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Essays for sale – using paper mill sites

By Margaret Adolphus

Essays – curse or blessing?

Writing essays is one of the lesser celebrated benefits of an academic course. Most students view them as a chore which interrupts the more serious business of life such as earning money or socializing, and yet essays help students develop a whole range of skills. They can:

  • Improve your written communication. Getting good at writing essays means you have a greater ability to express your thoughts clearly and succinctly, without using unnecessary words.
  • Enhance your research and information-gathering skills. You will learn where to look and how to evaluate what you find.
  • Develop your analytical ability. This kind of writing makes you synthesize information, build an argument and generally encourage your thinking and problem solving.
  • Put a premium on meticulousness. Good academic writing demands correct citation of sources.
  • Make you more skilful at planning, managing time and juggling priorities. Writing an essay is seldom the only major thing you will have on your plate, and will need somehow to be integrated with the rest of your life.
  • Hone your editing and proofreading skills. It can be difficult to proofread your own work, but a useful skill to acquire – especially when you come to write important reports for the board.
  • Last, but not least, speed up your typing. Keyboard skills are essential in the digital age.

In spite of all this, a whole new industry has grown up around providing students with "off-the-peg" and customized solutions to the essay problem. Known as "essays for sale" or "paper mills", these online essay services are widely used by students, while being condemned as plagiarism by academics.

What are paper mills?

Paper mill is a term used for an organization which uses the Internet to market a databank of pre-written essays. Some also offer a customized writing service that is sometimes called ghostwriting. They are commercial concerns, mostly providing essays in return for a fee. They are not the only sources of coursework: other sites on the "visible Web" include papers posted by lecturers, conference submissions posted on relevant sites, and students posting their own work so they can copy from one another.

Sites are also growing where students can post their assignments and accept offers from suitably qualified professionals to complete the work for a fee. For example, a well used site on computer programming relies on many thousands of programmers offering their services.

According to a report in The Guardian (Taylor and Butt, 2006), the paper mill industry was estimated to be worth £200 million a year in 2006 in the UK. In the USA, the Kimbel Library of Coastal Carolina University listed over 250 commonly used sites [November 2006].

Such sites have been available on the Internet since 1996, and there is no doubt that the Web has facilitated the industry's growth, both by making it easier to contact providers and by vastly increasing the amount of material available for reuse by student writers. In fact, the Internet has given plagiarism a new variant – cyberplagiarism, where people cut and paste material from websites in the (mistaken) belief that such material is public property and commonly owned.

The paper mill sites vary a lot in what they offer and what they charge – many charge per page with fees starting at less than US$10 to around US$15-19. Almost always, the price increases steeply for a rapid turnaround. Top-end ghostwriting services can charge over £1,000 for a customized essay at master's level. What they all have in common, however, is that they claim to be better than one another, and most adopt an almost holier than thou attitude towards plagiarism, which they accuse their fellow providers of furthering.

In its pricing information section of the website, Paper Masters claims that cheaper, online essay providers' articles are cut and pasted from the Internet, and guarantees that its papers are not plagiarized. Similarly, MasterPapers.com also claims that all its papers are checked for plagiarism.

Not all sites, however, adopt the moral high ground: Tailored Essays seems to wash its hands of possible moral qualms as it claims that,

"We are not going to edify anyone about the moral issues of plagiarism, because this is not our business. Our business is providing quality model essays that satisfy the customer's specifications. Our business ends here and we leave that moral dilemma to the customer" [http://www.tailoredessays.com/faq.htm#q8].

Other agencies sidestep the issue. A spokesman for Elizabeth Hall Associates commented:

"It's technically plagiarism, but you won't be caught as the essay is written specially for you. The way that people are usually caught is that they use essays from databanks."

But surely it's risky to submit work that you haven't originated?

"We are in an area of semantics – if you submit work that you haven't done that is plagiarism, but you won't be caught as the essay will be pertinent to your need."

Many services play to the pressures students are under – pressures that are very real in an age when study is often combined with earning and supporting a family. They use life's unpredictability as a marketing tool:

MasterPapers.com claims to:

"empower students to handle unexpected emergencies ... as well as take advantage of unexpected opportunities".

Elizabeth Hall Associates flatters potential clients, pointing out that MBA students are often highly successful people who are too busy to have time to write essays.

Tailored Essays says it is selling time:

"We understand that for various reasons, there might be other issues on top of the student's priority list."

Life can, indeed, be full of surprises. However, many programmes, especially those leading to professional qualifications, argue that the ability to juggle priorities is one of the skills that they would expect their students to develop as they will certainly need it when in the world of work.

Many of the more reputable essay-selling services, in addition to carrying warnings against plagiarism, state that their products should only be used as examples, and should be credited in the user's bibliography. However, there is little recognition that no marker would see these as reliable or authoritative sources, nor that students might be buying them at the last minute with little option but to pass them off as their own work.

Why do students use paper mills?

There are a number of reasons why students cheat or plagiarize. Any study will turn up a mix of justifications, explanations and rationalizations such as:

  • Students are under considerable pressure, having to fit their studies around other commitments, and many have to work to support themselves or are studying part time.
  • Students are unaware of the implications of what they are doing, and have little understanding of what plagiarism is. In particular, the growth of the Internet has led to a confused understanding of the nature of authorship – students believe that what they download is "public domain" and that originality is not important.
  • They are motivated by the wish to get a qualification – they are not really concerned how they get it, and they may eschew effort or activity which they consider irrelevant.
  • They are under real pressure to get good grades – from their parents, from future employers, and from graduate school.
  • Many students are classed as international students, with English as a second (or indeed third) language, and therefore struggle to write assignments in a foreign tongue, as well as with the concept of what is required.
  • Their tutors make it easy by providing "general" essay subjects which are easy to find on paper mill sites.

Why is it a good thing to avoid using paper mills?

It may be easy to be seduced by the convenience of paper mills, particularly when you are under pressure. However, there are plenty of good reasons for avoiding unauthorized use and passing off their products as your own.

Educational reasons

  • It misses the whole idea of what education should be about – which is analysing other people's ideas, presenting them in your own words and articulating your own thoughts. If you avoid this work you will struggle at exam time as you will have little to base your revision on.
  • You lose the opportunity to develop the skills that essay writing brings.
  • Many of the essays are in fact plagiarized from other sources, and even if you submit a paper which is guaranteed by the paper mill to be "unplagiarized", you are still cheating in that you are passing off someone else's work as your own.
  • Sometimes, students download essays and use them as references. However, these essays are not authoritative academic documents: the sources they list may not be the best, or the most current:

"I have had naive students cite cheat sites and essay banks in their bibliography/reference list at the end of coursework. They are genuinely surprised when they are told that these are not seen as authoritative or, indeed, useful sources. They also misunderstand what is meant by 'plagiarism'. One of the sites even has the splendid phrase, 'Students don't want to waste their time doing all this research so we do it for them'. A student who is using someone else's research and passing it off as his or her own is as much plagiarizing as using someone else's words and passing them off as their own would be. Plagiarism is when you submit someone else's work (both in the noun and the verb sense of someone else's effort) as your own" (Jude Carroll, director of the Assessment Standards Knowledge Exchange (ASKe), Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, Oxford Brookes University).

Pragmatic reasons

  • You may well be caught – many lecturers are wise to the existence of paper mills, and 80 per cent of lecturers in the UK use the text-matching software (often called plagiarism detection software) Turnitin, which checks submitted documents against a vast database of billions of pages of current and archived material, and returns a report on the essay's originality.
  • Paying others to do your work can be expensive. If you take a cost of US$20 per page for a 12 page essay, that is US$240 – rather a lot for one essay. As ever, you get what you pay for: the cheaper options carry a high risk that the paper you are being sold is plagiarized from somewhere else, while some of the top of the range ghostwriting services charge over US$1,000 for a master's level essay.

Quality issues

  • Purchasing an "off-the-peg" essay is not like buying an item of clothing – what you are looking for is something very specific, and the paper mill may not have exactly what you want. For example, one search for an essay on Mozart's operas included essays comparing particular operas, as well as ones on Verdi's and Wagner's operas, and on Mozart's non-operatic works.
  • Paper mills make promises of quality – such as their writers are educated to master's level. Despite this, the end product is often disappointing and there can be little opportunity for redress.

In a joint investigation by the BBC and Professor Charles Oppenheim, an academic at Loughborough University, essays from a paper mill site which promised essays of guaranteed 2.1 quality were marked, and judged to be at a significantly poorer standard than claimed (Levinson, 2005).

Here are sample essays that we found – see if you can spot the problems markers might have with them:

  • "Marketing include 4 Ps for marketing mix that is product, place, price and promotion. Product is the good, which is the company want to manufacture. Place is the place where the company sell the product. Price is the value of goods in the society and promotion show products to customers, e.g. advertising, newspaper, etc." (Extract from "powerful" essay from 123helpme!com).
  • "The Byzantine Empire is the longest running empire in the history of man kind that ruled for over a thousand years." (Sample essay from Essaysonthedot.com).
  • "The combined effects of the globalisation, the dematerialisation of economic activity, the acceleration of technological and social change, and the emergence of new trends toward a service society and the information age." (Sample term paper from MasterPapers.com).

Are there any good uses of paper mills?

One of the difficulties students experience is knowing the standard of work they should be producing. While most universities have study support units which teach the craft of essay writing, not all share examples with students. Without examples their advice can appear abstract. "Models", on the other hand, can mean students "get it" faster, as good course tutors well know when they show students past examples.

Paper mills can be one way to examine examples. They help answer questions such as: what is meant by a research essay or a dissertation? What is the accepted discourse style?

One site that actually sells essays purely as examples, and which watermarks them to prevent plagiarism, is Coursework.Info. Students are encouraged to rate them; there is however no authoritative faculty-based assessment.

However, it is always essential to look at these essays critically, and not assume that just because they are for sale or on the Internet they are of sufficient quality to be used as exemplars. Even more care is needed before using them as potential reference material.

Fiona Duggan, deputy director of Northumbria Learning and adviser to JISC Plagiarism Advisory Service, believes that there's a need for a provider of "model" essays, but which has essays marked by tutors as opposed to students and listed as good, bad, etc. She believes that as things are currently, the main value of essays lies in helping combat writer's block – you can see how someone else has tackled the problem:

"They are more on the level of turning on a light bulb than a serious journal article."

Some lecturers use free essays as teaching tools, getting students to mark them according to assessment criteria which would be applied to their own work (Carroll and Appleton, 2001), or to emphasize a particular point, for example the importance of proper citation.

"Free essays often have very few [citations]. Spotting what needs a citation or would be stronger with one is a constructive way to use the free sites for teaching ... I'm also making the point that by citing, students do so much more than avoid plagiarism. They show they know where to look, what counts as authoritative sources, that they know what information is contestable, that they understand basic politeness, etc." (Jude Carroll).

The bad news is, there is no getting round the need for the hard graft of essay writing: the research, the organization and the slog of writing. The good news, however, is that the more you do it the better you get. Essays from paper mills could have their value – as examples, possibly as inspiration – but never as authoritative pieces of work in their own right.

References

Carroll, J. and Appleton, J. (2001), "Designing out opportunities for plagiarism", Good Practice Guide, © JISC 2001, available at http://www.jiscpas.ac.uk/teachingpractice_guide2.php [accessed July 1 2009].

Levinson, H. (2005), "Internet essays prove poor buys", BBC News, April 7, available at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/4420845.stm [accessed July 1 2009].

Taylor, M. and Butt, R. (2006), "Q: How do you make £1.6m a year and drive a Ferrari? A: Sell essays for £400", The Guardian, July 29, available at http://education.guardian.co.uk/higher/news/story/0,,1834073,00.html [accessed July 1 2009].

Editor's note

We are grateful to Jude Carroll for her assistance in producing this article.