Plato and Socrates in a medieval depiction
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I’ve failed students because they’ve copied their essay from the web or from other students.

Copy-and-paste plagiarists are easy to catch, requiring only a simple Google search or a flip through a stack of graded papers to reveal the source.  Others are more difficult to detect.

The jock on a sports scholarship who rarely shows up to class, skips discussion section and fails the midterm, but is responsible for great insights on the final paper, is a different case.

So is the ESL student who turned in an unreadable essay yet comes back with a perfectly wordsmithed revision and claims that she sought help from the writing support office on campus.  Only, these support centers don’t write, they just advise.

If you think that these students may be receiving more than just guidance, you may be right.

Last week, The Chronicle of Higher Education ran a piece written by a professional freelance writer who makes a good living writing for students, and he divulges much about the shadowy industry of essay writing (The Shadow Scholar Nov 12).  It’s a humorously written but sobering first-person account about an industry that has catered to helping students cheat.

But is a college-educated professional writer just a little too much help for a struggling student?  Ed Dante, the pseudonym for the ghostwriter, reveals one secret of success:

I don’t ever edit my assignments. That way I get fewer customer requests to “dumb it down.” So some of my work is great. Some of it is not so great. Most of my clients do not have the wherewithal to tell the difference, which probably means that in most cases the work is better than what the student would have produced on his or her own. I’ve actually had customers thank me for being clever enough to insert typos. “Nice touch,” they’ll say.

Dante is not alone.  There are thousands of freelance writers willing to compose for college students if the price is right, and the custom essay industry merely serves to match writers with customers. Search Google for “buy an essay” and you’ll see how competitive this industry has become, with many companies purchasing expensive AdWords so they show up on top.

In a separate piece on the ghostwriting essay mill, Tom Bartlett of the Chronicle narrates the innards of an essay mill in a short video,  showing the job requests and the pay rate.  Like Dickens, writers are paid by the page and prices vary depending on the type of writing and the going market rate.  Many of these services also run a plagiarism report for every completed essay, guaranteeing originality for colleges who require student papers be run through detection software such as Turnitin.

Like many other knowledge markets (such as scholarly publishing), the custom-essay mill relies on outsourced labor and has become a global industry in recent years. So while $5 per page will unlikely pay the rent for a writer in Manhattan, this is good pay for someone working in Manila or Mumbai.  A Nigerian writer claims he makes between $100 and $350 per month writing for an essay mill — good pay when you consider that more than half of Nigerians live on less than $1 per day.

An investigation into the thriving custom-essay industry has revealed as much about the students who use them than the owners and writers who supply these customers.  Many students are repeat customers and do not always use these systems in desperation.  By signing up as a freelance writer, Bartlett has revealed the identities of many of these students (some of whom are Masters and PhD students) simply because they have used their real names and college email addresses.  The results have embarrassed not only the students and their parents but their colleges as well.

But, as one freelance writer reflects on the morals of his clients:

These are kids whose parents pay for college. . . . I’ll take their money. It’s not like they’re going to learn anything anyway.

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Phil Davis

Phil Davis

Phil Davis is a publishing consultant specializing in the statistical analysis of citation, readership, publication and survey data. He has a Ph.D. in science communication from Cornell University (2010), extensive experience as a science librarian (1995-2006) and was trained as a life scientist.


2 Thoughts on "The Ghostwriter Behind Student Papers"

I used the story in class last week to start a discussion on ethics. Students began to recount offers they had turned down. “Seventy dollars for taking an online course? No way!”

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