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Ignoble – a new essay mill scandal?

There's more bleak news about the use of essay mills for cheating in our universities, but it doesn't quite stack up to using SparkNotes as a Nobel Laureate.
This article is more than 5 years old

Paul Greatrix is Registrar at The University of Nottingham, author and creator of Registrarism and a Contributing Editor of Wonkhe.

I’ve written here a few times about the appalling phenomenon in higher education of companies which write essays to order for students who then submit the work as their own (having paid the company handsomely for the privilege).

There are many such firms in this country and internationally which offer such services and all of them, which support cheating by students, present themselves as if they are providing model answers to help with revision but their primary purpose is actually something they explicitly say they should not be used for i.e. submitting work as if it were your own.

As the Scotsman recently reported:

Universities Scotland and NUS Scotland said the companies were “acting immorally on all levels”, preying on vulnerable students, many of whom have jobs to finance their studies.

Daniel Dennehy, chief executive of Nottingham-based UK Essays, whose firm employs over 50 staff and hundreds of freelancers, including many based in Scotland, said: “We’re catering for a demand which is there. Pre-internet, students could pay a private tutor for help. It’s an investment in the future.

“These days there is less one-to-one time with tutors meaning many students are not getting help and support. But if they are receiving a model answer from us they learn structuring, referencing and sourcing.

“Is it cheating? If used incorrectly yes. We can’t guarantee customers won’t hand in a model essay. That’s why we want to work with the universities so they can check what students are doing, but they won’t connect with us.”

“Just responding to the market” is often the defence deployed by those selling tawdry goods and the essay mill business is arguably no different. Banning such companies may not be realistic, but we do need to tackle these organised cheating operations which are fundamentally undermining the integrity of higher education. There are therefore many very good reasons to hope for the demise of such companies:

  • They pretend they are offering a service which supports students and yet their business model serves to undermine universities’ assessment processes, reducing confidence in the standards of our higher education system.
  • They pretend they want to “work with universities” in order to sound sincere while knowing that no reputable education organisation would engage with companies which promote cheating.
  • The cheating companies’ profit from the anxiety and vulnerability of students, often international students.
  • The essay mills are exploiting academics and graduates who need employment but who end up supporting corrupt behaviour in providing essays for student cheats.
  • Cheating devalues higher education degrees and reduces public trust.
  • You can’t have Nurses and Doctors who have qualified through cheating. They will endanger life.

But what about the celebrity endorsements I hear you say?

The world was recently rocked when Bob Dylan appeared to draw on SparkNotes’ summaries of Moby-Dick characters and plot lines in presenting his official Nobel lecture. As Slate reported the event:

During his official lecture recorded on June 4, laureate Bob Dylan described the influence on him of three literary works from his childhood: The Odyssey, All Quiet on the Western Front, and Moby-Dick. Soon after, writer Ben Greenman noted that in his lecture Dylan seemed to have invented a quote from Moby-Dick.

Those familiar with Dylan’s music might recall that he winkingly attributed fabricated quotes to Abraham Lincoln in his “Talkin’ World War III Blues.” So Dylan making up an imaginary quote is nothing new. However, I soon discovered that the Moby-Dick line Dylan dreamed up last week seems to be cobbled together out of phrases on the website SparkNotes, the online equivalent of CliffsNotes.

In Dylan’s recounting, a “Quaker pacifist priest” tells Flask, the third mate, “Some men who receive injuries are led to God, others are led to bitterness” (my emphasis). No such line appears anywhere in Herman Melville’s novel. However, SparkNotes’ character list describes the preacher using similar phrasing, as “someone whose trials have led him toward God rather than bitterness” (again, emphasis mine).

Across the 78 sentences in the lecture that Dylan spends describing Moby-Dick, even a cursory inspection reveals that more than a dozen of them appear to closely resemble lines from the SparkNotes site. And most of the key shared phrases in these passages (such as “Ahab’s lust for vengeance” in the above lines) do not appear in the novel Moby-Dick at all.

The suggestion here is therefore that he may have cribbed the Moby-Dick portion of his Nobel lecture from SparkNotes. However, one other possibility might be that, under pressure of time, he undertook the acquisition of a rather basic essay mill output which turned out to have been heavily dependent on another source.

Whatever the truth of it, this is not a great recommendation to students of today. And those essay mills really do need to be shut down if that’s the best they can do.

One response to “Ignoble – a new essay mill scandal?

  1. If they genuinely want to ‘work with’ universities to combat plagiarism, they can easily submit all of their products to Turnitin prior to sale.

    I did say, “If.”

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