Essays, Mills and ChatGPT

I saw an article the other day about how “contract cheating” was endangering the integrity of Ireland’s universities. This refers to the problem of students outsourcing their assignments to professional essay mills. Given the enthusiasm that university managers have for outsourcing in other contexts I’d be surprised if they see this as a problem. Indeed, their response might well be to outsource the grading of assignments in a similar fashion. It does however raise questions about academic integrity for thus of us who care about such matters.

I have to admit that I’ve never really understood the obsession in some parts of academia with “the student Essay” as a form of assessment. I agree that writing skills are extremely important but they’re not the only skills it is important for students to acquire during the course of a degree. Of course I’m biased because I work in Theoretical Physics, an area in which student essays play a negligible role in assessment. Our students do have to write project reports, etc, but writing about something you yourself have done seems to me to be different from writing about what other people have done. While forms of assessment in science subjects have evolved considerably over the last 50 years, other domains still seem to concentrate almost exclusively on “The Essay”.

Whatever you think about the intrinsic value of The Essay (or lack thereof) it is clear that if it is not done in isolation (and under supervision) it is extremely vulnerable to cheating. The article I referred to above concentrates on the corrupting influence of “Essay Mills” who will produce – for a fee – an essay on a given topic.

I believe however that this is not the biggest threat to academic integrity. There is a lot of discussion going on these days about ChatGPT, an AI system that can produce text on demand using sources on the internet. This is not great at dealing with technically complex specialist topics but can produce plausible if somewhat superficial offerings in many circumstances where something less demanding is required. Indeed, the more banal the task the better ChatGPT does. For example, here is an AI version of a university Strategic Plan which captures the vacuous nature of such documents with uncanny accuracy:

According to a pilot programme of which I am aware, the present configuration of ChatGPT scores an average of about 70% on (short) student essay tasks. It won’t be long before it gets much better than that. I predict that something like it will soon put essay mills out of business as it will be far cheaper and its use far more widespread. This is the real threat to the viability of “The Essay” in a modern university. The response will need to be quick!

Update: piece from the Irish Times.

P.S. It’s worth mentioning that AI systems can also write simple computer code to a reasonable level of proficiency, so this vulnerability also affects programming tasks.


4 Responses to “Essays, Mills and ChatGPT”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    What’s the fuss about? Give it a degree and a job as a social worker.

  2. A lot of the computer code it wrote for me did not work (it does not seem to have any grasp of different versions of installed software nor capabilities of different computer chips). At best right now it’s an aid to understand how to add some very specific code – and you can’t easily ask it to do this without good understanding of the existing code. This is a long way from “let’s reconstruct charged particles” in ATLAS/CMS – write me 100k lines of code engineered in a sensible structure to do it!

  3. Will it put paper mills out of business as well?

  4. […] wrote about this myself a couple of months ago in a post that included […]

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