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Cheating, Plagiarism and Other Things Academic

Nice confessional in Sunday's Outlook section by a very much ex-writer for one of those online companies that hawk college application essays. Bess Kargman's essay reveals just how overt these ventures are about selling essays that high school seniors can then pass off as their own work when applying for college.

I wish the piece had named the company, but the decision not to do so was driven by the desire to focus on the ethics of the practice rather than devote much of the story to back and forth between the writer and the business's owner. Well, ok, but this practice is so widespread that there ought to be a mechanism for holding such businesses responsible.

Alas, what they do is legal--they claim to sell consulting services: You tell the company what you want to write about in your admissions essay and they ship you some ideas for how to structure the essay. The company then washes its hands of the next step: You the student are free to just send the colleges what you've bought, or to write your own piece. Obviously, those who are lowdown enough to buy such services are looking to avoid the work and care not a bit about creating an honest piece of work.

Which is superb training for the next step up the cheating ladder. A few weeks back, I got an email ad from a company that offered to sell me research papers on any topic. The company, believe it or not, is called Marveling at the idea of a business that sells academic papers on ethics, I sent in for more info.

I'm not a college student, but I play one on TV--uh, no, wrong script. I'm not a student, but I was nonetheless curious, in part because last year, while I was teaching a college course in writing, I heard other professors talk about students who had bought their papers online.

So I bought a paper from

I struggled to choose between a paper called "Plagiarism Is Theft" and one titled "Academic Integrity." For $9.95, I purchased the latter paper. My purchase arrived by email, adorned with ALL CAPS warnings that "All Materials sent to you by The Paper Store are for RESEARCH ASSISTANCE ONLY!" and "Under NO CIRCUMSTANCES is our Work to be Plagiarized." Glad we got that out ot the way.

"Plagiarism is Theft," according to a sample the company provided free of charge, started like this: "Plagiarism is a problem in many areas of our society..... For the most part, we assume that some level of plagiarism is acceptable, as is the case with some art in terms of objects and ideas as they are perceived and put down. But, other forms of plagiarism are incredibly serious, such as is the case when one individual steals another's exact words, piece of music, or other item."

I am not making this up (though that phrase is arguably plagiarism, but let's just call it tribute to Dave Barry and move right along.)

The paper I bought, "Academic Integrity," runs well under a page. It is three paragraphs long. If it were submitted to me by a 9th grader, I would give it a D. If a college student handed it in, I would recommend exit counseling.

It starts like this: "The term 'academic integrity' is generally understood to refer the overall honesty of students-- whether or not they cheat--that is, whether or not they give a false impression of their own achievement and knowledge, in some form."

You'll be glad to know that, according to the research by the writer of this masterwork (the bibliography cites one, count em, one source), "Some violations of academic integrity are considered less serious then others--padding a few items in a bibliography, for example." (All spelling and grammar errors in the original are maintained here.)

The trade in such drivel is rampant, not only in colleges and college applications, but in high schools, where presumably parents end up paying for many of these purchases. What to do about it? Good professors now at least spot-Google their students' papers, which catches some blatant cases of plagiarism. But that wouldn't trip up kids buying awful papers like these, which are simply sold to the various academic "help" companies by college students who may even have bought the papers from yet another party.

You could argue that none of this matters, that store-bought papers lead to thin knowledge and poor work habits, which will eventually catch up with kids as they enter the work world. But those of us who live in that work world know that all too many such people do get hired and drag down the quality of work and the honesty of the workplace.

The best weapon against such practices is sunlight. More writers like Bess Kargman need to come forward and tell their tales. Public embarrassment still has some power, but teachers, parents and students have to stand ready to wield the mighty sword of shame.

By Marc Fisher |  January 18, 2006; 6:54 AM ET
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Just FYI: Throughout my college years, more and more professors have required us students to submit both a hard copy of our papers and e-mail them the file. There's some sort of software program that scans the text of our papers and runs it through the Web to see if there are any matches. There's also a new website,, where students post their papers to a class website the professor sets up and the site scans the papers to see if it matches anything on the Web. I also had a professor last semester who went through every single entry on every student's bibliography to make sure each quote was properly cited.

Posted by: Rebecca | January 18, 2006 12:15 PM

Anyone who thinks that a college professor does any checking on papers for existance on the web is delusional. Also, there is 0% chance that a professor went through every single bibliography on anyones paper. The logistics of doing that over an entire class would be impossible.

At this point with the current collegiate educational system, so very few professors care about the content anyway. All they care about is whether the paper follows an certain format. That's it. I have written dribble only to get A's and have read other purely non-sensical papers that have gotten A's.

Posted by: kme | January 18, 2006 12:24 PM

Anyone who thinks that a college professor does any checking on papers for existance on the web is delusional

I personally know at least 3 college professors who have checked the web for papers--and turned up hits, I might add. It's so easy to check these days (and some of the phrases that were clearly not written by students present themselves like a neon sign that reads "Google me!").

Posted by: APL | January 18, 2006 12:29 PM

When I was an undergraduate, two students were suspended for submitting duplicate research papers--plagarized outright from the web--to the same essay contest in the literature department. It was pretty funny once word got out. Students can be downright stupid; yet, I don't believe "a mechanism" should be in place to punish these paper mills. It's the students who use the materials inappropriately--not the company. Then again, I don't believe guns kill people either--people kill people. But we all know where that discussion will take us, so I'm just gonna duck.

Posted by: pbq | January 18, 2006 12:30 PM

I find it hard to believe that Ms. Kargman could be so naive! Especially given the fact that she's one year removed from college...she had to know that these papers weren't going to be used for 'inspiration.'

Posted by: RS | January 18, 2006 1:05 PM

I'm a university economics professor who regularly assigns undergrad papers in medium-sized classes (~60 students). I *do* check for plagiarism, and I usually end up giving a few students a course grade of F as a result.

Even without new software tools like (mentioned in a previous comment), checking for plagiarism is much easier than students seem to think. Sad to say, most plagiarized papers stick out like a sore thumb when compared to authentic student prose -- because they are grammatical, coherently written, and well argued.

Posted by: econprof | January 18, 2006 1:08 PM

Like econprof, I, too, check for plagiarism, although I don't share his or her sanguine optimism about being able to catch it. Yes, certain blatant cases of plagiarism do stick out for the reasons he or she names; but what about, e.g., the student in a fraternity or sorority who turns in a paper from the communal "paper files" written by a brother or sister several semesters ago? I have no idea how prevalent that practice is; I wasn't in a fraternity, but I do know that the fraternities and sororities on my undergraduate college campus did keep such files.

Now that I am a professor, I find kme's casually cynical assumption that no faculty check for plagiarism in papers, or indeed for content of any kind, not just incorrect but comically so. At the same time, though, I can't help wondering if we faculty, as well as educational institutions themselves, don't share a small portion of the blame for both plagiarism and for cynical attitudes like kme's. How often do we challenge students to do work that isn't so trite that literally anyone else's work might not suffice? I must confess that I don't do that often enough.

I could go on about what I think this issue says about larger issues in higher education, but I'll stop there. Fire away.

Posted by: philprof | January 18, 2006 1:33 PM

What's really sad, all those kids that graduated from college with those phony papers and are in distinguished positions running our country.

I'm not saying all...but I think if everybody came forward on this, America would be shocked. This is definitely an underground thing that has been going on for years.

However, if you or your parents pay thousands of dollars to a college or University, they feel obligated to graduate the child.

Posted by: Frankey | January 18, 2006 1:54 PM

my university has an 'honor board' composed of administrators, faculty and students to which suspected cheaters are referred. if found guilty, they are immediately expelled with no chance of readmittance. perhaps this sanction, if more widespread, would go far toward curbing cheating. how are students so witless or lazy getting into college, anyway? that, to me, is the greater question.

Posted by: classof79 | January 18, 2006 2:17 PM

Plagiarism is a tough nut to crack for several reasons. First, I agree with the above stated views- it's quite easy to spot work that isn't the author's own. As econprof said, it really does stick out like a sore thumb (As an aside, I was in a fraternity at a fairly prestigious university and the mythical 'term paper file' did not exist... anyhow, who would want to copy from someone who didn't respect his or her work enough to keep it out of such a file?). One of the problems that I encounter is reluctance on the part of the Judicial Board to effectively punish students. The mixed composition of faculty and students on the Board nearly guarantees leniency and most students are aware of this. I advocate student participation in judicial matters but, in my experience, a jury of peers translates into one of potential coconspirators (akin to the 'us against them' mentality). In addition (and as previously mentioned), most parents find any disciplinary action unacceptable when they are paying for tuition. University administrators need to set the bar higher and demand swift, severe punishment for those caught cheating if we are to accurately reward hard work and originality. I disagree with the last post, or at least I'd like to believe that such a view is incorrect; cheating and dishonesty beget more of the same and, ultimately, what you reap is what you sow. Ask Tom DeLay.

Posted by: bio-ta | January 18, 2006 2:23 PM

It simple-the previous post (bio-ta) asks why people would copy out of the file, for the same reason, some wanted to have papers from high school mailed to them to be re-submitted; they're too lazy and will look for any alternative.

Posted by: L8 | January 18, 2006 3:24 PM

You're getting right to the nub of the matter: As econprof and philprof note, professors do indeed try to police student work, but bio-ta raises some important warning flags. There is a reluctance among college administrators to rock the boat or, more accurately, to bite the hand that pays them. I've heard one administrator after another make the argument that punishing academic dishonesty is the right thing to do, but well, we can't really do that because A) it's not worth dealing with the wrath of the parents, B) it's not "fair" to single out the kids we've caught when we know others are doing the same thing, and C) these parents are crazy--they'll probably sue us.
So the institution ends up condoning unethical behavior and the cycle continues.

Posted by: Fisher | January 18, 2006 3:25 PM

classof79 asks how the people that use these improper methods get to college. Thats definetly a good question. My guess, as I'm certainly no expert, is that they know how to play the system and take tests well.

Posted by: E5 | January 18, 2006 3:33 PM

I have taught as an adjunct professor for a number of years. I believe the modern university is a case study in ethical misbehavior, where graduate students and adjunct professors are exploited so the permanent faculty can build empires and reap monetary rewards (the former AU president is just the tip of the iceberg), and undergraduates are merely a consumer group to be satisfied while the university collects tuition money. Consequently, I never concerned myself with student plagarism. Furthermore, I was not going to devote the extra hours at a fraction of the permanent faculty's pay to attempt to catch cheaters, then go through the university process to bring them to justice. But interestingly enough, when I did have students who blatantly attempted to game the system, such that they could not escape notice, and I punished them with bad grades (or once calling a group of them "slackers"), it was the university administrations that howled the loudest. They wanted the dollars.

There is something to be said for the old adage, "you can't cheat an honest man," although obviously this is not true in all circumstances. I think cheating an honest university is equally difficult. I am persuaded that Diogenes would have a very difficult journey if he carried his lantern from campus to campus searching for an honest university administration.

Posted by: former_adjunct | January 18, 2006 4:10 PM

Parents, ultimately, bear an enormous amount of responsibility for student's unethical behavior. Many kids are raised in an environment where higher education is viewed as an expectation or entitlement, not as a privilege. A mentality exists wherein achievement is viewed as a series of hoops to be jumped through leading to the eventual attainment of a degree, job, success, happiness, etc. This thought process is both unfortunate and detrimental because learning, like life, is a process, not a box to be checked off. Reinforcement of a paradigm that values attainment as opposed to personal growth and responsibility leads students to believe that they have a right to attend college, and that parents have a right to complain (or sue!) when administrators discipline their children. Unethical behavior stems from a lack of respect for the opportunities offered by a college education. Diplomas are devalued because both students and parents view education as a purchase, not an investment.

Posted by: bio-ta | January 18, 2006 4:24 PM

classof79: "how are students so witless or lazy getting into college, anyway?"

me: what gets anyone anywhere? money, money, money. it doesn't matter how 'witless' or 'lazy' the kids are, it just matters how much money they (or their parents) can throw in for tuition. let's not forget, universities and colleges are businesses in and of themselves - out for a buck.

Posted by: College Grad | January 18, 2006 4:32 PM

Having attended the most prestigious universities in America that enforced the bell curve grading system (i.e. few students get A's, many get B's, some get C's and few get D's) I felt compelled to turn in my fellow students who cheated, and/or plagarized in the hopes of attaining the highest possible grade.

My frame of mind was either person X gets an 'A' while cheating which reduces the number of available A's or I turn that person in who cheated in which case the available number of A's remains static. I for one always chose the latter. I felt that both undergraduate and graduate school were a competition or survival of the fittest and I was not going to let any cheaters deprive me of getting my well-deserved grades.

I do believe that liberal colleges provide too many trite, hackneyed assignments such as interpret what "cogito ergo sum" is or write a phone book sized paper on the history of mankind.....etc......Personally I do not believe that these papers contribute to anything or help out the student in any way shape or form but I don't make the rules I just follow them.

Cheaters---> Watch out for big brother

Posted by: Servi | January 18, 2006 4:51 PM

Why do you pick on liberal colleges?

What would be an appropriate topic for papers?

liberal or not both cheaters can be found.

Posted by: Frankey to Servi | January 18, 2006 4:54 PM

A few years ago when I was copy editing a law school journal, I found a student note that was entirely comprised of cobbled together, unattributed quotations. The student eventually left school with only weeks to go due to the incident. Once I became editor, I found at least half our articles had numerous unattributed sources. One such article was also almost entirely unattributed quotations, and it was written by a tenured professor at an Ivy League law school. When confronted, that professor saw nothing wrong with his article and said it was a normal practice. I pulled the piece, along with several others that year for plagiarism.

Posted by: Former Editor | January 18, 2006 5:00 PM

ES comments that the students know how to play the system and take tests well. Thank you for that pefrect segue. My daughter, a senior attending a DC institution, had just related a story to me regarding a coworker who attends a different local university. Ladies and gentlemen of Academia, you need to consider the temporary confiscation of cell phones during testing. Especially those of you who tell your students the upcoming exam will be centered in the notes and guides you distribute. Students are uploading these notes in various ways -- email, memopads, etc. -- or, pulling them right off your website (in real time) from their cellular devices. The young coworker said it was common practice at her shool, then derided my daughter for wasting her time studying.
I agree with bio-ta's stance that parents bear an enormous amount of responsibility for student's unethical behavior. That said, these students are no longer children. They have signed the honor statements, and still take the slick and easy path. At this point they own their sins in toto and need to suffer the consequences. The young woman used as an example herein is a mediocre student. Likely her life will take a mediocre path. Stopping her now may reroute her, ideally with a positive outcome.

Posted by: UFGator76 | January 18, 2006 5:07 PM

Plagarism and cheating in college is a topic I have been interested in for years. When I was an undergraduate in the late 70's, my liberal arts school had an honor code policy that was strictly enforced. Plagerism and cheating occurred, but it was not that common. If you got caught, you were expelled and that was that.

When I attended a prestigous university in NY as a grad student in the late 80's, it did not have an honor code policy and I was appalled at the rampant cheating that took place. The only punishment was an F and the student was able to take the course again with a difference instructor. That did nothing to discourage cheating.

I can't say if an enforced honor code policy would improve the problem. But I do know that students today don't have a good understanding of what plagarism is. They search the Internet and cut and paste pieces into reports. There isn't a lot taught on searching out references that, horror of horrors, may actually appear in a book. They don't see citations on the Internet and therefore don't understand the importance of them. I had student tell me once, that she wasn't sure what she should footnote. My answer to that her -- if you copied it from another source then footnote it because that means you are using someone else's ideas. No one every is graded down for having footnotes that indicate source material.

Posted by: School_daze | January 18, 2006 5:26 PM

This is for the Econ prof who states that he can tell a students prose compared to a plagiarized paper. I take serious offense to that. I am a student and spend hours researching my topics, gathering my data, writing and rewriting my papers to the point that I feel they are perfect and even then I go on and continue editing. Then and only then, do I turn the paper in hoping that I will get an A. Maybe your students are not great writers, but there are those of us out there who truly enjoy writing. Ernest Hemingway said, “Prose is architecture, not interior decoration”, every time we use words we should be building something not just putting curtains on the window. Making sweeping statements like that as a professor makes me question your commitment to the next generation of economic leaders. I hope that when you see all these errors, you take the time to educate your students. That is what their tuition goes for right?

I hope that a well-written paper is not your only proof for plagiarism. I hope that you go further and use the bibliography to ensure that they paper was copied and not written by an intelligent being who has a knack for using the English language.

Posted by: Scared Student | January 18, 2006 6:06 PM

Former-adjunct saddens me. "I never concerned myself with student plagarism. Furthermore, I was not going to devote the extra hours at a fraction of the permanent faculty's pay to attempt to catch cheaters, then go through the university process to bring them to justice." You feel your pay level indicates your degree of professionalism. Boo hoo. So, you weren't backed by your administration. Welcome to teaching as a profession, and the day-to-day battle that exists for ALL REAL teachers. This is true of K-PhD.
You choset he next time to be silent rather than the lone voice of truth. Who could respect you? Neither student, parent, nor faculty at that point. What about yourself? How well did you sleep at night?
In my days teaching high school I refused to pass a star football player because he was, in general, a dolt -- an example of procreation between the alumni and publicity seeking administration. He sat in class every day, heard my instruction, had all materials, was present to benifit from fellow student's participation and questions. He primped and posed and engaged in a self-love fest. Failing.
I was overrided by the administration who, through my department head, explained the unwritten law regarding star athletes. Pass them. Period.
Still, I stood my ground and many of my students were influenced by this. Rather than viewing me as a powerless presence they rallied around and openly proclaimed their disgust. Producing good grades, participating in dialogue, learning.
Where is that love child today? A big time college coach -- who places no emphasis on grades -- and is supported by alumni and administration all the way. The inbreeding continues.
I may not have changed anything about the system, but standing up for what is right allowed some wonderful young people to see that others stood with them -- faculty and peers.
Instead of taking the money and remaining silent I left my position. You see, I like to hold my head high. And, I enjoy sleeping with a clear conscience -- it cuts down on alumni/administration procreation.

Posted by: UFGator76 | January 18, 2006 6:12 PM

To Scared Student: Bravo!

Posted by: UFGator76 | January 18, 2006 6:16 PM

To Servi: What a rat you are. But yeah, plagiarism is a damn shame.

Posted by: Anonymous | January 18, 2006 7:18 PM

Dude, you wrote an entire column based on that three-paragraph paper, and got paid for it! I'd say you at least recovered your $9.95 investment. You are a true firstling of the mind. Crudeaux! (Note: I invented that word and hereby place it in the public domain, but not as part of the English language.)

Posted by: Ted | January 18, 2006 7:46 PM

To Scared Student: In this cryptic format, my comments may have seemed sweeping and harsh. I apologize if that was the case.

Don't be scared. Of course there are students who write very well, and they get good marks. However, they rarely produce the professional-quality writing that you see in many plagiarized papers, and attentive professors can tell the difference.

I care quite a bit about teaching my students to write.

That's why (unlike many colleagues) I assign papers.

That's why (unlike many colleagues) I have students write multiple drafts over the semester.

That's why (unlike many colleagues) I actually check carefully to make sure that students are learning by doing their own work.

There are professors (like me, I hope) who want to reward serious effort by serious students. I think that we actually agree much more than we disagree.

Posted by: econprof | January 18, 2006 8:26 PM

The website is called -- both of my sons' schools (in MCPS) subscribe to it. The kids can check their papers using one of's utilities to make sure they aren't plagiarizing. The student's paper is turned in via the website, where the teacher retrieves it (and runs it through the checker, I would presume). Turnitin assures student privacy, but needless to say, I am concerned.

It can generate some false positives (i.e., citing as possible plagiarism the lengthy title of an article), but it does make kids more aware of what they are doing. Cut-and-paste as writing comes awfully easy to this generation of wired, web-savvy kids. It's unfortunate it's come to this.

Posted by: Parent of two | January 18, 2006 8:34 PM

Gosh, the "sunlight" thing should be sourced to Justice Brandeis. It's the best disinfectant, he said, and so his reference point is somewhat distanced from yours, but still--how many people would have thought of "sunlight" as an image?

I know that you must have put it there to see if some of us are awake, but
if this were the work of one of my writing students at the University at Buffalo, I'd ask for a credit to Brandeis for the idea.

Linda Chalmer Zemel
Lecturer, University at Buffalo Dep't of English

Posted by: Linda Chalmer Zemel | January 18, 2006 9:12 PM

Sorry, but Brandeis will have to settle for credit for his many other fine ideas and turns of phrase. The idea of sunlight serving as the surest path to truth is biblical. Credit the Essenes, not a Supreme Court justice. And the image is such a commonplace as to need no sourcing.

Posted by: Fisher | January 18, 2006 11:09 PM

The desire to get ahead at any cost – at any level of education – is the ultimate catalyst for the paper-hawking industry. A friend and I tried to join the related essay-editing industry and discovered that ethics plus energy don’t necessarily equal profits. In its original form, our company provided editing services to students applying for jobs, undergraduate programs and every shade of graduate school. Using a mostly online marketing technique with some local flyer and postcard campaigns, we generated only 10 sales in four months. That doesn’t pay the bills. So we’re on hold until we find a better strategy. When confronted with the options of “consulting” on essay/ résumé writing or shutting down a business, ethics are harder to justify.

On an aside, I would almost wager I could identify the company Bess Kargman worked for. And yes, she is terribly naïve, or at least a hopeless optimist.

But writing papers, essays and résumés does make money. To me, there’s no difference in the ethical failure to copy/paste a paper from a Web-based assignment factory and hiring someone to write it for you. The bottom line is the unscrupulous soul isn’t producing an original product yet lying to someone that the submitted content is theirs.

Whether we’re discussing kids in college cheating on papers or a professional embellishing a résumé, the issue at hand is encouraging people to take responsibility for their work and punishing laziness. Editing services offer an opportunity for students or applicants to improve THEIR work. As long as individuals spent the hours sweating out an original document, the desire to improve it by paying for a professional to read it is OK.

Thoughts on the editing industry vs. paper-writing industry?

Posted by: Essay editor | January 19, 2006 12:40 PM

Before I semi-retired from resume writing, I used to constantly get queries about doing term papers. Once the caller learned what it actually costs to have something like that researched and written they'd start shopping online for some crappy service like the one mentioned.

But I did and still do personal statements to help students get into grad schools. I make them tell me what to say, but then I do the actual writing. I see no reason to penalize people because they were allowed to graduate without learning how to write. Yes, I wish my doctor's writing skills were at least as good as her penmanship, but that doesn't really impact the quality of the medicine she practices.

IMHO, no undergraduate should be allowed to matriculate without being able to write a coherent essay. Others, however, would say that said graduation should also require the ability to do your own taxes, something I cannot do for the life of me.

Posted by: Mark Gisleson | January 23, 2006 10:02 AM

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