Monday, June 25, 2012

From the LA Times: Essay mills -- a coarse lesson on cheating.

Sometimes as I decide what kind of papers to assign to my students, I worry about essay mills, companies whose sole purpose is to generate essays for high-school and college students (in exchange for a fee, of course).

The mills claim that the papers are meant to be used as reference material to help students write their own, original papers. But with names such as, it’s pretty clear what their real purpose is.

Professors in general are concerned about essay mills and their effect on learning, but not knowing exactly what they provide, I wasn’t sure how concerned to be. So together with my lab manager, Aline Gruneisen, I decided to check the services out. We ordered a typical college term paper from four different essay mills. The topic of the paper? Cheating.


  1. This article upsets me because I have colleagues who will not check for plagiarism if the writing is bad. I spot check at least five essays per group. Just last term, I had a student give me an essay which had been copied word for word. She was very angry to fail, claiming she had done this in all her other classes during her entire college career so far and had yet to be called on it, so what was my problem? That same term, she had classes with a colleague who I work closely with. I know perhaps this was not ethical, but I told him to check her essay for plagiarism. He declined, saying the work was so poorly done, if she had plagiarized, she was getting her info from a bad place. In the end, she earned a C in his class, as he counts homework and class participation and exams as a large portion of the class grade (it is a history class).


    1. I average a formal proceeding every year. My department head told me that I "was always looking" for plagiarism -- which sets me apart from EVERYONE ELSE.

  2. Generally I check if fonts don't match, or if the style changes noticeably, or if the knowledge level and sophistication are just ridiculous. I threaten them with random checks, but don't always follow through.

  3. The thing is, I think the savviest students are just paying peers at other institutions. I caught one only because she submitted it electronically and I dialed up the "show original with changes" menu. There were large insertions from a person whose name showed in the insertion bubbles. I Googled the name and found out he was a law student!

  4. Frog and Toad, that is a technique I have not tried! Lovely.

  5. Interesting results described in the article, very different from the interview with the unappreciated author/essay writer that a newspaper/CHE interviewed a while back.

  6. Sorry for the edit:

    I would have loved to mark that with a big red dripping "F". Not tolerating plagiarism is one thing that our school is indeed very good about.

    As it is, I am just amused by the titles of the news articles linked on that page, which demonstrate something about the need for vigilantly teaching writing, apparently something that applies even to journalism majors:

    Article Title: "Green coffee beans show potential for losing weight"
    My 1st Thought: "Well, good for those coffee beans!"

    Article Title: "Red meat: What makes it unhealthy?"
    My 1st Thought: "For us, or for the cow?"

  7. I did my master's and PhD at two different large state universities--similar in size, ethos, and student population. At the first university, I found plagiarism all the time. Every semester, in fact. And so did everyone else. At the second university? Hardly any at all. But I'm not naive. I doubt that the students at my current university are angels who value their "honor code." I know they're just buying crappy papers that I can't find.

    Of course, it doesn't help that my department has this attitude toward our students that's all, "Cheating? But they would never!"

  8. Why did I look at the comments on the article?


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