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Plagiarism, Paper Mills, and Student Success

Plagiarism is getting a lot of attention lately. From professors at Brown and Arizona State universities to politicians in Montana and Germany, a school board official in Toronto, and even a textbook writer on plagiarism, it seems like no one can keep track of their notes, words, or even ideas anymore.

We are not Turnitin, and I’m not going to lecture about the importance of quotation marks, the difference between quotation and paraphrase, or how to properly cite your work (although these are all important topics). Instead, I’m interested today in a different type of plagiarism the paper mill, or what could more charitably called “student ghostwriting”.

Paper mills are not exactly textbook cases of plagiarism. In fact, there’s some controversy over whether they constitute plagiarism at all; from a legal perspective, concerned primarily with copyright, they seem not to be. The writers who produce the papers are, by definition, are not laying claim to copyright for their works. Instead, the works are presented as being produced by the student, even though the work was done by a third party. This is an issue of academic honesty, but not a crime.

Why is using a paper mill a bad idea? There are problems for everyone involved in the process. Let’s break it down by role.

    1. The writer
      As the Chronicle article points out, writers are paid very little for producing massive amounts of text. This could be viewed as exploitative, although some writers are unapologetic about their task.
    2. The student
      To state the obvious, students are assigned papers (as opposed to other tasks) to improve their writing. Students who have someone else write their papers will not get to practice their writing, and therefore won’t improve.
    3. The teacher
      Similarly, instructors who don’t realize that students are getting their papers elsewhere assess their work as if the student had written it. This may lead them to overlook students who need more help in understanding core concepts — after all, their papers demonstrated understanding — in favor of students who are showing their struggles on the page.
    4. The peer
      Grades do not occur in isolation. A student who gets a PhD to write his/her term paper is probably going to have better argument structure and vocabulary than peers, especially in first-year courses. Relative to the cheating student, other (honest) students will look less competent, and may receive lower grades than they would otherwise.

    Note that I have not included “honest writing tutors” on this list. There are some of these out there — individuals who are trying to help underserved students improve their skills — but paper mills often present themselves as “tutors” to lure students into purchasing a paper. Many of the honest writing tutors work in university academic skills centers or writing departments; they are paid regardless of whether students use their services or opt for a purchased essay.

    While paper mills have been around for a long time — the Victorian novel Tom Brown’s Schooldays features ‘crib’ notes for standard essay exams — the ever-increasing reach of the internet has made it easier for the unscrupulous to reach the desperate. And it has spawned some overreactions as well. In Australia, the idea of students studying together via facebook is being called “cheating” , and a principal states that sharing learning materials is “absolutely a foolish thing to do … doing yourself a disservice.”

    Such stringency is not the case everywhere — certainly not in the US, where group testing is being proferred as a way to increase learning. There are online answer keys that masquerade as “study sites”, though. And as students, instructors, administrators, and other staff are increasingly concerned about grades, such tools seem likely to proliferate even further.

    In the end, it’s unlikely for the instructor to sniff out a student who’s used a paper mill or online study service. There are too few clues and the connections are too tenuous. The best way to encourage students to avoid these traps is to point out the detriments to everyone involved in the student’s success — which, by the way, is not measured by a grade.

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