For many years, Dave Tomar was that bane that universities always claim to be doing something about but can’t (or anyway never) do — an essay writer for hire.
Wait. Wasn’t the internet supposed to end cheating? The search engine reveals all, right?…
No. Read on. In The Complete Guide to Contract Cheating in Higher Education (Academic Influence, 2022), Tomar, long a freelance writer and now a plagiarism expert, explains: Yes, that happened when Google became the default search engine in 2000 and the usual copy-paste and essay mill methods no longer worked. But…
Cheaters and their enablers would just need to get more creative. If, before, there were just online repositories of essays and the people who curated them, demand was now creating a growing workforce of service providers. And I was part of that first wave. (p. 6)
In short, a brain for hire. The essays and theses Tomar, clearly a gifted writer, produced on all sorts of subjects, were invisible to classic AI detection methods because they really were original. But they weren’t written by the student who is being evaluated. He estimates he wrote about 5000 pages of work, for which he was paid about $60,000 per year.
It’s really hard to be sure how many students are hiring brains online. Estimates range all over the map. Tomar thinks 40% have cheated this way at least once (p. 22). But we can be sure of two things: It’s more than the number who will admit to doing so and, contrary to early expectations, the internet has made it very much easier. Online, hundreds of companies will connect a student who has the money with a writer who has the background and brains.
But another factor drives the continuing trend as well, Tomar says. His student customers were not just lazy frat boys and airheads whose well-to-do folks wanted them to get a degree before they got married. Many customers were, and are, truly desperate — educationally underqualified for the courses they are taking but financially swamped by student loans.
Educationally underqualified? The United States trails many technologically advanced countries in high school academic achievement, according to Pew Research (2017): For example, if we compare the United States to demographically similar Canada, the scores in science are 496 vs. 598, in math 470 vs. 516, and in reading, 497 to 527. There are a number of complex reasons for that but when students go off to university, many don’t have the academic grounding to handle the course work.
Meanwhile, many have racked up big debts:
Among the class of 2020, 55% of bachelor’s degree recipients took out student loans, graduating with an average of $28,400 in federal and private debt. And 14% of parents with students in the class of 2019 — the latest data available — took out an average of $37,200 in federal parent PLUS loans. – Student Loan Hero
They can’t afford not to graduate, no matter who writes the papers, says Tomar. If they are the customers for the online essay writing services, “cracking down” probably won’t be much use in isolation.
Tomar blows the whistle on the entire contract cheating industry in a highly engaging, often perversely amusing, account of online cheating-for-hire. He’s the outlaw gone straight. In fact, in recent years, Tomar has consulted with cheating detection companies like Turnitin, acting something like the reformed card counter who’s hired by casinos to warn them how they’re being sharked by professional gamblers.
Part confessional, part expose, part how-it’s done manual, this book is a must-read for anyone who wants to learn the ins-and-outs of ghostwriting, the magnitude of the industry, the reasons why students cheat, what cheating reveals about the shortcomings in higher education, and how the problem should be understood and best addressed.Michael T. Nietzel, “New Book Reveals Everything You Need To Know About Contract Cheating By College Students” at Forbes (July 1, 2022, subscription required)
This isn’t the first time Tomar has gone public about the brain-for-hire business. In 2010, writing under the pseudonym “Ed Dante,” he offered to explain himself in Chronicle of Higher Education: The “man who writes your students’ papers tells his story,” His article, the “Shadow Scholar,” was something of a publishing event — reputedly the most commented-on article in that publication’s history. He wrote an earlier book about it (Bloomsbury, 2012). After he left that trade, he freelanced for variety of publications. He is now managing editor at Academic Influence.
Next: What, in Tomar’s view, would help reduce the amount of cheating?
You may also wish to read: Science sleuths catch authors using AI tool for plagiarism. Odd phrases like “counterfeit consciousness” instead of “artificial intelligence” began appearing in computer science journals, triggering an investigation. Both the researchers and publisher Elsevier determined that automatic reverse translation, to disguise plagiarism, was the likely source of the odd phrases.