Websites offer students new way to cheat

Even the most efficient student would have agonised over the assignment — a 30-page term paper on the social value of literary criticism.

But Richard finished it in one evening, cutting and pasting paragraphs off the internet for an online company that sells papers to desperate United States college students.

The student who ordered the 30-page paper complained that the work wasn’t original. ”I almost got fired for plagiarism, which I thought was pretty funny,” Richard said. ”Any student who goes onto any of these websites is buying a plagiarised paper.”

Richard, who asked that his last name be withheld, produced term papers for an online company while in graduate school, but has since quit that line of work and is now a teacher.

The internet has given students access to reams of information, made it cheaper to keep in touch with faraway friends and family and even allowed students to attend universities remotely. But it has also given a new lease on life to an old plague of academia — the term-paper mill.

The web is home to dozens of sites like the one Richard worked for — including Custom Research Papers (http://customresearchpapers.us/), ThePaperExperts.com (http://thepaperexperts.com/) and Term Paper Relief (http://termpaperrelief.com/) — that sell term papers for about $15 a page.

About 37% of undergraduates admit to copying portions of their research papers from the web, up from 10% in 1999, according to a 2006 poll of 60 000 US college students by Donald McCabe, a professor of management and global business at Rutgers University, in Newark, New Jersey. Three percent admitted to downloading and submitting entire papers and 77% of students did not consider copying material off the internet to be a serious issue.

”It’s so prevalent, it’s so easy, it’s so anonymous,” said McCabe.

Succumbing to temptation

Students value originality, but when faced with deadline pressure and tight schedules, see copying material off the web — even if it’s just a few paragraphs, rather than an entire paper — as an easy shortcut.

”Students believe in honesty, they believe in truth, we see that overwhelmingly,” said Timothy Dodd, executive director of the centre for academic integrity at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. ”But at the moment of panic, those values seem to take a back seat.”

The temptation to cut corners runs deep in modern American culture — from professional athletes who use steroids or other illegal substances to quickly improve their performance, to corporations that back-date stock options to give their executives a quick pay-off, to members of Congress who steer contracts to deep-pocketed donors in hopes of help at the next election.

Perhaps one of the most apt comparisons is this spring’s move by publisher Little, Brown & Company to recall the novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life after news reports showed that lengthy sections of the book by author and Harvard University undergraduate Kaavya Viswanathan appeared to imitate other novels. Viswanathan has said the similarities were accidental.

Part of the problem is that the pace of innovation in American life, whether through technology or new ways of working, can cause some people, particularly the young, to develop a blurred sense of the line between taking a fair or unfair advantage of a situation.

”We pride ourselves in the ability to change and to develop new ways of seeing the world,” said Leigh Hafrey, senior lecturer the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The downside is an inability to determine which set of rules applies, Hafrey said. ”So one of our strengths as a nation is also our weakness. Every individual almost on a daily basis has to renegotiate where he or she stands in relation to the world.”

Putting further pressure on college students is the fear that if they do not excel academically, they will be denied opportunities to advance in life.

”That is the overriding message that confronts students, said Dodd, of the Centre for Academic Integrity. ”They are expected to do exceptionally well or else their lives are ruined.”

Rewrites and rationalisations

One site, Custom Research Papers, argues that students are justified in seeking professional assistance with their schoolwork.

”When you consult your lawyer you don’t cheat by using his legal advice, because you have paid him money for his knowledge. Same with any other intellectual profession,” the site reads. Officials with the company and other online term-paper mills did not respond to e-mails seeking comment.

But the more common rationale is that the papers are only for reference, and students should cite them as source material.

”That’s a crock,” said John Barrie, founder of Turn It In (http://turnitin.com), an online service universities use to evaluate student papers. ”These companies are in business to sell papers to students for purposes of empowering them to cheat. Period.” – Reuters

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