Essay Mills

It’s good that these nefarious scams are being caught out.

I first came across them about twenty years ago – when I was still in the university teaching business – from a notice pinned on my History Department notice board offering essay-writing services to students. The fees varied according to the grade required: so, a First-Class essay would cost £50, an upper-second £30, and so on. (I’m not sure of the exact sums.) At that time we were used to dealing with plagiarism, which was comparatively easy to spot even before search engines were devised for this purpose: students were stupid enough to cite books they couldn’t possibly have read, or you could tell from their writing style, and so on.  (I remember once pencilling ‘pompous’ in the margin of one essay, until it dawned on me that it had been copied from a book of one of my old supervisors, who was pompous.) But of course paying someone else to write original essays is harder to spot. It’s more akin to forgery.

Later I came across another type of commercial cheating, with a company based in Michigan offering for sale notes of my lectures taken and sold to them by a spy in my class at Yale. I drew attention to this with the Yale authorities, who I think put an end to it there; and I later published an article on it in the Guardian, which is still on the web:

The root cause of this seems to be the reduction of university education to a market commodity; and, behind that, the idea that its first purpose is to assess and grade students. I remember objecting to this many years ago – far too early for my articles on it to have found their way on to the internet – arguing that examinations and classification at the very least distracted from and at worst could distort genuine ‘education’, and suggesting that employers who relied on them should instead set their own exams, suited to the kind of employment they were offering. (Some of course – Law, the Civil Service – do.) As a university teacher I often found that there was a gulf, even an incompatibility, between teaching students to question, learn and understand, which was our real purpose, and coaching them to pass exams. I would rather they weren’t assessed at all.  Another benefit of that would be to deter students who only came to university in order to get good jobs afterwards.

About bernardporter2013

Retired academic, author, historian.
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2 Responses to Essay Mills

  1. TJ says:

    When I was teaching in the US 15 years ago plagiarism had become endemic, almost in inverse proportion to the rigorous insistence on properly referenced papers (essays), and there was even software available for its detection. The commercialisation of higher education was largely responsible with pressure on students to obtain higher grades and justify the growing expense of their courses. What a contrast to forty years ago when even at Oxford attitudes to formal referencing were more relaxed, perhaps because gentlemen were not expected to cheat!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Phil says:

    The point about ridiculously obscure sources rings true. I’ve metaphorically beat my head against the wall trying to identify actual, verifiable plagiarism in some essays – the argument and even the diction seemed believable, but why would (and how could) an undergraduate in 21st century Manchester be referring to an American legal textbook dated 1959, or an unpublished conference paper delivered in Melbourne in 1987?

    The effort and ingenuity that go into some of these creations are depressing to contemplate – you’d think it would be easier just to write the damn essay. Although, of course, if the student isn’t the one making the effort, I can see how it might seem to work for them.


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