According to a recent UK Government-backed review, academics are topping up their earnings by writing for “essay mill” sites which help students to cheat in their assignments. S. A. Mills was one of those academics and recounts the experience here; offering an insight into the allure of such opportunities for those either out of work or in precarious positions, as well as the transactional nature of working for these services and with their clients.
Please note the author’s name has been changed.
New proposals to crack down on “essay mill” sites are arguably overdue. This is a £100 million industry largely cornered by online companies. These essay mill companies provide the service of “contract cheating” for students willing to pay for someone else to write their coursework. That someone else is, in effect, a “ghost writer”.
I was such a ghost writer. I was not familiar with essay mills or contract cheating when, having Googled “academic writer”, I found details of the post online. The notice merely asked those interested to provide a resumé, brief covering letter, and copy of their academic certificates. At the time I had been without income for a number of months. Because I was in need of some – any – income, it seemed a reasonable option, especially after having had several unsuccessful interviews for academic jobs. Having signed up, I received meagre fees to produce “model essays”, competing with other academics for writing briefs while I looked for my next post.
The telephone “interview” was far from demanding. Perhaps anticipating concerns, the company sought to offer some reassurance with what seemed a stock response: my job would be to produce model essays that would support clients to produce their own work. Anyone found using the service for an illegitimate purpose would be in breach of company policy and be banned from using the service again. If this was an honest intention it would have been easy to police. But in reality, incidents of misuse were seemingly ignored. For example, on several occasions I had the opportunity to improve a piece of work to a higher grade than previously received. More than once, what I was expected to improve was identical to what I had submitted earlier. The client had not engaged with it but rather passed it of as their own and, tellingly, the company had not taken any action.
I could bid for as many or as few pieces of work at a time as I wanted, on whatever subject areas took my interest, provided I could make a reasonable case that I had the expertise to write. Aside from providing an income, I saw the work as a chance to brush up on areas I had previously been interested in, and to learn newish areas while getting paid. I think I produced good work more often than not, taking pride in several of the pieces I submitted. Indeed, there were some I would have been proud to have put my name to. Other times I would go for “C” grade work and write something quick and dirty that was simply passable. Being asked to produce model work to a particular standard seemed somewhat strange, but when you have bills to pay you tend not to enquire.
Image credit: Drummond Mill Chimney by Tim Green. This work is licensed under a CC BY 2.0 license.
Quality control and alterations
The process did not end when I submitted the essay. Usually, the work would be “quality controlled” within 48 hours. Because this could require a quick turnaround, it often left me chained to my email, waiting to hear if changes were necessary. I considered quality control to be more of a quantitative, tick-box exercise, because whenever I was even one word short of 50 below what was stipulated I would incur a fee adjustment. Spelling and grammar were other targets. My observation was that more often than not there was much less focus on the substance of the content. The company would argue that the fee reflected the expense of having to check and recheck the brief – something about duplicated effort, and time spent sending a quality control failure email, etc. The financial penalty was one thing, but this seemed an odd way of doing academia – through financial punishment. It was disparaging and an insult to my capabilities as an academic. But then these companies are not remotely “academic”.
The purpose of the model essay as a learning tool was most clearly contradicted by the process of meeting the client’s alteration requests. Clients were permitted to request amendments to work within a specified timeframe after submission. It was reasonable for clients to request changes if the writer had failed to capture the initial essay question. If the demand was invalid (e.g. asking for something not in the initial brief) or made after the specified timeframe, this would carry an additional fee payable to the writer. I would be asked if I wanted to tackle the alterations and also to suggest the additional fee, up to a certain point. The company would then, I understand, charge the client three times that amount.
The process required me to refer to tracked changes and comments, which I found odd, to say the least, as on reading the requests I wondered why the student – who at the outset was supposed to be “competent but just lacking in their English writing/grammar” – suddenly appeared so clued up on the changes to be made. It would be reasonable to ask why the student did not just make the changes her/himself, or even why she/he hadn’t just written the work in the first place. It was not difficult to draw the conclusion that I was not only writing students’ coursework but almost certainly also rewriting it based on supervisor comments. The model essay was a façade.
On the few occasions I worked on Master’s degree works, I had contact with the client via a telephone link. For all undergraduate works a company buffer would serve as an email intermediary. On being asked to write amendments, I would work from both the feedback of the marker and the client’s requests. The latter were often easy to spot as they were so poorly written, leading me to assume many were students whose first language was not English. On several occasions I was explicitly provided work for students in a foreign country.
It is expected that clients use the model essay to learn and be inspired to write their own coursework. There is nothing illegal in firms providing such a service, nor in me or others producing such works, at the time of writing. The onus is on the clients to use the service correctly. If she/he used the product for the incorrect purpose of plagiarism, she or he alone was in the wrong legally. I cannot put a figure on what percentage actually used it for the intended purpose or not. I do wonder how clients interacted with the “model essay” and what role they perceived it to have.
Ghost-writing was not a lucrative post. To earn anything approaching a liveable income required writing as many works as possible. I would have to work on three or four briefs per week, for which I would be lucky to make £300. Because it was a seasonal business, with peaks and troughs, I would grab every opportunity. During peak periods (March-June and around Christmas) I would barely take a day off as there would be a constant stream of briefs to complete; often four or more per week, ranging from 1,000 words to 5,000. This left very little time for job hunting; leaving me in a vicious cycle.
The empire strikes back
In October, the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), the university standards watchdog, proposed UK Government-backed guidance to address these issues. There is now a move to address the matter of academics who write model essays as a means of topping up their income. Academic work is, for many, precarious, with short-term contract posts and staff redundancy. The work I did was between posts to provide my sole income because working for an essay mill was a better option than benefits. But there are academics with posts who will use it as a chance to supplement their salaries, particularly if they are not well-paid.
Douglas Blackstock, the Chief Executive of the QAA has noted how “you wouldn’t want a lawyer representing you in a court case [if they had not passed their Law degree on their own]. If it was a medical related profession or something that [impacted on] public safety – that is such a dangerous thing”. But actually, the problem begins when the student applies to a university, with ghost writers often employed to write the personal statement in support of their application. This is another service available to students, and one that I provided. Apart from the obvious problem of students gaining entry at least partly on the basis of statements written by other people, the possibility exists that these companies are gathering repeat customers as the same students seek model essays.
Essay mills are businesses providing a product to be used in academia. They do not provide an academic service, because there is no engagement with the student to provide training – the only interaction being financial. These private companies have identified a demand that can be met, and do so handsomely.
If a student is struggling with coursework demands, or truly finds writing difficult, spending their way out of the challenge should not be the answer. But knowledge is for sale and so this might seem a natural option. This problem will probably not go away by merely ensuring more student support from overstretched lecturers because the use of essay mills is a normalised and viable option for some. The problem of online cheating is deeper and more pervasive than first thought.
Please note the author’s name has been changed.
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