An essay mill (or paper mill) helps students who seek to buy essays and other written homework and to pass off this ghostwritten work as their own. Educators generally see this as a form of academic dishonesty or academic fraud (see also plagiarism).
The typical customers of such a service are university and college students. Universities and colleges may investigate papers suspected to be from an essay mill by using Internet plagiarism detection software, which compares essays against a database of known essay mill essays and by orally testing students on the contents of their papers. In response, many essay mills state that a unique essay will be composed by a ghost author and pre-screened with plagiarism detection software before delivery, and as such will be undetectable as an essay mill product.
Types of products
'Essay mill' companies hire university students, graduates, and professional writers to ghostwrite essays and term papers, and solicit business from university and college students by posting advertisements. Until the early 1990s, most essay mill companies were 'bricks and mortar' businesses offering their services by mail-order or from offices located in university or college towns. By the 2000s, most essay mill businesses have switched to an e-commerce business model, soliciting business and selling essays using an Internet website. Companies often provide free sample essays on popular topics, such as Hamlet or The Merchant of Venice, to attract Internet searches.
The most basic 'essay mill' service is the sale of a previously-written essay; services advertise essays that have allegedly gained a good grade and which have allegedly not been used for plagiarism before. Students using essay mill services have little or no legal recourse if the essay they purchase does not actually receive a good grade.
Since submitting a previously-written essay exposes a student to the risk of detection, some students will pay a much higher price for custom-written papers that take into account the course outline, topic, number of sources and any specific grade the student wants. While some students select a high grade on the ghostwritten paper to boost their average, other students with poor grades may choose to purchase a paper that deliberately contains errors, and which will receive a grade such as "C+", to reduce the suspicion that they have committed academic dishonesty.
Criticism and controversy
The academic community has criticized essay mill companies for helping students to commit academic fraud.
Some essay mills have defended themselves against criticism by claiming that they are selling pre-written examples which students can use as guidelines and models for the student's own work. In 2002, a UK-based essay mill called Elizabeth Hall Associates required students purchasing essays to sign a disclaimer stating that "any material provided by Elizabeth Hall Associates [is] on the understanding that it is a guidance model only." Other essay mills claim that they are "scholarly publishing houses" that provide students with essays that the student can then cite in the student's own work.
Strategies for combating academic fraud
Universities and colleges have developed several strategies to combat this type of academic misconduct. Some professors require students to submit electronic versions of their term papers, so that the text of the essay can be compared by anti-plagiarism software against databases of known 'essay mill' term papers.
Other universities have enacted rules allowing professors to give students viva voce (oral) examinations on papers which a professor believes to be 'ghostwritten'; if the student is unfamiliar with the content of an essay that he has submitted, or its sources, then the student can be charged with academic fraud, a violation of the rules by which a student agrees to be bound when he enters a university or college program.
When a student is charged with academic fraud, his case is typically heard by a quasi-judicial administrative committee, which reviews the evidence. For students who are found guilty, the punishments range from failure in the course in which the plagiarism occurred, to suspension or expulsion. In some cases, students who have committed academic fraud may also have academic honours, degrees, or awards revoked.
Although essay mills and the students who use them are considered unethical by many educational professionals, they do not violate copyright law; the mill is the legal copyright holder of the papers, and the papers are licensed to paying students for limited use. As of 2009, no essay mill or client of a mill has been legally prosecuted for engaging in transactions. The mill may, however, hold the student legally responsible in the case where they redistribute the paper to other students without the permission of the mill. In informal settings where students exchange papers without any formal licensing or transfer of copyright, copyright violation may occur, but it is unlikely that the students will press charges, since they would incriminate themselves by doing so.
The contract literature encompasses multiple opportunities for students to let others do their work; one of these opportunities is essay banks. Essay bank is another word for essay mill. This contract cheating research literature reports that students are putting assessed work to tender to essay sites. Essay sites are the websites of essay banks. The contract cheating research reports that some essay sites are not completing work for students in-house. Instead, they are using auction sites to subcontract work out at a lower cost than would be required by directly paying ghostwriters.
- The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong To Get Ahead (New York: Harcourt 2004)
- Ann Lathrop & Kathleen Foss. Student Cheating & Plagiarism to the Internet Era: A Wake-Up Call for Educators & Parents (New York: Libraries Unlimited 2000)
- James Page. 2004. 'Cyber-pseudepigraphy: A New Challenge for Higher Education Policy and Management'. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management. 26(3):429-433; available on-online at http://eprints.qut.edu.au/archive/00006015/.