Ghostwritten Essays and the Problem of Cheating

Ransom Riggs

My father-in-law is a college professor. He teaches English and Drama, and in his many years behind the podium, he's seen -- and caught -- just about every form of cheating you can imagine. Whole papers copy-pasted from the encyclopedia, or more recently, Wikipedia. Papers he remembers, word for word, that had been turned previously in by students in semesters past. His school pays for anti-cheating software that can detect when large chunks of an essay have been copied, unattributed, from another source, but one thing neither software or, often times, a professor, can detect with any regularity is whether a student is paying someone to write their essays for them.

I didn't realize how pervasive this problem was until I read this article in The Chronicle of Higher Education. It's written by a fellow, using the pseudonym "Ed Dante," who spent close to a decade as a writer-for-hire, working for a "custom essay company." But, he writes, "I'm planning to retire. I'm tired of making your students look competent."

A custom essay can cost upwards of $2,000 -- more if it's a rush job. What I found really staggering, though, was that his services went way beyond just writing the occasional essay assignment. In his own words:

I have become a master of the admissions essay. I have written these for undergraduate, master's, and doctoral programs, some at elite universities. I can explain exactly why you're Brown material, why the Wharton M.B.A. program would benefit from your presence, how certain life experiences have prepared you for the rigors of your chosen course of study. I do a lot of work for seminary students. I like seminary students. I have been commissioned to write many a passionate condemnation of America's moral decay as exemplified by abortion, gay marriage, or the teaching of evolution. All in all, we may presume that clerical authorities see these as a greater threat than the plagiarism committed by the future frocked.

He's also written graduate thesis papers, completed entire courses online and participated in online "class discussions," fabricated emails to teachers and professors, and on and on. (The people he does the most work for? Students completing degrees in education. Yep: the future teachers and professors of America.)

He details at length a 75-page paper on business ethics (seriously) that he wrote for a young woman in business school. He prints some of the panicked emails he received from her during the process, and they are, if nothing else, shocking. Here's a sampling:

"did u get the sorce I send please where you are now? Desprit to pass spring projict"

He wrote the 75-page paper for his client in two days. He got this response:

"Thanx u so much for the chapter is going very good the porfesser likes it but wants the folloing suggestions please what do you thing?: "'The hypothesis is interesting but I'd like to see it a bit more focused. Choose a specific connection and try to prove it.' "What shoudwe say?"

So he becomes a kind of permanent ghostwriter for this student, and crafts emails to the professor, and finally, a 160-page thesis paper based on the original essay. His client's response, finally was this: "thanx so much for uhelp ican going to graduate to now".

Personally, I don't quite know what to think about this. Is it a symptom of living in a society that demands a college education of almost all its higher-paid citizens? Proof that college isn't, and shouldn't be, for everyone? Or is it moral bankruptcy and free market economics and busy professors who turn a blind eye? Because how could this professor, who almost certainly had face-to-face meetings with this student, and perhaps exchanged emails with her, not realize that this person was incapable of stringing together a coherent paragraph? Wouldn't a simple oral defense of the thesis have exposed her cheating?

You would think so. But Dante closes with this:

I work hard for a living. I'm nice to people. But I understand that in simple terms, I'm the bad guy. I see where I'm vulnerable to ethical scrutiny. But pointing the finger at me is too easy. Why does my business thrive? Why do so many students prefer to cheat rather than do their own work? Say what you want about me, but I am not the reason your students cheat. You know what's never happened? I've never had a client complain that he'd been expelled from school, that the originality of his work had been questioned, that some disciplinary action had been taken. As far as I know, not one of my customers has ever been caught.

So what to do?