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Essays for sale – using paper mill sites

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Are there any good uses of paper mills?

One of the difficulties students experience is knowing the standard of work they should be producing. While most universities have study support units which teach the craft of essay writing, not all share examples with students. Without examples their advice can appear abstract. "Models", on the other hand, can mean students "get it" faster, as good course tutors well know when they show students past examples.

Paper mills can be one way to examine examples. They help answer questions such as: what is meant by a research essay or a dissertation? What is the accepted discourse style?

One site that actually sells essays purely as examples, and which watermarks them to prevent plagiarism, is . Students are encouraged to rate them; there is however no authoritative faculty-based assessment.

However, it is always essential to look at these essays critically, and not assume that just because they are for sale or on the Internet they are of sufficient quality to be used as exemplars. Even more care is needed before using them as potential reference material.

Fiona Duggan, deputy director of Northumbria Learning and adviser to JISC Plagiarism Advisory Service, believes that there's a need for a provider of "model" essays, but which has essays marked by tutors as opposed to students and listed as good, bad, etc. She believes that as things are currently, the main value of essays lies in helping combat writer's block – you can see how someone else has tackled the problem:

"They are more on the level of turning on a light bulb than a serious journal article."

Some lecturers use free essays as teaching tools, getting students to mark them according to assessment criteria which would be applied to their own work (Carroll and Appleton, 2001), or to emphasize a particular point, for example the importance of proper citation.

"Free essays often have very few [citations]. Spotting what needs a citation or would be stronger with one is a constructive way to use the free sites for teaching ... I'm also making the point that by citing, students do so much more than avoid plagiarism. They show they know where to look, what counts as authoritative sources, that they know what information is contestable, that they understand basic politeness, etc." (Jude Carroll).

The bad news is, there is no getting round the need for the hard graft of essay writing: the research, the organization and the slog of writing. The good news, however, is that the more you do it the better you get. Essays from paper mills could have their value – as examples, possibly as inspiration – but never as authoritative pieces of work in their own right.

References

Carroll, J. and Appleton, J. (2001), "Designing out opportunities for plagiarism", Good Practice Guide, © JISC 2001, available at http://www.jiscpas.ac.uk/teachingpractice_guide2.php [accessed July 1 2009].

Levinson, H. (2005), "Internet essays prove poor buys", BBC News, April 7, available at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/4420845.stm [accessed July 1 2009].

Taylor, M. and Butt, R. (2006), "Q: How do you make £1.6m a year and drive a Ferrari? A: Sell essays for £400", The Guardian, July 29, available at http://education.guardian.co.uk/higher/news/story/0,,1834073,00.html [accessed July 1 2009].

Editor's note

We are grateful to Jude Carroll for her assistance in producing this article.