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Lee Capristo
Director of Publications
Anne Arundel 100

Essay Mills -- For a Price, Web Churns Out Term Papers

Written by Jeffrey Hammond, Professor English and George B. and Willma Reeves Endowed Chair in the Liberal Arts

Photo illustration by Barbara Woodel

The first weeks of school bring new classes, new friends, and new challenges. These pleasant beginnings make it easy to forget that this semester, like every other, will end with a bang. Trust me: there will be widespread frenzy, then the crunch of finals - and then an eery calm, like the aftermath of a storm. Of course, storms don't always end well. While most students manage to use end-of-semester stress as a goad to complete their work, a desperate few are tempted to do something stupid, like cheat.

Students don't commit plagiarism because they're inherently evil, but because they're afraid to fail. This fear is so widespread that an entire industry has grown up around it. In a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education (March 20), author Thomas Bartlett probed the essay-mill phenomenon by focusing on a firm called Essay Writers, an on-line company with roots in the Ukraine and offices in the Philippines. Here students can purchase written work, ranging from short papers to doctoral dissertations, at $20 to $40 per page - although the people who actually do this writing receive only a fraction of the fee. Because no perpetrator of plagiarism wants to be a victim of it, the company web site assures customers that its papers are "original" and "non-plagiarized." Bartlett uncovered all sorts of buyers, including a doctoral student in aerospace engineering at M.I.T. This does not bode well: wouldn't a cheating airplane designer make the skies a lot less friendly?

Essay mills embody everything that professors hate: exploitation, consumerism, and unreflective definitions of "success" - not to mention dishonesty and laziness. These forces constantly work to degrade higher education from a process of genuine personal growth into a series of hoops to jump through in order to make more money. It's hard to know whom to detest more: the cheaters, or those who enable them. And yet, I cannot sit in lofty judgment of either group, because I once played a role in this clandestine industry. During my  first college term, I wrote papers for friends in my dorm.

Unlike today's essay mills, mine was a one-person shop with a lifetime output of around 10 products. In an irony not lost on me today, most of my work-for-hire was for English classes. The typical assignment for what was then called "Freshman English" was a three- to five-page analysis of a poem or a short story. One day my roommate Ray, a pre-med major who claimed that his rigorous biology and chemistry classes left him little time to focus on non-science courses like English, asked me to write one of these papers for him. I agreed to do it, and once the word got out, I became the Paper Guy of the fourth floor of Manchester Hall. I took perverse pride in my work, routinely asking my "customers" for samples of their writing in order to make the papers more credible. I even learned to produce B or C papers whenever an A might arouse suspicion.

A Paper Guy who ends up being an English professor will not be proud of his ghost-writing past. Financial gain was not the motive, because my usual fee - one pizza or two subs per paper - was absurdly low. The sad truth is that my ghost-writing reflected a bid for popularity - a nerd's attempt to fit in. Gradually, however, I realized that I wasn't becoming more popular, just busier. And as I wrote more papers for Ray, I noticed that he wasn't spending his freed-up time studying, but partying. Mutual desperation - Ray's fear of failure and my fear of being unpopular - had drawn us into a foolish partnership, and the longer it lasted, the creepier it felt. Finally, a few weeks before the end of the term, I swore off ghost-writing forever. Ray pleaded for one last paper, but not even extra pepperoni could change my mind.

Some lessons, I guess, can only be learned the hard way. Despite seeking shortcuts, Ray acquired a bit of genuine self-knowledge at the term's end, when his grades in everything (but English) prompted him to switch majors from pre-med to business. I learned something valuable, too: I wasn’t doing anyone any favors by providing shortcuts. Not only was I being used, but I was keeping my friends from learning who and what they were meant to be. Education is all about discovering what we love and what we can do – and this includes what we don’t love and cannot do. Such discoveries are, by definition, deeply personal: they cannot be evaded, farmed out, or faked.

Given the pressure to succeed, the widespread habit of impatience, and the current economy, academic shortcuts are probably even more tempting nowadays. Still, St. Mary’s students are less obsessed with grades than students elsewhere, and as a result, there don’t seem to be many such acts of quiet desperation here. The last time I found a student plagiarizing was five years ago, when he turned in a paper downloaded from a free database. This student wasn’t a very good cheater: all it took was a simple phrase search in Google to bust him.

We professors can discourage plagiarism by monitoring the process by holding paper conferences and reading multiple drafts. But while I never assume that my students are cheating, the Chronicle article made me wonder if I’m being naive. Bartlett reported that one Essay Writers customer bought a paper on Jesus’ parables for a New Testament class at James Madison U. The sad irony of cheating on a Jesus paper aside, this example hit home: didn’t I teach a New Testament course last semester?

One student in that class failed to turn in his final paper. After e-mailing him several times and getting no response, I sputtered and fumed until I remembered that JMU paper-buyer. He didn’t understand that it’s better to fail honestly than to succeed dishonestly; and as a result, he did something stupid. My student, by contrast, silently accepted the consequences of not completing his work. His grade suffered, of course – but by handing in nothing at all, he made the smarter choice.