Tilting at the Dark Satanic (Essay) Mills

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In 2026 will academia be undermined by essay mills? There is increasing worry that the growing opportunities for students to buy plagiarism-proof essays from the web will allow cheats to prosper and undermine confidence in degree classification. Concern has even reached the higher echelons, with Universities Minister Jo Johnson asking the sector to consider ways that these mills can be shut down (https://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/feb/21/plan-to-crack-down-on-websites-selling-essays-to-students-announced).

But maybe confrontation is not the right approach. This smacks of the Red Queen, running as fast as she can to stay in the same place. In biology Red Queen refers to the war between competing organisms, constantly escalating and never ending. But Evolutionary Biology could offer us a different solution: consider the dual Canard of the Creationists, irreducible complexity and intelligent design. Here, a complex structure such as a mousetrap or Blackfriars Bridge is irreducibly complex; it cannot function if any one component is not present. This analogy is applied to the eye, a complex organ that could be argued to be irreducibly complex. But as Darwin explicitly noted, it is not, rather the eye is an imperfect culmination of millions of years of evolutionary process in which each stage of the development was revised and refined by natural selection. A mouse trap may not have always been a mouse trap and could have made a useful (if clumsy) tie clip or bag closure. We can see early drafts of the eye in the stages of development in a range of creatures that are still with us. If we ignore the history of development we do not see the authenticity of the present.

So, back to essays. When we consider a final essay submission, we ignore the process of how it came to be and we are slaves to the success or otherwise of plagiarism detection. Why do we assess it and what is that final assessment for? Surely it is to evidence the acquisition of the skills that are necessary to produce a high quality piece of work. Is a single, final piece of work sufficient to provide this evidence? As in biological evolution the development of the skills and processes that led to the final production are more important than the end point itself.
If we re-focus the assessment on the process, then the reliance on the end point and its vulnerability to essay mills goes away. Documentation of the process, though discussion, drafting and revision, provides an unshakeable fossil record that cannot be challenged by fraud. A reflective process with appropriate milestones and touch points, scaffolds the build and supports skills delivery. While this could (or should) be formative, credit could be built in to acknowledge and focus on the developmental process. A portfolio of notes and drafts gives confidence in the authenticity of the end point and perhaps, more importantly, the acquisition and refinement of the skills necessary to deliver the final summatively assessed essay.

Such a portfolio would be difficult, if not impossible, to plagiarise as it would be jointly owned by student and staff. If you did not know how Blackfriars Bridge was built and how a complex range of scaffolding supported its development, you might think it was irreducibly complex. We should agree that for essays, it’s better to travel in hope than to arrive, refocus the assessment on the journey and make plagiarists extinct by 2026.

2 thoughts on “Tilting at the Dark Satanic (Essay) Mills”

  1. I think this a very strong idea indeed, Jeremy, and hope that it finds a place in the University-wide discussion of assessment reform which, we are told, is ongoing. I would be very keen to introduce something like this in my department.

  2. “The jouney is the reward” or at least is should be academically.

    Your right to suggest we obsess with the output (written essay) rather than the process of ‘how we got there’. Is this down to time constraints or our own constraints on what constitutes as acdemic rigour? Do students ‘expect’ writting an essay at University, its a lmost a given – but maybe we ned to refocus.

    Can a short film or animation be as useful and shareable. (not easy to fake)
    Creating a website, infographics, virtual exhibitions and so many ‘creative’ outlets to show academia need to be explored. Maybe their own peers assess each other, which creates healthy competetion.

    We need to get students ready for the new world of work (not working for one company anymore, but remotely on multiple contracts using multiple skills).

    Entrepreneurialsprit cannot be undermined by essay mills? But we can prepare a student to be a self starter in a very busy marketplace. What makes them stand out to their peers? Ability to write essays, good grades? – I think they need more ‘tools’ than this, we are doing them a dis service.

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