College essay mills challenge academic integrity

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Next up on The World and Everything in It: buying college essays.

Cheating isn’t new, of course. But the internet has made this particular kind of cheating easier than ever.

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: Yeah, a quick Google search turns up hundreds of websites called “essay mills” offering made-to-order essays—for a small fee. And they’re churning out cheaters faster than colleges can catch them.

WORLD Radio’s Anna Johansen reports now on what universities are doing to counter the cheaters.

ANNA JOHANSEN, REPORTER: The McHenry County College library is pretty crowded today. This is where students come to study or meet with tutors.

MONTES: We write a lot of papers usually in a lot of my classes. Even if it’s like in microeconomics, I do it in English, I do it like in any class that’s not math pretty much.

This is Ada Montes. She’s getting her associates in biological science. When asked if it’s hard to keep up with all the essays, she and fellow sophomore Bailey Gorman are emphatic.

STUDENT: Yeah, always. Always. Yeah. Yeah, sometimes I ask my mom. I like wait til the last minute too and I’m like, shoot, I tried to come up with something but I can’t.

Writing essays takes a lot of time. And while Montes and Gorman say they’ve always managed to keep up, other students sometimes turn to questionable methods to complete all their assignments.

DYER: So if you take a look at these three, just for example, here’s Here’s, and here’s

This is Jarret Dyer. He runs the specialized testing center at College of DuPage. He’s talking about three popular online essay mills. Students enter their assignment parameters and credit card information…and the website returns a completed paper.

Dyer says the sites are polished and aggressive.

DYER: We’ve seen directed emails to students that say, Anna, I understand you’re in Education 101 and in Bio 102 and from the course syllabus, you have a project due next week in both classes. Let us help you. Anna, why haven’t you responded? Day three, Anna, it’s really easy, it’s only $14.95. And it’s at this point that the students at least click through to see it and then it’s downhill from there.

Essay mills insist their services aren’t cheating. In the fine print, the sites say they expect a student to modify the essay before submitting it as their own work. But that’s not exactly how they market themselves. boasts, “No one will find out about you using our service. The whole world will think you write all assignments by yourself!” You can even chat with the real writer and they’ll mimic your personal writing style.

DIDDAMS: With the nature of technology, students don’t always understand what plagiarism is anymore.

Margaret Diddams is provost of Wheaton College. She wants students to think about the bigger picture.

DIDDAMS: It’s a larger issue…in recognizing academic integrity and where you sit in the world of ideas, it’s not okay to take someone else’s ideas and call them your own.

But because purchased essays aren’t traditional plagiarism, they’re hard for professors to detect…and colleges have to up their game. Plagiarism detector Turnitin is creating new software to recognize minute inconsistencies—like if a student suddenly starts using Oxford commas or double spaces after a period.

Schools are also spreading the word about what purchased essays really look like. Though the websites promise quality, they don’t always deliver it. One research group in Australia wanted to see how well purchased papers stood up in an actual college class…so they bought dozens of essays from multiple essay mills. Jarret Dyer explains what they did next.

DYER: Literally walked into professor’s offices and like, hey here you go. And so a week went by and they went back and they collected and 52 percent of those did not pass those faculty members standards for getting a grade above a D in the class.

But a student who buys a bad essay can’t exactly complain. If they try to get their money back, the site just threatens to email their dean or professor.

DYER: We’ve heard cases of students receiving messages after they graduate, that they know that they engaged in contract fraud and unless they provide a service or do something, right, that they will let their institution know that they engaged in this fraud.

Dyer hopes the United States will follow the lead of Europe and Australia and start cracking down on essay mills. But in the meantime, both he and Diddams agree: The best way to fight essay mills is to educate students.

Ada Montes and Bailey Gorman say professors talk about plagiarism all the time. Students know it’s a serious offense. But they don’t always think about why it’s bad.

JOHANSEN: So if you had to explain what academic integrity was, what would you say?

MONTES: I have no idea what that is. I’m going to be honest with you.
GORMAN: I think it’s just doing–knowing when–like, not cheating. 

MONTES: Oh right. Yeah. Never really heard that. I’m going to be honest. I’ve never heard a teacher say that.

That’s why Margaret Diddams says educating students on academic integrity is vital, especially at a Christian college like Wheaton.

DIDDAMS: So what’s important is thinking of it in terms of not just academic honesty or dishonesty, but academic integrity. To see engagement with scholarly pursuits as an act of worship to God. And if it’s an act of worship to God and I’m acting in a way of integrity, then I’m going to approach that assignment differently.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Anna Johansen reporting from Crystal Lake, Illinois.

(Photo/Creative Commons)

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