"I Helped College Kids Cheat" Inside the Academic Fraud Industry
Academic paper mills—the companies that write papers for students—don’t really advertise. One doesn’t see their services in the backs of magazines or populating the margins of Web pages. If such companies market at all, it’s frequently done using spam text, with links, in the comments section of Web sites read by college students. On one such site recently, for example, “SolisSharon26” posted the following item:
Young people who are studying in the universities feel necessity for professional writing online because usually they do not have enough time so that deal with there assignments by themselves. Browse the site and you will find the firm which crew is accessible 24/7 to order essay.
I’m not sure I’d trust people who write like this with my credit card number, much less to take care of my Intro to American Government term paper. But there are more professional ads like this all over the Internet, where a cheating student can follow the link provided, send a fee, and in a few hours or days receive a paper. It’s pretty easy to picture the stressed-out or lazy students who buy this stuff. It’s harder to imagine the kind of people who make their living producing it.
This world became a little less shadowy when, on November 12, 2010, the Chronicle of Higher Education ran an article, “The Shadow Scholar,” in which a writer using the pseudonym Ed Dante wrote that he’d been turning out American college students’ essays for the last decade. Dante had written some 5,000 papers. “I work at a company that generates tens of thousands of dollars a month creating essays based on … instructions provided by cheating students. On any day, I am working on upward of 20 assignments. You’ve never heard of me,” he explained, “but there’s a good chance that you’ve read some of my work.” At least if you are a professor.
A few readers thought Ed Dante was made up. One blogger wrote that the Chroniclepiece, which became the publication’s most-read article, seemed to have been written by someone “skilled in the art of literary hoaxes.” In fact, he was very much a real person. Meet Dave Tomar, freelance journalist, Rutgers graduate, and Phillies fan.
Tomar used the Chronicle article as the basis for his new book, The Shadow Scholar: How I Made a Living Helping College Kids Cheat, the story of his life as an academic fraudster. Tomar wrote every day, and he wrote about anything. He wrote about the policies of the Jackson administration. He wrote lesson plans for gym teachers. He produced papers on cancer cell structure and how to develop appropriate study skills in elementary school children. He even wrote love poems and once helped someone edit her profile on Match.com. He’d do these pieces one right after another, routinely churning out five or six papers a day.
What could have been a depressing tale becomes, in Tomar’s hands, a funny and charming read. He writes of one Thanksgiving spent with a girlfriend’s family: through-out the meal, his girlfriend’s father berated him for helping people cheat; the next week, the girl’s mother called Tomar to ask him to write a paper for a friend’s daughter. Then there was the time he wrote an entire doctoral dissertation, 160 pages, for a psychology program. The graduate student gave him $4,000 and one page of instructions. It was, says Tomar, “like buying a used car on the specifications that it had four wheels and was blue.”
At a time when his friends were moving into condos and going to conferences and working at jobs with cubicles and 401(k) plans, Tomar was living a very different life:
On a romantic getaway, I sneak in a last-minute assignment while the lady gets dressed for dinner. When I ride the bus, I type furiously while apologizing to those around me for my flying elbows. I write papers in crowded bars. I write papers in the midst of drunken debauchery, pausing between paragraphs to hit the blunt going around the room. Sometimes during my Thursday-night poker games, I write a few sentences every time I fold a hand. Once I wandered through an antique garden in New Orleans searching desperately for a wireless Internet signal via which to submit my paper on toxicology. I battered my keyboard furiously at the edge of a hotel bed in Las Vegas, reasoning out an assignment on the cognitive psychology tool known as the Johari window just before the strippers showed up for a bachelor party. I wrote a paper on improving English curriculum design on a midnight flight to Chicago, buzzed on Valium, scotch, and acrophobia.
Reading this book is sort of like watching an indie movie take on the academic cheating industry. It’s a light romp—complete with irony, self-deprecation, fun regional adventures, and an understanding hipster girlfriend—through what one might ordinarily think of as one of the world’s worst jobs. Despite this lightness, The Shadow Scholar is ultimately an indictment not just of the paper mill industry—which has, let’s be honest, few real defenders—but of the contemporary higher education system, which allows the industry to flourish. For instance, says Tomar, he’d write a paper, often plagiarized, but with heavy use of a thesaurus, because the student has to submitit via a plagiarism detector software like Turnitin.com. The paper gets a passing grade, the student is happy, and presumably the professor is none the wiser. But it is hard to believe that colleges themselves are unaware that these tactics are widespread. And it is not clear, Tomar argues, that they have much motivation to investigate the problem. Indeed, there is a sort of sleaze triangle of academia at work here, with for-profit ghostwriting companies, for-profit plagiarism-protection sites, and universities—many of them for-profit these days—all making money in a fake academic exercise in which students pay for credits they did not earn.
Tomar suggests that today’s students are more likely to cheat because of a combination of factors unique to people born in the last twenty-five years. Students today, he writes, are characterized by a “sense of entitlement, a constant need for validation, and a mediocre work ethic.” At the same time, they expect fast and easy entertainment. They have short attention spans, and they’ve been constantly receiving gratuitous praise for minor accomplishments from their parents. Together with the convenience and power of the Internet, we’ve created students very eager to have someone else do their work.
This is rhetorically rather compelling, but is it true? The book’s major flaw is that the proof for the level of academic dishonesty Tomar is exposing remains frustratingly anecdotal. He amasses a lot of evidence about student loan debt and class size and grade inflation, but he fails to demonstrate that students today are really cheating more. After all, organized systems of plagiarism have existed on campus for decades. Any decent fraternity will have in its library a filing cabinet stocked with papers on everything from the German Renaissance to Dr. King’s March on Washington. If there is more cheating today, the simplest explanation is not that today’s students are lazier or more dishonest but that the Web makes academic fraud easier to engage in.
Certainly all of the students with whom Tomar interacted seem to be selfish, demanding, dependent, and eager to cheat. But that’s a self-selected group of people, and it’s neither fair nor accurate to say that they represent American young people as a whole. Indeed, there’s every reason to believe that this industry attracts the very worst American students, intellectually, morally, emotionally.
Even if Tomar’s thesis is a little weak, however, he does manage to evoke how academic dishonesty really works now. The increasing size of the administration of American higher education has made college mind-numbing and impersonal for many students. (“If you’d like to pay your semester student fees by credit card, please press one.”) What Tomar manages to demonstrate is that the faceless bureaucracy of the American university extends beyond the school and into its affiliated industries—even the illicit ones.