Essay mills – companies that connect paying students to freelance shadow authors – are in the news again. The current debate is about banning them by law. A legal ban, however, could simply nudge these companies abroad, or even just turn into websites that allow students to advertise for authors directly and anonymously; or even international peer-to-peer networks. Essay mills do seem curiously old-fashioned, reminiscent of a time when information was an expensive commodity.
There are, of course, other debates beyond the headlines: that writing essays for cash is one of the few jobs that fits around a zero-hours contract (and if graduates had better jobs they would stop writing them); or that if students didn’t have to work three jobs to support their studies, they could do their own essays. There are many problems attached to paying someone to write your essay so I wanted to share my reasons why students should just say no.
1. Harsh penalties
The penalties are harsher than you might imagine. At many UK universities, for example, you can be permanently expelled, even on a first offence. Penalties vary by country and by university but are often still pretty stern. Imagine being suspended for a year, or even a semester. You’d lose pace with your peers, graduate later, and may not be given a reference.
2. Fool no more
Purchased essays fool plagiarism software. Right? That’s their main selling point. Well perhaps for now; but remember that agreement you signed for your essays to be stored in the software’s database forever more? As the software improves in the future, it will systematically detect subtle linguistic differences between your various essays, casting doubt on which ones you actually wrote (if any).
3. Career impact
Think about all the other essays that your shadow author writes, for other clients. Those are all stored in the database too. Not a problem for now; but similarly, future improved software will find similarities in the way that each shadow author writes. If you deny it, but their past clients confess, where does that leave you? Evidence of contract cheating can lead to a degree being formally revoked at any point in the future. Even if your university isn’t so strict, your employer could be. There have been several high-profile cases of politicians feeling the heat as reporters check their old university work and find plagiarism. If you’re exposed in future, by person or by machine, consider the impact on your career.
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4. On the record
Even in the short term, before plagiarism software improves, the essay mill itself is a big liability for you. They will have records and emails identifying you as a client. They may boast confidentiality, including between you and your shadow author, but they are susceptible to data breaches or court orders. They may have a good record, but good records end.
5. No guarantee of anonymity
Essay mills (even peer-to-peer networks) can’t actually guarantee anonymity from shadow authors. Many authors are in fact current students, or even part-time staff (there are plenty of zero-hours contracts in academia); and wherever they are in the world, they can access the same plagiarism software as you, where they could submit “your” essay as their own and flag up yours as a perfect match. That match won’t show your name, but it will show your university. If they had a crisis of conscience, or just felt randomly vindictive, they could contact your university with evidence that they wrote it; the university could then easily identify you. For the author, it would be a blessed relief without consequence. For you, it could be career-ending.
If you find a shadow author directly, without anonymity, they have a whole new business opportunity once the essay is in: extorting you for money under threat of exposing you. A nice income stream for them, well into the future. Perhaps they boast verifiable client feedback showing their trustworthiness; but extorted former clients don’t leave negative feedback. They keep quiet, and keep paying.
So, don’t do it. The risks outweigh the benefits, now and in the future.
On a more positive note, if you’re in difficulty then engage with your university’s support services. There are options to extend deadlines, get financial help, defer, transfer course, or transfer university. Tackling such problems can feel harder than the easy fix of a shadow author, but the consequences are far worse. Additionally if you've already submitted an essay that wasn't written by you, there is the option to redo plagiarised coursework by resitting a module.