During a semester in which I've already caught two plagiarizers, including one who copy-and-pasted from a website called (I kid you not) freeessays.com, I come to the subject of plagiarism pre-irritated. But I have to say, Ed Dante (not his real name) managed to kick me up a notch from irritated to rankled. Mr. Dante has written a confessional essay describing his career as an academic essayist for hire, supplying papers for lying students who wish to pass them off as their own work. Maybe "confessional" implies Mr. Dante feels guilty. He does not.

He writes:
My customers are your students. I promise you that. Somebody in your classroom uses a service that you can't detect, that you can't defend against, that you may not even know exists.

You would be amazed by the incompetence of your students' writing. I have seen the word "desperate" misspelled every way you can imagine. And these students truly are desperate. They couldn't write a convincing grocery list, yet they are in graduate school. They really need help. They need help learning and, separately, they need help passing their courses. But they aren't getting it.

Of course, I know you are aware that cheating occurs. But you have no idea how deeply this kind of cheating penetrates the academic system, much less how to stop it.
Mr. Dante likes to feel smarter than his professors were, and one gets the feeling that that is one of his main motivations in his chosen profession. And he feels smarter by believing that professors don't know that plagiarism is a pervasive problem. But let me tell you this. We are aware that students cheat. We are aware that we don't catch everyone. We are aware that this generation tends to see rules against plagiarism not as moral rules, but as arbitrary rules that must be followed if one is to jump through the hoops, like not picking one's nose at a job interview. And we are plenty aware of the incompetence of student writing. We get emails from students, too, you know (more than he does!). Plenty of terrible writers still don't use a plagiarism service. And there are plenty of students who are unaware that their writing is so bad that they need such a service.
For those of you who have ever mentored a student through the writing of a dissertation, served on a thesis-review committee, or guided a graduate student through a formal research process, I have a question: Do you ever wonder how a student who struggles to formulate complete sentences in conversation manages to produce marginally competent research? How does that student get by you?
I thought this was interesting. I was very surprised that he said he wrote graduate level work. We have several meetings with our advisers along the way to a PhD. I can't imagine faking one's way through those if one hadn't written the work. Are other disciplines vastly different?

And why does he do it?
How dispiriting to find out that college was just another place where grades were grubbed, competition overshadowed personal growth, and the threat of failure was used to encourage learning.

Although my university experience did not live up to its vaunted reputation, it did lead me to where I am today. I was raised in an upper-middle-class family, but I went to college in a poor neighborhood. I fit in really well: After paying my tuition, I didn't have a cent to my name. I had nothing but a meal plan and my roommate's computer. But I was determined to write for a living, and, moreover, to spend these extremely expensive years learning how to do so. When I completed my first novel, in the summer between sophomore and junior years, I contacted the English department about creating an independent study around editing and publishing it. I was received like a mental patient. I was told, "There's nothing like that here." I was told that I could go back to my classes, sit in my lectures, and fill out Scantron tests until I graduated.
Well, if all one had to do to get a university degree was take Scantron tests, shouldn't Mr. Dante be out of a job? But seriously, this is among the more ridiculous post-hoc moral rationalizations I've come across. There are plenty of very valuable things to do in life, such as having children or working in soup kitchens or writing novels, for which universities do not give course credit. Universities are not in the business of granting degrees for anything which a student decides is educational for them. They grant degrees which indicate completion of a certain kind and level of research and writing and analysis.
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.
Yes, in simple terms, he's the bad guy. If you want to be so simple. If you want to get really really complex, of course, he's not responsible at all. Accomplices never are, especially when they don't get course credit for their novels.
I do a lot of work for seminary students. I like seminary students. They seem so blissfully unaware of the inherent contradiction in paying somebody to help them cheat in courses that are largely about walking in the light of God and providing an ethical model for others to follow.
Interesting that plagiarism is an ethical problem for seminary students and not failed novelists. But what if the seminary student wanted to get course credit for her, like, totally new liturgy? But was told that didn't count for course credit? Wouldn't she then be justified?
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.
He's right about one thing. What can we do? The reason he's never heard about it from his customers is not that we don't know what goes on. There are times when I know a paper must be plagiarized. But what am I supposed to do? Call aside a student and say, "This is too intelligent/coherent/literate/on topic for you to have actually written"? We usually can't prove it. And so lying is rewarded over effort, plagiarists get spots in grad schools and jobs they don't deserve, and an atmosphere of distrust continues to be built between professors and students.


  1. Elizabeth: You might look in to "Turnitin" which is an electronic way to catch many plagiarists. See http://turnitin.com/static/
    I have used this often and it seems to work, but I am also sure there are people like Dante who have evaded "capture" by Turnitin and also that there are other electronic methods as well.

    Good Luck

  2. Alas, my university decided not to use turnitin. I wish it did' I've heard good things about it. It can't catch the Dantes of the world, but it can catch lower-level offenders who plagiarize on the cheap.

  3. > There are times when I know a paper
    > must be plagiarized. But what am I
    > supposed to do?

    Up the "participation" section of the grade, and cut down the value of the paper, perhaps for starters.

    Cut the deliverable into multiple parts. This is how we did it in grade school, after all, and I never understood why colleges didn't do it the same way (for undergraduate work anyway). Proposed thesis due third week of class. Literature review due the sixth week. Outline due the eighth week. Rough draft due the tenth. Something along those lines.

    Or, if you want to be more forgiving for the student who works better under pressure, have it all due at the end, but have it all due. You don't want to see just the final paper, but a binder with the drafts, outlines, notes, etc. They only get graded on the final product, but "show your work" can apply to fields other than mathematics ;)