed to have a very tenuous grasp of the English language, not to mention how to format an essay. Paragraphs jumped bluntly from one topic to another, often simply listing various forms of cheating or providing a long stream of examples that were never explained or connected to the "thesis" of the paper.
One paper contained this paragraph: "Cheating by healers. Healing is different. There is harmless healing, when healers-cheaters and wizards offer omens, lapels, damage to withdraw, the husband-wife back and stuff. We read in the newspaper and just smile. But these days fewer people believe in wizards."
This comes from another: "If the large allowance of study undertook on scholar betraying is any suggestion of academia and professors' powerful yearn to decrease scholar betraying, it appeared expected these mind-set would component into the creation of their school room guidelines."
And finally, these gems:
"By trusting blindfold only in stable love, loyalty, responsibility and honesty the partners assimilate with the credulous and naive persons of the past."
"Women have a much greater necessity to feel special."
"The future generation must learn for historical mistakes and develop the sense of pride and responsibility for its actions."
It's hard to believe that students purchasing such papers would ever do so again.
And the story does not end there. We submitted the four essays to WriteCheck.com, a website that inspects papers for plagiarism, and found that two of the papers were 35% to 39% copied from existing works. We decided to take action on the two papers with substantial plagiarizing and contacted the essay mills requesting our money back. Despite the solid proof we provided to them, the companies insisted they did not plagiarize. One company even threatened to expose us by calling the dean and saying we had purchased the paper.
It's comforting in a way that the technological revolution has not yet solved students' problems. They still have no other option but to actually work on their papers (or maybe cheat in the old-fashioned way and copy from friends). But I do worry about the existence of essay mills and the signal that they send to our students.
As for our refund, we are still waiting.
Dan Ariely is a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University and the author of "The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty."