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Raising awareness of essay mills: How essay mills frame themselves as “help"

Contract cheating awareness

Recognizing how essay mills target struggling students and market themselves as “help” can be a first step in building contract cheating awareness

Audrey Campbell
Audrey Campbell

As students, instructors, and administrators continue to increase their awareness of trends in academic misconduct, so, too, are essay mills upping the ante when it comes to extending their reach. Using predatory tactics that target stressed, struggling students, essay mills are finding a way to appeal to students in their moment of need.

It is important to understand how it is they are marketing themselves to students so that educators can mitigate their reach. It is also essential that educators support students on their learning journey and help them to feel seen, so that they are less vulnerable to these marketing strategies.

Here are some ways essay mills have framed themselves as “help” in educational settings around the world.

They advertise themselves as writing support. Under the guise of “writing help,” essay mills pretend that they are supporting struggling students. These companies are attempting to call themselves “writing assistance services” that are “trustworthy provider[s]” of material students can use to improve their own writing. Some claim to provide “thousands and thousands of free papers” which students can use “as the foundation of [their] own piece.”

A student in need may be drawn in by the supportive, empathetic tone of the article, feeling understood by these companies who are offering to help improve their writing. But this reassuring tone is, in fact, misleading: What is not mentioned is that these materials are actually ghostwritten essays that students use to represent their own work. The use of essay mills is a form of misconduct; therefore, these services ultimately subvert authentic learning and do not, in the end, help writers seeking support.

What struggling students need in these situations are legitimate resources, supported by empathetic instructors that truly see them, identify their potential, and employ feedback loops to guide them in improving their own writing. Students and instructors alike should be wary of any essay mills parading as writing models or help in this manner.

They make themselves available where students congregate online. In addition to posting on social media–where stressed students may scroll at the eleventh hour without the presence of an educator–many essay mills are paying for advertisement spots on a variety of channels, sustaining the façade that they provide legitimate services. In fact, research suggests that contract cheating businesses employ automation tools on social media channels, like Twitter, to generate leads specific to their subject area.

This paid advertisement from an American online syndication highlights several companies that offer “expertly crafted free essay samples” to download as “models worth following or emulating.” Another online sponsored ad boasts reviewing the “TOP-3 Professional Academic Writing Services to Help You Through College” and strategically uses positive language in order to normalize the use of essay mills as a tenable writing resource, stating:

“Practical uses of this unique website include spotting new topics and content presentation ideas, creating an outline for your paper based on proper samples, and discovering new sources for your work in relevant samples. Kudos to the company for building a resource where students can find the best writing examples to learn from without violating any point in the academic integrity code.”

By advertising online in local and regional sites, these essay mills position themselves as a reputable writing resource, reaching students outside of the classroom.

They advertise themselves as an academic partner for research professionals. The cliché “Publish or perish” within academia still holds true for many around the world. When it comes to individuals seeking a promotion, increasing an institution’ s reputation, or in some extreme cases, merely keeping a position, the pressure to publish is often so great, support may be sought outside the norm.

Dr. Anna Abalkina, who focuses on academic fraud at the Free University of Berlin, has observed an increase in essay mill usage at the publishing level, saying she “believed the trade in ghostwritten journal papers was growing rapidly as scholars seeking publication by nefarious means turned away from low-quality predatory journals and towards businesses that guaranteed them publication in recognised outlets.”

Instead of merely writing a paper for a high price, these ghostwriting companies offer a “co-authorship” opportunity for those in need of a byline in a published journal. “Many scholars [are] turning to businesses such as International Publisher LLC, which offers the opportunity to become a co-author of a manuscript that is already accepted for publication by a journal.”

The papers for sale are known to utilize plagiarized materials from foreign-language PhD theses or from trade journals, then translated into English, costing upwards of €5,000 ($5,718) for a first authorship in a reputable journal. Individuals who do not grasp the true cost of contract cheating to academic integrity, may feel the pressure to seize this “opportunity” to publish. Instead of helping to facilitate innovation and share new ideas, these mills flagrantly take advantage of customers in their time of need and perpetuate a cycle of academic dishonesty. The consequences are vast and the impact of this misconduct is immeasurable: to the academic, this may result in censure by the community; to the institution, a scandal may incur; and the dissemination of such papers can endanger accurate information and overall research integrity.

They advertise themselves as “plagiarism-free.” This post reached out to a Spanish-speaking demographic, trumpeting the value of what they dubbed “‘la opción gratuita y en español de Turnitin creada por Ayuda Universitaria’ [the free Spanish Turnitin option created by University Help].”

Right away, the article makes an effort to place the business on the right side of integrity. It emphasizes “[l]a importancia de los software antiplagio [the importance of anti-plagiarism software]” and explains that it is, indeed, a crime to appropriate the intellectual property of another. It claims to offer a completely free Spanish option for ensuring originality, detailing how Ayuda Universitaria scans the internet for matches in order to detect plagiarism.

However, upon visiting the mentioned website directly, it is immediately clear that there is more available than just “plagiarism checking.” One can select what type of project is needed, the cost of that project, read reviews/ratings, and then purchase a paper for a specific degree. By utilizing key search words within the article itself (“plagiarism software” and “Turnitin”), this company not only strategically lures potential customers to their website, but also works hard to position themselves as an affordable integrity solution. And while essay mill papers are technically free of plagiarism–bespoke pieces of content written for a specific assignment or degree–students who aren’t aware that papers written by a third party are still an egregious form of misconduct may fall prey to this tactic.

Whether it’s framing themselves as “help” or simply misrepresenting their offerings in order to appeal to students and academic professionals in need, make no mistake that these essay mills are still a business. They charge a fee and sell opportunities for misconduct; that is, when an individual involves a third party to complete an assignment, which they then represent as their own work. Especially in remote learning, it is essential for students, instructors, and administrators alike to understand the impact of these essay mills on academic integrity and differentiate between disreputable claims and legitimate resources to support writing.

Bottom line: essay mills endanger original thinking and original ideas and erode the integrity of institutions.

Essay mills are a growing market, with over 1,000 listed in the United Kingdom alone. Join members of the QAA Academic Integrity Advisory Group on the 12th of April as they discuss the risks associated with using contract cheating services.