Thursday, December 11, 2008

Victoria Strauss -- Why You Shouldn't Write for Essay Mills

I get a fair number of questions from writers wondering whether essay mills are legitimate freelance markets. My response: Caveat writer. Big time.

What's an essay mill? A website where customers can buy term papers, research papers, and/or dissertations, and writers can (theoretically) be paid for writing them. There are scores of these sites online--EssayWriters.net, Eduwriters.com, BigPapers.com, Buyaresearchpaper.com, 4termpapers.com, Custom-Writing.org, to name just a few. Sometimes, a single company will own multiple URLs.

Essay mills advertise for writers online or in venues like Craigslist, promising easy work and good pay. Some, such as Essaywriters.net, even claim to offer bonuses. Especially if you're an aspiring writer looking to build credits, you might be tempted. But there are reasons to think twice--and then to think again.

- It can be a pain in the ass. Many essay mills, such as Academia-Research.com, promise writers flexible schedules and the ability to pick and choose which orders they take. The flip side of this is that they typically allow purchasers to demand almost unlimited editing and revision. For instance, Customwrittenpapers.net promises "free unlimited revisions." And StandOutEssay.com, in its pitch to customers, describes its process thus: "Normally, the process starts with regular research, continues with planning, crafting a rough draft and then writing, re-writing, and editing until the customized paper meets your expectations."

What this means for writers: anything you write may come back to you multiple times for changes and revision (and remember, your customer will be a student too lazy to write his or her own research paper, who very likely knows way less than you do about the subject of the essay). This is time for which you get no extra money, because you're usually being paid on a per-page or flat fee basis. Hour by hour, what looks like attractive pay can work out to a pittance.

- You could lose copyright. Some essay mills claim copyright on all papers written for them--essentially, it's work-for-hire. Given that you're writing for others and may never want to use the work yourself, this may not be a big concern for you--still, it's something to be aware of.

- Payment is not guaranteed. Complaints about essay mills abound, most centering on money. Writers report slow payment, non-payment, and non-communication when they question or complain. Here's a typical nonpayment complaint involving Essaywriters.net. These nonpayment complaints focus on Academia-Research.com.

(Customers also report bad dealings--Scamessays.com and Essayscam.org are just two of several websites devoted to discussing customer problems with essay mills. I have no sympathy. As cheaters, it's only cosmic justice if they get cheated themselves.)

- It won't count as a pro writing credit. Many sites claim to customers that their writers are BA's and PhD's, but in practice, they are likely to be much less selective. You yourself may turn out an impeccable research paper, but you'll be working alongside a lot of people whose writing isn't up to professional standards, or who aren't above borrowing their source material from someone else (many of the complaints at Essayscam.org involve papers written by people whose first language clearly wasn't English, or papers later discovered to be partially or wholly plagiarized). More than that--although they aren't illegal, essay mills are widely recognized as disreputable. Which brings me to my final--and most important--point:

- It's ultra-sleazy. Your customers will be college and high school students too lazy to write their own papers. Essay mills don't want you to believe this, of course, and try to dodge such criticism by claiming that the papers they provide are only templates on which the students can model their own work, or that they're providing academic resources the students can cite in footnotes, or that they don't condone cheating and instruct their customers not to use the essays dishonestly.

Here's a typical disclaimer, from Bigpapers.com's terms of sale: "Custom written papers by BigPapers.com are to be used for research purposes only...BigPapers.com does not endorse nor tolerates any form of whole or partial plagiarism or any activity that will facilitate cheating." Or from Custom-Writing.org's Terms and Conditions: "Custom-Writing.org presents a prototype work that is intended to be used for further research." OxbridgeEssays.com, which claims to hire only students or graduates of Oxford and Cambridge, explains itself thus: "Our service is dedicated to supplying model answers to client’s academic questions, and in this we consider our work no different at all from private tutors who guide students to the model way of answering a question, often by writing-out such an answer just as we do." They also claim to "strictly require of our clients that they never submit our work as their own." I'm sure their customers treat that stricture with the respect it deserves.

My favorite is the evocatively-named EssayCheat.net's delightfully weaselly rationale for why using its service is not, in fact, cheating:

Take, for example, a lecturer who sets a nice easy essay question: ‘Who was John F Kennedy?’. Most students will use Google to search for initial information on this topic and they will find some 7.6 million answers to their question. The process of reading through these answers is not cheating. However - if the student takes one of the answers and hands it in, passing it off as their own work, then without doubt, they are cheating. In fact, there are many more subtle ways they could use their material to cheat - rewording a website they found, rearranging words, citing the source but relying too heavily on the material - and so on. But they could also use the material as a guide and write their own, original answer to the question set. In the same way, a student who orders a custom essay can use the essay as a guide and can write their own original answer to the question that has been set for them. They can even do their own research.

Uh huh. But if they could do their own research, they wouldn't need to buy a paper, now would they?

Disclaimers are all very well. But the bottom line is that people who buy from these services are not looking for templates or footnote material or guidance--they are paying others to do work they should be doing themselves, and passing that work off as their own. Essay mills are almost universally condemned--and not just by colleges and universities whose harried instructors fight ongoing battles against plagiarism and cheating (see, for instance, Plagiarized.com). In 2007, Google banned ads from paper-writing services, adding essay mills to its blacklist of unacceptable ad content, which includes, among others, ads for anabolic steroids, ads for escort services, and ads for illegal drugs and drug paraphenalia.

21 comments:

Lyz said...

Well said! Writers are so often the ill treated migrant workers of the internet. Time to cut it out.

Lehcarjt said...

It honestly never occurred to me to wonder where essay mill school papers came from. I guess it makes sense that the answer is that writers write them.

Frankly the whole thing is just disgusting and dishonest. I hope the writers that contribute to these sites feel very, very guilty.

Anonymous said...

If you're hired by a foreign company (like academia-research.com, essaywriters.net etc.) then you have a problem and may not be paid. I've been working for an American company for several years and had no problems. I suggest you to read most of the threads on the EssayScam.org forums (especially related to writing employment: http://www.essayscam.org/Forum/14_0.html ). Most of these companies are actually located in Ukraine, India, or Philippines and they lie about their true locations.

Problem Child said...

Sadly, I had many paper-mill essays come across my desk, and the majority of them stank. I actually had a student argue with me that there was no way her paper was a D+ paper -- after all, she'd paid $70 for it.

With that confession, I told her she was right and changed her grade to an F.

Jess said...

Great post! Much like Lehcarjt, I never really wondered where essay mill papers came from, but I suppose someone has to write them.

The only topic I wish you'd touched more on is the plagarism aspect. The students who use these papers are on the line for plagarism, but remember as a writer trying to build a career you are assisting in that plagarism.

And should you make it to the big times, don't think for one second that in this day and age of internet sluthing that no one will unearth your old days working for the essay mill. Because you too are actively participating in what you know to be plagarism.

Merry Monteleone said...

With that confession, I told her she was right and changed her grade to an F.

Thank you!!! I think I'd have tossed her out of the course with a zero on her transcript.

It's like they don't even think there's anything wrong with this, it's ludicrous. I think the biggest problem with the students is that they're only there for the degree, to get a job they want... not for the education (which should be primary). What good's the degree if you don't know anything about your field?

You can find scammers on craigslist looking for papers from their university email address. Asking for Medical Papers!!!! And in a few years, we may just run into him in the emergency room, and his name will start with Doctor!

As far as the "writers" who do these papers. Most of them are not writers, they might want to be, and many of them think there's easy money in it... but they're not writers. I would venture to guess that few, if any, have any sort of a degree... so the hours they must need to research would outweigh any word count payment. Sadly, they are getting paid a pittance to help some spoiled brat get an ill gotten degree that will entitle them to earn a far higher income than the writer aspires to.

They are not writers. Letting them think of themselves as such is a lie, and I hope that they are the ones who find themselves using the services of doctors, lawyers, and accountants who cheated their way through school. Better them than the rest of us.

Marian said...

I previously lived in the Middle East, but I was trying to migrate to Canada. Unfortunately I didn't have money to pay the immigration fees, and my science degree didn't help much in the way of employment.

So I did whatever I could to raise the funds, including writing college application essays for a student who was extremely illiterate and extremely rich: the one, I suppose, made up for the other in life.

I won't pretend that this was anything other than cheating, but I was desperate and it was a better option than staying in the Middle East.

I do still edit papers for a college student to earn a little additional income now, but I know her personally, so I'm sure I'll be paid. Plus, she doesn't ask me to write anything from scratch or do her research.

Shawn James said...

Some of my friends and family once suggested I write term papers and essays for pay. I quicky refused. I find it unethical to help students cheat their way through school. I have to do research when I write my novels and screenplays. If it wasn't for the work I did researching those term papers and essays in High school and college I wouldn't be a writer today.

Besides, Why would any aspiring writer who is looking to be taken seriously even think about doing this kind of work? The money ain't that great, and other people take credit for your work.

Jane Smith said...

"With that confession, I told her she was right and changed her grade to an F."

That made me laugh, and I'm glad you did: but part of me is wondering why you didn't throw her off the course. When I took my MA, such use was considered akin to plagiarism (it isn't, in my opinion, as the person buying the essay has bought the rights to use it--but that's an aside) and was an expellable offense. Are things different in the USA? Or was this not a university-level course? Just wondering.

Stewart Sternberg said...

It's also sleazy. These kids need to write their own papers. All a writer is doing is teaching them to cheat and avoid the learning experience. This sickens me. And Anonymous, no wonder you didn't have the courage to use your name.

Victoria Strauss said...

It certainly would have been an expellable offense where I went to college, Jane. My senior year, there was a big scandal about a student who plagiarized part of her senior thesis. She was expelled.

But it depends on where you are. My stepmother is a professor at a large state university. In the last large undergraduate class she taught, multiple students independently plagiarized the same online resource for a paper topic she gave. She gave them all Fs and reported them, and they were sanctioned in some way, but none were expelled.

Anonymous said...

"She gave them all Fs and reported them, and they were sanctioned in some way, but none were expelled."

This is because many colleges and universities are now run according to corporate business models by people with MBAs or advanced degrees in "Academic Administration" rather than academicians/scholars. When the dollar is the bottom line in higher education, and students -- no matter how marginal -- represent that bottom line, the administration will happily lower ethical standards to keep them around.

Like your stepmother, Victoria, I experienced this firsthand when I caught a student trying to pass off someone else's work as his own. Rather than fail him, the administration gave him an "Incomplete," and allowed him to go through graduation ceremonies on the understanding that he would hand in rewritten papers for department approval during the summer. To my knowledge, he never did, and the "Incompleted" course was simply written off as an unnecessary requirement for graduation.

Anonymous said...

Re: "...to keep them around" I must also add, "and to protect themselves from lawsuits," since my example only shows an administrative willingness to overlook dishonesty, and represent the whole picture. The amount of parents interceding (in many cases, interfering) on their kids' behalfs, either through complaints or legal threats, has become truly problematic.

Whatever happened to the good old

Anonymous said...

I purchased a term paper online for a class. This was in 1999 when search engines were not as awesome as they are now and it was an obscure subject (Hello, terministic screens).

I didn't try to pass it off as my own, though. I just didn't know where to start. I ended up citing it.

I recently reread that purchased paper and I must say, it's pretty good. Obviously the person who wrote it knew what they were doing. But I was lucky. It could have been a load of crap.

Problem Child said...

Unfortunately, at the college where I taught, if I found a student hadn't written the paper all I could do was give them an F for the assignment. Yes, I would have loved to have kicked them out of class entirely, but my only recourse was to give a copy of the paper and my supporting evidence to the the administration and let them decide whether or not to take further action.

In my experience, though, most students who turned in plagiarized papers weren't exactly doing well in the course as a whole, so an F on the paper combined with other really low grades was enough to make them fail the class anyway :-)

Most people who plagiarize aren't smart enough to do it well. I've had papers with the hyperlinks still in them from where students cut and pasted from a web page! Honestly, though, trying to stay ahead of dishonest students is part of what drove me from academia. Sad, but true. Too much of my time was spent trying to come up with assignments that couldn't be easily downloaded (most undergrads are too cheap to pay -- they use the free sites) and too much time trying to track down where the papers came from.

Sigh.

Janny said...

I actually did write, briefly, for one of these once, although its name wasn't mentioned in this post...because I was on the verge of losing my home, desperate for some work of some kind, and rationalized it by trusting that the research papers involved were actually helping students for whom English was not a first language. If the requests that came through on the job board were any indication, many of those claimed beneficiaries were, indeed, people for whom English skills were their only lack. If they benefited by reading my term paper, or even turning it in, at least they got a good example of written English to internalize. :-)

That being said, I didn't write technical papers--because while I could write, I didn't dream of passing myself off as being technically proficient in the sciences, etc., that these papers demanded. And I stayed away from the ads that began, "You will put the following header on the paper: ___(student's name), ______(class section), etc.)," because--contrary to the stated purpose of the essay mill--these students were clearly intending to download this thing, print it out and turn it in without even bothering to do the work of putting their own names on it.

Some of you may say, "What, didn't you think all the others were doing the same thing?" Yeah. I suspected they were. In one particular instance, I knew the kid probably was...but then he was one who had the nerve to complain about my essay, claiming it didn't answer questions when it DID. Not only apparently was he too lazy to do his own reading, he apparently didn't even want to bother to read the questions the essay "he" was writing would answer.

I didn't stay with the essay mill for many reasons, only one of which was the fact that there were detailed and very high-level dissertations, etc., being asked for that only the person involved should have been writing--or, in many cases, COULD have been writing. But I would love to be in the exalted position of being able to throw the stones that have been flung in this combox.

Yes, we who've done this kind of thing probably suspected we were being used, yes, we suspected there was a generous amount of plagiarism going on, and yes, we feel properly guilty about it. But blanketing us all with statements like "They're not writers" is beyond the pale. Some of us ARE writers. Some of us are SERIOUS writers who've been faced with serious reasons for making compromises that we may have found distasteful at the time, when we felt we had no other options available. Blasting those of us who've been in circumstances where it's a choice of leaving the Middle East (!) or not...or losing our homes or not...? Is that really necessary?

May you who've been flinging such vitriol at us never be faced with the choice of the lesser of two evils. We didn't make those choices because they promised "too much fun."

And yes, I have the courage to sign my name. So be it.

JB

Merry Monteleone said...

Janny,

You're right in that my comment was a blanket statement without taking into account particulars of any one case. And, really, your situation, or anyone whose partaken in this, can change... the act of writing these papers once doesn't automatically mean you'll never be a writer.

I don't walk in your shoes and I'm not allowed to judge you for your choices. So I am sorry for that.

At the same time, though, did writing someone else's papers really pay that much more than legitimate freelance writing? I get that desperation breeds all sorts of choices we might not normally make. But I also think there are other ways to make money, either by writing or manual labor that would pay as well or better for the time and effort spent, without the guilt of helping someone else cheat - someone whose lack of true knowledge may eventually hurt people who hire him/her professionally.

And I am harder on the writer in these scenarios, that's true. Because I can't get around the fact that a writer should have more respect for education and academic integrity.

Marian said...

"At the same time, though, did writing someone else's papers really pay that much more than legitimate freelance writing?"

I once wrote to a magazine in the Middle East, offering an article for free. No reply. There really weren't any opportunities for work over there if your skills were in scientific research and writing.

Another thing I did was to take half-burned candles from outside the Catholic Church, melt them down, make new candles and sell them outside the Anglican church.

I don't think either church would have been happy if they had known about it, and at that pay scale, it would have taken me about a couple of decades to get to Canada.

So it doesn't bother me if someone criticizes me for the choices I've made or says I'm not a writer or anything like that. At the end of the day, only we know what our individual situations are and we make the choices that are best for us. Do I feel happy that I wrote some illiterate rich kid's essays? No. Would I do it again if it was the only way to raise money fast to get out of the Middle East? Yes.

BuffySquirrel said...

I remember having a choice between leaving my job or being obliged to take steps that were distasteful to me, else I'd be breaking the law--the basic situation was that the government wanted me to inform on illegal immigrants who were trying to find school places for their children.

'Fortunately' I got so ill in that job I had to leave anyway. So I never had to make the choice.

Still don't know which way I'd have jumped. So I have much sympathy with our essay-writers, despite thinking it's a pretty despicable trade in general :). And no, writing those essays doesn't mean you're "not a writer". Nowhere in the definition of "writer" does it say "upholds moral tenets acceptable to individual readers" :).

webwriter said...

it pays to be always careful online.. writers will be at the losing end if not careful..

Jennifer said...

As a college instructor, I will flunk a student outright if I catch him/her using a term paper from an essay mill.

No mercy, no second chances.

Fortunately, I teach at a school that backs its professors.

Some of you seem to worry more about not being paid or not having proper cred, not the moral aspect of writing papers for cheating students, who, by the way, may be your physicians and politicians some day.

;)

For those who rationalize your choices to crank out papers for sleazy mills, how does having a doc who cheated throughout school remove your gall bladder or perform brain surgery on you sound?