Essay mills ‘under threat from rise of ChatGPT’

Students turning to AI to generate answers undermines business case of contract cheating industry

March 2, 2023
Source: iStock

The emergence of chatbots and other writing tools powered by artificial intelligence may pose a far greater threat to the future of essay mills than legislation has proved to be, experts said.

There are early signs that firms which specialise in selling assignments are already having to shift their business models in the face of more students using the likes of ChatGPT to generate answers of a similar or better quality to what they may have been tempted to buy previously.

“I think that contract cheating providers will need to offer something special to differentiate their offer from machine-written text. The type of run-of-the-mill and quickly written essays that exist now just won’t have a market,” said Thomas Lancaster, a senior teaching fellow in computing at Imperial College London.

“Students might be willing to pay a higher price for something that they know has been written by a human, particularly if AI-detection tools improve. The firms themselves may start offering proof that the assignments they provide are human written.”

Legislation passed in England nearly a year ago made it illegal to offer to complete assignments or examinations for financial gain to students enrolled at a higher education provider, or to advertise such services. To date there have been no prosecutions under the new law.

Michael Draper, a professor in legal education at Swansea University who helped draft the legislation, said that – though many of the companies which offer such services still appear to be in operation – it had proved to be a deterrent for students.

Whether chatbots will replace essay mills in future depends on how accurate they prove to be, Professor Draper said, adding that he had seen instances where ChatGPT had produced essays that were “badly wrong”.

Contract cheaters themselves are likely to use such tools to produce essays for customers, he added, and may switch to marketing themselves as being able to revise or fact check a first draft to ensure it passes.  

Dr Lancaster agreed that copy-editing is likely to be the big growth industry of the future. And many students less savvy with new technologies may be tempted to use essay mills for a while.

“But, overall, I do see this as a turning point for contract cheating, albeit with one set of challenges being replaced by another set,” he said.

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