Recent years have seen an increase in students seeking new and, in some cases, morally questionable methods in a bid to achieve better grades. For example, the rise in popularity of the ‘smart drug’ over recent years, in which students have been ordering modafinil and other cognitive enhancers from dubious online sites in order to aid concentration. Such practice has been compared to athletes and their use of performance enhancing drugs, calling into question the ethics of such practice – not to mention the lack of safety measures associated with them.
Essay mills are the most recent manifestation of this attempt to get ahead. The scheme involves students submitting a vague framework for the essay that they are instructed to write, paying an (occasionally gargantuan) fee, and receiving a purportedly first-class standard essay in return. Unlike the other morally ambivalent rule-bending schemes that have recently arisen, there is nothing ambiguous about this system: it is plagiarism and those caught engaging in the practice (a not altogether unlikely possibility) risk being severely reprimanded, with the possibility of expulsion or in some cases a court hearing.
One must ask, why is it that students are so frequently turning to essay mills for help? It must be considered that this system could be being used by a group of privileged students who see in essay mills an opportunity to pay their way through university and gain a first-class degree with minimal effort, or lazy students who see an easy way out of doing their work. Whilst there’s no doubt that this group constitutes a percentage of the people using essay mills, the system is simply too flawed for this to be the only demographic of users.
As already mentioned, being caught would result in severe penalisation. However, that’s not the only risk of using the scheme. The Guardian reported a number of people who have been blackmailed into handing over more money, threatened with the prospect of the exposure of their plagiarism. Others have reported being left with tight deadlines after paying money for an essay mill, before the website they have used mysteriously disappears. The scheme is not trustworthy; at its very essence, it preys on vulnerable students who feel they have little other option.
So who should we blame? Should we appeal to the immorality of these schemes? Of course, this is exploitation of the purest form. But, where there is a group of vulnerable, desperate people, it’s guaranteed that there will soon be a tailor-made industry with the soul purpose of exploiting them: payday loans, for example. That this is clearly playing on vulnerable people’s weaknesses is not the exceptional thing. Rather, we must look at why – and how – students so easily fall prey to this flawed and unreliable system. That’s not to say that we must entirely vindicate the people that use essay mills; it is drilled into us, as university students, from the outset that plagiarism is the cardinal sin.
Rather, we must look at understanding the larger problem; namely the insurmountable pressure from so many different angles that being a student involves, which extends far beyond getting good grades. In a way that no previous university-attending generation can understand, there is a suffocating, often overwhelming pressure – unprecedented amounts of debt, lack of career prospects, and uncertainty about the future of the job climate, to name but a few. With so much to think about, it’s unsurprising students are looking to ways to alleviate the burden of responsibility; it is just unfortunate that essay mills are seen as a way out.
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