Term paper trafficking

See an update to this story here.

Despite laws in Massachusetts and 16 other states, lawsuits, honor codes, and even sophisticated plagiarism-detection software, college students continue to buy term papers and other academic material from individuals and companies that have built a thriving business out of cheating.

Websites with names like Papergeeks.com, 15000papers.com, Schoolsucks.com, and echeat.com advertise easy access to recycled and “customized” term papers with catchy slogans like “Download Your Workload” and “It’s Not Cheating, It’s Collaborating.”

Craigslist, that purveyor of virtually anything and everything, offers hundreds of listings from people ready, willing, and occasionally able to write term papers for students. They come with enticing come-ons like, “Don’t want to write your papers? That’s OK. We don’t think you should have to either!” Another says, “Give me your stress and I will give you peace of mind and an A+.” The email address was telling: studyless_partymore @yahoo.com.

CommonWealth set out to explore this shadowy underworld. Posing as a student over a three-month period from July to September, I emailed a request for a 20- page, double-spaced term paper written about physician assisted suicide to 66 individuals and companies advertising on the Boston site of Craigslist. Sixty-two responses came back, quoting prices ranging from $90 to $1,200. The average price was $370, or $18.50 a page. I also contacted a handful of other businesses about admissions essays or a dissertation literature review.

Many of the term paper writers boasted of Ivy League pedigrees and stellar writing skills in their ads. Not all of them were truthful. Eddie H., the founder of Ivy League Essays, a frequent advertiser on Craigslist, claims to be a senior at Columbia University, but in an interview he admitted he was not.

A writer identifying herself as doctoral student Allison Murphy promised that none of her work would be plagiarized. But much of a writing sample she sent along about the privatization of prisons was taken word for word, comma for comma, from the website www.privatization ofprisons.com.

Still, many of the writers for hire appear to have impressive credentials. Dr. Rivka Colen, a physician practicing at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, offered to write or edit admissions essays for medical school. Her fee to write four essays was $800. Colen said in a follow-up telephone interview that she does writing on the side “to help out medical students” and that she provides students with a questionnaire to complete before writing their essays for them.

A person who identified herself as Elie Losleben, who wanted $950 to write the 20-page paper on physician assisted suicide, said she is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University with a master’s degree in public health and is currently working for a nonprofit organization in Liberia helping poor women start businesses.

“I don’t get caught,” Losleben crowed in an email exchange. “I’m a professional writer and I know how to change narrative voice to meet the needs of my clients. Kind of like an actress, after reading one or two of your papers, I know how to mimic the way that you write.”

Damian Bonazzolli, who promised a “quality grade” if he was hired to write the 20-page paper, responded to an initial inquiry by sending, unsolicited, his résumé. It indicated he is a senior staff attorney for the Massachusetts Appeals Court, a job that pays him $94,000 a year, according to state records. He wanted $300 to write the paper on physician-assisted suicide.

In an email exchange, Bonazzolli said turning in a paper that he had written would not be illegal. “I am aware of no state or federal statute that prohibits such a practice. This is not the equivalent of, say, lying on a federal employment or tax form,” he said. “Could your school take disciplinary action? Of course. But that’s quite different from a criminal prosecution.”

In a follow-up telephone interview, Bonazzoli insisted that students should abide by the ethics codes of their schools and added that he was unaware of the Massachusetts law on term papers.

Passed in 1972, the Massachusetts statute outlaws the sale of a “theme, term paper, thesis or other paper or the written results of research” if those involved know or have reason to know that the material will be submitted for academic credit and represented as original work. The law also prohibits individuals from taking an exam for someone else. Admissions essays, like those Colen offered to write, are not mentioned in the law. Violators are subject to a fine of not more than $100, imprisonment for not more than six months, or both. Sixteen other states have similar laws, and most colleges and universities have policies on academic integrity prohibiting students from passing off someone else’s work as their own.

SKIRTING THE LAW

Many term paper writers claim they are not actually writing term papers for others but are instead providing “model” research for students to use as guides to write their own papers. Other term paper writers say they are serving as tutors. Some even say students need to cite the company in the reference list of their term papers.

But Darby Dickerson, dean of the law school at Stetson University in Gulfport, Florida, and the author of a 2007 article on academic plagiarism in the Villanova Law Review that said “cheating and plagiarism are as common on college campuses as dirty laundry and beer,” says the disclaimers that appear on many of the term paper websites are put there to provide cover. “The term-paper mills often characterize the services they offer in such a way to skirt state laws,” she says.

A person who identified himself as Kevin Matteson of Gloucester, a former bartender, martial arts teacher, massage therapist, and graduate of Rhode Island College, offered to write a “model paper” on physician-assisted suicide for $400. “We are not doing anything wrong,” he said in an email. “You are just one of the many important people who hire a writer to produce top-quality work.” When I wrote back to Matteson saying I didn’t think my school would buy Matteson’s interpretation, he responded: “I wouldn’t buy it either.”

In its Craigslist ad, McBell Research said “nothing illegal is going on here” and added on its website that it does not “condone nor encourage the violation of academic integrity policies and discourages such misuse.” Yet when I wrote back to McBell, which quoted a price of $500 to write the 20-page paper on physician-assisted suicide, that I would be taking its paper and turning it in to my professor, an unidentified official at the company turned less strident. “You’re more than welcome to do anything with the work involved. The disclaimer is more of a formality than anything,” the official said in an email.

Other term paper writers brazenly acknowledge they know their customers are passing in the papers they write for them. One woman, who identified herself as Carol Rockwell and offered to write the term paper for $210, said in an email that “this is a faith-based business” where both writer and student want to avoid trouble.“We would have just as much to lose if we were caught as you,” she said. “Some of us are still affiliated with our universities [and] . . . a few are still working on doctorate degrees.”

Rockwell, who says she has a doctorate in clinical psychology and lives in the Boston area, wrote that her business dealings with clients can go on a long time. “Much of what we do involves repeat clients that will use us for one assignment and then use us repeatedly until they reach degree attainment,” she said. “In some cases, as funny as it sounds, we even have ‘regulars’ that once they complete their degree, we will write their applications for their next degree, complete their work for that program, [and] often do their master’s thesis.”

In follow-up interviews with many of the term paper writers after they were informed that CommonWealth was preparing a story, some became angry that anyone would expose what they are doing. Others were surprisingly cavalier. Losleben, the Johns Hopkins graduate, jokingly offered to write the article for CommonWealth for $500.

A writer who identified herself as Joy Adeyemi, whose Craigslist ad said, “I’ll write your paper. It’s that simple,” said she used to help fellow students with their essays and homework and one day asked herself, “Why not get paid for it?”

Another term paper writer who identified himself only as Obtruhamchi said he is trying to help students survive academia. “I am making it easier for the people who might actually make some type of difference to get through the trash heap of our educational system and out into the real world,” he said.

In interviews with students from Boston University, Northeastern University, Harvard University, and the Universities of Massachusetts at Boston and at Lowell, they said they had stumbled across term paper suppliers doing Google searches.

Most said they had never bought a term paper or known anyone who had. But one recent graduate of Northeastern admitted that he had written a history paper for someone else for $200, and Renee Lee, who graduated earlier this year from UMass–Boston, says she knew two or three students who wrote papers for many students at the school.

“I know 10 people off the top of my head that they wrote papers for. I’m sure there are others that I don’t know about,” says Lee. The cost was $10 a page for a “B” paper, according to Lee, or more for an “A” paper. “One of my friends arranged that every single one of her papers for at least two full semesters be written by the guys in question,” she says, adding that no one was ever caught.

Many students said they are routinely warned at the start of a semester that their work will be checked for plagiarism using Google or plagiarism-detection software. “They have explicitly told us the rules and consequences regarding plagiarism and have told us on occasion about the software used to detect plagiarism,” says Christina Giordano, a student at Harvard.

“Most journalism professors I’ve had basically said on the first day of class that if you cheat or plagiarize anything in the class, you fail the course, no questions asked,” says Kathryn Barlet, a student at Northeastern. “A lot of other professors don’t even mention it, and I don’t really think that plagiarism is taken as seriously as it should be in some cases.”

IT’S A CANCER’

Officials at several Boston area colleges and universities had little to say about the subject of plagiarism. The press offices at Northeastern University, Boston College, Tufts University, MIT, and Harvard were unable to find anyone who would speak on the subject. Joan Liem, dean of graduate studies at UMass–Boston, said she’s aware that some plagiarism goes on at the school but didn’t provide any details. A spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education said the agency does not track plagiarism incidents. And officials at Craigslist did not respond to repeated requests for their views on the legality and ethics of the term paper writing services being advertised on their website.

“It really isn’t an issue,” says Colin Riley, head of media relations at Boston University. “It probably happens from time to time,” he says, “but it’s not anything widespread. This is something you’re never going to stop, people finding shortcuts.”

Donald McCabe, a business professor at Rutgers University who has written extensively on academic dishonesty, says, “One of the difficulties in doing the work I do is the reluctance of some schools to survey their students.

Many seem to be afraid of what they might find out and the impact of any negative findings if they become public.” Many professors fight back against term paper cheating by crafting very specific assignments or by requiring students to turn in drafts. Many universities also use plagiarism-detection software. TurnItIn.com, the industry leader, provides its software to 10,000 client institutions in 110 countries that pay $1 per student per year for unlimited use. Available in 31 languages, TurnItIn will analyze 80 million term papers in 2010 for plagiarism, or more precisely, “matching text.” On its busiest days, TurnItIn examines a quarter of a million papers.

One-third of all papers processed by TurnItIn are “less than original,” according to TurnItIn president John Barrie. “Plagiarism is absolutely pervasive,” he says. “It’s a cancer. If students don’t do their own work, their schools turn into degree-printing houses.”

The whole notion of plagiarism has evolved over time. Hard as it is to imagine, there was a time when college students were not required to write papers. In her book Competing Notions of Authorship, Sue Simmons Carter reports that in the 18th and early 19th centuries, American colleges and universities offered instruction mostly in what was called rhetoric, requiring their students to present information in speeches. But that all changed when rhetoric was replaced by instruction in writing. And so the term paper began, and plagiarism came with it.

Fast forward to the 1960s and early 1970s, which saw the arrival of a new enterprise: term paper mills. These started as barebones storefronts where students could simply walk in and buy a recycled paper or order a “custom-written” paper just as easily as buying a burger at McDonald’s.

In Boston, companies such as Universal Research began advertising in underground and campus newspapers and posting flyers on college bulletin boards. The owner of Universal, who called himself “Mr. Papers,” told the Harvard Crimson in 1971, “I can’t believe this is happening to me. Last October, I didn’t have enough money to wash my own laundry. Now I’m earning more money than Nate Pusey,” who was then president of Harvard.

The term paper mills were condemned by the universities in Boston, led by Boston University. BU, in fact, filed a lawsuit in state court in the early 1970s that led to permanent injunctions prohibiting the defendant term paper companies from operating in Massachusetts.

The next year saw the passage in Massachusetts of a criminal statute outlawing the sale of term papers, but no attorney general or district attorney has ever filed a case under the statute. When the term paper companies didn’t go away, BU went back into state court in the early 1980s and sued more of them, resulting in more permanent injunctions being issued.

But still the term paper cheating continued and accelerated with the rise of the Internet. The problem became so widespread that, in 1997, BU found it necessary to ramp up its attack, this time running a sting operation in which university representatives purchased term papers about Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved from a whole slew of companies. The university then sued the companies, this time in federal court, alleging they were violating the RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) statute in terms of mail and wire fraud, the Massachusetts term paper statute, and the Massachusetts Consumer Protection Act.

But the court dismissed the RICO claim based on technical pleading deficiencies, dismissed the action under the term paper statute on grounds that a private party like BU could not bring such a suit, and disallowed the claim under the Consumer Protection Act because BU was not engaged in trade or commerce at the time its agents purchased the term papers and thus did not have standing.

Eleven years later, at least one of the companies sued by BU—The Paper Store—is still in business operating under the domain name www.paperstore.net, as well under 50 other website addresses. The websites offer papers with such titles as “Ethical Considerations in Academic Plagiarism” (five pages, three references, $49.75) and “Plagiarism is Theft” (seven pages, seven references, $69.65). The Paper Store even has a website devoted specifically to papers on ethics (www.ethicspapers.com).

Meet the Author
John Silber, the former president of BU who oversaw the university’s legal crackdowns on term paper suppliers, initially declined comment, saying it was not his place and he was busy working on a book about philosopher Immanuel Kant. But when later told there is a website specializing in providing papers on Kant (www.kantessays.com), Silber fired back an email saying, “I was stunned to read this brazen piece of corruption concerning papers on Kant. I wish there were a way I could put these saboteurs of the educational process out of business.”

Kevin McKenna, an associate dean at Clark University in Worcester, says the stakes are huge in stopping term paper cheating. “The individual who cheats his way to earning a degree has defined his character,” says McKenna. “This will be reflected in what kind of citizen he will be and how he behaves in the workforce. It is for the benefit of all that we shed light on these activities with the hope of ending them.”