Inside plagiarism: Ghostwriters and Turnitin.com
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Hey students, want some “Eloquent phrasing and sophisticated articulate arguments for your critical analysis?” Or “Are you tired of wasting time in front of your laptop instead of having fun?” There is an essay ghostwriter out there for you.
On Craigslist Toronto, more than 20 ads for essay writing services were published Monday—and it’s still months from end-of-the-semester crunch time.
One post advertises, “A for your essays.” Another advertises a husband and wife team, both with master’s degrees, who have a combined 35 years of post-secondary essay writing experience.
One of the essay ghostwriters agreed to be interviewed. The “A for your essays” writer, Sam, says he has an MBA.
“The way I look at it is that I am filling a need in the market. I am writing and what they do with it is up to themselves,” he wrote in an email to Metro about his views on the ethics of essay ghostwriting.
Most of his clients are repeat customers and he’s taken some through both their undergraduate and MBA degrees, he said.
About three-quarters of his students will hand-in his essay verbatim, even though he advises them to make it their own, Sam said.
Sometimes, when they write three essays in a term themselves and then hand in one of his as the fourth, the TA will catch on to the difference between them and they’ll get caught, he said.
“All students want an A in the essay no matter how their previous marks have been,” he wrote.
Sam, like all of the essay-writers on Craigslist, says his essays are original so they won’t be flagged as plagiarism by the Turnitin.com software.
From now onwards to the end of March, he’ll get eight to 10 emailed requests a day, and that will increase to about 20 in March.
Many of his clients are in business school, because he advertises that he has an MBA, but they come from all disciplines. Some of his best clients are older people taking a distance degree online, he said.
“Some students give me their online password and so I do the online course for them,” he said.
He shared a selection of emails he’d recently received. One asked him to do a take-home exam for a marketing class, explaining it was an emergency. Another asked him to do assignments with a total of 50 to 80 pages of work by the end of the semester. A third asked him to do two of her five nursing term papers, seven to eight pages long with five references using the APA format for references.
Sam charges $15 per 250 word page of undergrad essay writing and $20 per page at the master’s level. Overnight service is between $25 and $30 per page. Other ads on Craigslist say they charge as little as $10 per page.
“Think of it this way. All the famous people use ghostwriters so I think of myself as the ghostwriter for the students," Sam said.
Toronto’s Universities all use Turnitin.com, a program that checks student papers for plagiarism, by comparing the text against a huge database of online resources, journal articles, other student papers and classic texts. Now students can buy custom-written original papers on any topic from a variety of enterprising freelancers and established paper mills, all of which promise to beat the plagiarism-detection machine.
As with everything you can buy on Craigslist, it’s buyer beware for plagiarism.
Metro ordered a $97, custom-written, 1,000-word essay from AcademicWritingBrokers.com, which advertises on Craigslist Toronto. As promised, it arrived within 24-hours and passed a Turnitin.com check without being flagged as plagiarism.
The topic, “Is William Lyon Mackenzie King an idealist or opportunist?” was from Dr. Dan Azoulay’s Twentieth Century Canada history class at York University.
“It’s not a very good essay,” said Azoulay, of the purchased paper. “It just doesn’t answer the essay question. So that’s a problem.”
The essay also has grammar problems, rambles without structure and doesn’t come up with a thesis on Mackenzie King, he added.
The footnotes aren’t very good, because they don’t account for most of the information in the essay and don’t include page numbers, he said.
“I wouldn’t accuse them of plagiarism at first, because I wouldn’t have any evidence of that,” he said. “I’d ask for references for all the content, with page numbers. And then I would check several of those references to make sure the information in the essay actually does come from those sources.”
Azoulay notes it would be a very difficult task for a student who didn’t write the paper in the first place, and that may be how he’d realize they hadn’t written it, he said.
If they didn’t fix the problems, they’d get a failing grade, said Azoulay.
A student upset with that result would have little recourse. Academic Writing Brokers includes a legal disclaimer on their site, stating the papers are “strictly sold as research assistance” and the company takes no liability for anything else people do with the papers.
Just because this purchased essay would have raised a flag for him, a higher quality purchased paper might not. Azoulay said he has no way of knowing if a student has ever successfully submitted a purchased, plagiarized essay in his class.
“I’m sure there are instances when students get away with it,” he said.
More common plagiarism is when students copy and paste information from the Internet into their essays without attribution. In that case, it is found by the Turnitin.com software, which York University uses.
The best way to combat plagiarism is to talk with the students and make sure they have a good knowledge of the information in their papers. Another is to make sure the essay questions are very specific and change every year, he said.
“I also give a very strong, forceful talk about plagiarism at the beginning of the course to discourage students from plagiarizing, by explaining the unethical side of it and also the possible penalties if they get caught,” he said. “I let the students know I’m very serious, very vigilant about detecting plagiarism. I hope, and I think, that makes a difference.”
Why plagiarize? It all goes back to the schoolyard...
Years ago, when Jonathan Bailey confronted an online stranger who was plagiarizing his gothic poetry and asked what drove him to do it, the 16-year-old boy answered only “Suffer.”
Since then, Bailey has learned a lot more about why other people—many of them in prominent, public positions—steal other people’s words.
Bailey tells his own story of being plagiarized on his blog plagiarismtoday.com and offers free advice about finding plagiarists and shutting them down. He has also turned it into a business, founding a consulting firm that works with copyright and plagiarism issues.
One reason intelligent people say they plagiarize is that they are pressed for time—but as Bailey points out, for every stressed out plagiarists, there are dozens of stressed out people who’d never plagiarize.
“Even if they are very talented, sometimes there’s a lack of confidence in their own work, or their own writing,” he said. “You’ll see a lot of brilliant scientists who do absolutely incredible work plagiarizing research papers, not because the science is bad, but because they’re not convinced of their ability to express what they’re doing in the written word.”
For many, the problem goes back to their school days, Bailey said.
“Another reason is that people, especially serial plagiarists, have a problem where they do something a little bit dicey, a little bit wrong and they don’t get called on it, and then it just kind of escalates. It becomes almost habitual in a way and almost, strange as it may sound, part of their writing style,” said Bailey. “If no one’s called them on it for the past x number of years, why change?”
Recent Canadian allegations of plagiarism:
Chris Spence resigned as the director of the Toronto District School Board last week after newspaper readers and reporters uncovered apparent plagiarism in his public writings, including a conversation heclaimed to have had with his son about the Sandy Hook Shooting.
The University of Toronto is currently reviewing his doctoral dissertation.
The Globe and Mail recently reported that almost 60 federal bureaucrats were caught cutting and pasting information from the Internet directly into open-book exams that were testing them for promotions in 2010.
The plagiarism came to light recently because of a court case, according to the paper. The plagiarism “resulted in reprimands and lost job opportunities, but not in any firings,” the Globe reported.
Artist and media blogger Carol Wainio accused Margaret Wente of plagiarism in her columns. In 2012, Wente apologized for putting a sentence written by Ottawa Citizen Columnist Dan Gardner into her column by mistake, calling it “extremely careless.” However, Wainio’s accusations went deeper. While the Globe took disciplinary action against Wente, she kept her job.
Dongqing Li and Yasaman Daghighi
Dongqing Li, a research chair at University of Waterloo, and PhD student Yasaman Daghighi retracted a report about advances in lab-on-a-chip technology after plagiarism allegations arose last summer.
According to the retraction in the journal Microfluidics and Nanofluidics, they took material from a research paper by scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California, Santa Barbara.
-With files from Torstar News Service