Among many American college students, there is a “consumer mentality” that works like this: “I’m paying to be at this school, so it ought to satisfy me.”
Put aside the obvious point that it’s usually someone else who is doing most of the paying. This mindset may not be justified, but it’s very real. Lots of students regard themselves as customers buying something they want—a college degree.
It’s a short step from that to the idea that buying the components of the degree, such as term papers, is all right. Supply usually rises to meet demand, and therefore we today have the phenomenon of online “essay mills” where college students can order up essays and papers just as they might order up a pizza. Google “buy term paper” and you’ll get more hits than you could ever click on.
The lead article in the March 20 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Cheating Goes Global as Essay Mills Multiply” (available only to subscribers but here is the link) brought this issue into focus. Who knew that one aspect of globalization is that a student in a dorm in North Carolina can go online to buy the paper he’s supposed to turn in on The Brothers Karamazov for his English class—much less that it might actually be written by someone in Nigeria?
There aren’t any solid data on the size of the fraudulent paper market, but it’s large enough to keep a lot of companies in business. Doing the research for a paper and then writing it is time consuming, hard work and many students want to avoid that. As one student who was quoted in the article said, “Like most people in college, you don’t have time to do research on some of these things. I was hoping to find a guy to do some good quality writing.”
That statement speaks volumes about college students and their priorities. They’re happy to have other people do their schoolwork so that they can have more time for things they prefer. The mental exercise of writing a five-pager on The Brothers Karamazov (or anything else) is some of the most useful work college students could possibly do – reading, thinking, drafting, polishing the language—but given the opportunity to avoid the work, a lot of them will part with a fairly decent sum of money. (Prices start at around $20 per page and increase based on the difficulty of the paper and time constraints.)
Fraud and plagiarism are nothing new, of course. Back in ancient (that is, pre-computer) days, students were known to type passages from published works and hope to pass it off as their own work. There was some danger in that, however. The library probably contained relatively few books on the subject and the professor might remember reading the passage copied. That danger didn’t prevent all students from padding their papers with writing that wasn’t their own, but it was a deterrent.
Along came the Internet and changed that. Students could search and come up with a vast array of pertinent material. Edit—copy—paste and presto, a large chunk of the paper was done! But professors soon wised up to that and began using the Internet themselves to find evidence of plagiarism. Sites like Turnitin.com make it possible to scan student papers against millions of documents to check for cheating, and many professors firmly tell the students that they do check and will punish students who try to plagiarize their way to a good grade.
With these online essay mills, however, the “offense” has gotten the upper hand again, since the papers are written “fresh.” That is to say, they are not the easily detected cut-and-paste jobs, but are new assemblages of words. Some of the writers customize the paper to the point of making it just bad enough to be believable. The fraud of submitting a paper written by someone else as the student’s own has become harder to detect.
These ghost-written papers aren’t necessarily good. To test the quality of one of the essay mills, a writer at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review ordered a paper on Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and then took the finished product to a literature professor for comment. He called it “appalling” and said that it wouldn’t even be acceptable in a good high school course. Students who don’t want to be bothered with the course work usually won’t even be able to tell when a paper they’ve paid for is lousy. The fact that some do it anyway says a lot about both the students’ lack of integrity and low level of academic interest.
What can professors do to combat this new kind of cheating?
One thing is to try scaring the students into doing their own work with threats of serious penalties if they are caught submitting a paper that someone else has written for them. That won’t deter everyone.
Better still is for the professor to demand a draft from the student along with evidence that he has done some research. That too could be paid for, but if the professor also insists on a short conference to discuss the student’s progress, the student’s inability to talk about the work submitted would be telltale.
A still more radical solution is that of Professor Thomas Bertonneau, author of a Pope Center series on the problems of dealing with students who can’t or won’t read. Professor Bertonneau informs me that he no longer assigns written work to be done out of class. “I got sick of all the plagiarism, which is rampant, as is the student cynicism that drives it,” he says. His approach really cuts the Gordian Knot. Students can’t purchase or plagiarize an essay they have to write in class.
Few American college students are accomplished writers, a fact that was lamented by the National Commission on Writing in its 2003 report. For the most part, our K-12 schools no longer do a decent job of teaching students how to write good, clear English, a defect rooted in the “progressive” education theory that it’s bad to drill rules into students. Some college professors still work diligently to try to get their students to improve, but many students fail to recognize that they’d benefit from better writing skills.
Cheating is so much easier than working hard to improve oneself.