Recently, I spoke to someone who had been hired to write papers for a university student. I knew that there were services available that would either resell older student papers or connect a student to someone who will write their papers for them, but I never expected to interact with someone who had participated in this industry.
You will wonder if the person felt that the work had been wrong. I didn't ask that that exact question, but sensed that earning money trumped that concern. In reality, it is the student who would get into trouble if it was discovered that the work was not his/her own and not the person who has been hired to do the work.
This is a topic that is discussed in the news on occasion (e.g., Chronicle of Higher Education, Nov. 12, 2010 and Nov. 22, 2010 which call these writers "shadow scholars"). In the past few days, I've talked about this with a few colleagues/friends and concerns regarding copyright, integrity and ethics have arose, as well as detection. That had led me to writing this blog post in order to share some thoughts on this more publicly.
Areas of Concerns:
Copyright - One person's immediate reaction was that there was a copyright violation; however, I would argue that paper was a work-for-hire. In this case, the writer has been paid to write the paper for the student, and the copyright becomes owned by the student. Therefore, there isn't a copyright violation.
Integrity - One concern is that the student is not representing his/her abilities honestly. This means that the grade for the work does not reflect what the student can honestly do, nor does it mean that the professor has a correct impression of the student's abilities. The professor may offer a recommendation for the student based on the work, and thus unknowingly misrepresent what the student is actually capable of.
Ethics - Most, if not all (at least in the U.S.), academic institutions have rules of conduct, which include rules about the student's work being the person's own work. These rules and expectations are often in the student handbook as well as on course syllabi. Professors may even spend time during the class discussing this expectation. And universities have processes in place to handle students who break these rules of conduct (e.g., judiciary boards).
Yes, the student has acted unethically and so has the "shadow scholar", whether that is someone hired to do the work or a parent who is trying to be helpful. For parents, I can see how the lines between being supportive and doing the work for the student can get blurred. Parents often read their children's papers and offer feedback. However, wouldn't it just be simple to go and fix paper for the student? And then wouldn't it be helpful to do some of the research? And... Yet being helpful isn't teaching the student anything except that it is not necessary for the student to do his/her own work.
I can imagine that the shadow scholar, who is hired to write papers, sees an opportunity for making money that can't be turned down. The person will gladly tell you that the work isn't against the law, even if it is unethical.
What Causes Things to be Blurry - A number of years ago, I heard a professor speak about plagiarism and how it is a more blurry subject that we imagine. Students plagiarize for a number of reasons including:
- Not having the language skills necessary to write original text.
- Not having a deep understanding of the topic in order to write original text.
- Coming from a culture where copying text is not seen as being wrong (in fact, it may show respect to copy what others have said).
- Not knowing how to edit or reword text in order to give it an original spin.
- Being overwhelmed with work and thus looking for an easier way of getting some of the work done.
- Seeing others plagiarize where it is deemed to be "legal" and not knowing when it is not okay to plagiarize. For example, an business executive takes text prepared by employees and uses it as-is in a report that he puts his name on. Although he would see text as a work-for-hire, he has not acknowledged that the work is not his own.
Doctoral students are sometimes counseled to hired an editor in order to fix grammar problems, etc., in a dissertation. This is seen as acceptable. The student's doctoral committee would be intimate with the topic and the student's work in order to detect if the student hired someone to do more than just edit.
It is the ways that things get blurry that could lead to copyright, integrity and ethical concerns, and perhaps cause a student to hire someone do his/her work. As we might say...a slippery slope.
Detection - Did the student do original work? Internet searches on text, looking at the language usage in a paper, and tools like Turnitin will help a professor understand how original a student's work is. However, if a student hired someone to write the paper, the paper should be original so these tools/techniques would be meaningless. (If the student brought a paper that had been used previously, Turnitin might detect that the work is not original.) [I must note here that have a digital repository of papers - whether those papers were born digital or digitized - helps professors and services locate text that is not original. Yes, even in this post, there is a spot to mention digitization!]
As other professors have noted, understanding what has been discussed in class and in the readings can help you detect papers that do not reflect what is occurring in the class. Looking at the person's writing style can also help you detect work that is not theirs (e.g., word usage and sentence construction), although it might also indicate that the student went to the writing center for help.
Another solution is to give student's assignments that require that they use what they are learning in class and which requires them to do work that would be difficult to outsource. I know...not all assignments are like this or should be like this (e.g., literature reviews), which means that professors are always opening themselves up to receiving work that is not the student's own.
And What About Prospective Employers? - Does this mean that a prospective employer should view all applicant grades with suspicion? If the employer wants to be sure that the grade and degree reflect what the person knows, should the employer ask more detailed questions? ("Tell me about...") I can imagine job applicants being annoyed with detailed questions about what they learned, yet that would be one way of ensuring that the person has the necessary knowledge.
By the way, we don't always think about what it means once the cheating student is out of school. Will the person continue to hire others to do his/her work? Will the person make bad or inaccurate decisions because of knowledge never gained? Will the person empower another generation of students who don't do their own work?
As I sit here, my mind turns to the spring semester, which will start in a matter of weeks. The questions above swirl in my mind and I wonder what should I do differently? What can I do differently? I have no perfect answers, the same predicament as my peers. (Actually, the "perfect" solution would be to have each student meet with the professor individually to discuss/recite what he/she is learning, etc. But it would be much too time intensive for most classes to be practical, due to the number of students.) If my wondering leads me to a workable solution, I'll let you know.
If you have thoughts, comments, concerns, solutions, etc., I hope you will share them with me.