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High-Tech Cheating

With dozens of online term paper mills appearing on the Internet,
professors and institutions are imposing new strategies to deter
students from using them

Dr. Harryette Mullen worries that the Internet is making it too
easy for students to cheat themselves out of an education. Mullen, an
associate professor of English at the University of California-Los
Angeles, says the growing presence of “term paper mill” Web sites on
the Internet is a cause for great concern.

“I look for new information on the Internet, and then you stumble
across these sites,” Mullen says. “I’m concerned that students are
robbing themselves because they aren’t learning critical skills.”

For years, desperate students have turned to illicit means to
procure term papers, subsequently submitting them as their own work.
Colleges and universities have long enforced bans on this form of

The Internet — with its capacity to allow the electronic
downloading of documents to desktop computers — has ushered in a whole
new and menacing era in the realm of cheating.

There are dozens of companies with Web sites that advertise
services for providing customers with “models” of research papers. The
company Web sites have names — such as “Evil House of Cheat,” “Term
Papers 911,” and “Genius Papers” — that feature downloadable papers on
thousands of topics that can be purchased by anyone with a credit card.
Some of the sites charge no fee at all for research papers.

“This is a very important issue because it speaks to the academic
integrity of an institution,” says Sheila Trice Bell, executive
director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Association of College
and University Attorneys.

“[The issue] is fundamental to the relationship between student and
teacher. There’s a core of trust that needs to exist there for the
integrity of the educational process. That trust is broken when a
student turns in work that is not his or her own.”

The growth of term paper mill Web sites has alarmed administrators
and faculty, who are looking to develop ways to counteract their
patronage by students. It is not known how extensive the use of term
paper mills are, but a cursory search of the Internet reveals several
dozen uncovered by a single web browser. Other web browsers turn up
dozens of additional term paper mill Web sites.

While some sites merely carry archives of actual term papers that
have been procured from college students, others offer customized
research papers that are written to fit a student’s specifications. The
rates for pre-written papers from commercial archives often vary from
$6 to $10 a page. Customized papers cost more, with companies charging
as much as $35 a page.

Though many states have passed statutes prohibiting the sale of
term papers for submission in classes, the mill companies claim the
documents they market to students are provided for research purposes

The papers are not to be submitted as original material, the
companies tell prospective customers in disclaimer statements. These
disclaimers often appear on the Web sites and many companies send a
written warning with the materials they sell.

Taking a Savvy Approach

In 1997, Boston University filed a federal lawsuit against several
term paper companies after employing a law student to purchase a
research paper on author Toni Morrison that was said to be for a
literature course assignment.

According to Boston University officials, the lawsuit charged wire
fraud, mail fraud, and racketeering, and targeted eight companies in
seven states with violating a Massachusetts law that prohibits the sale
and marketing of term papers. Boston University officials claimed that
it was the first federal lawsuit brought by a university over the
online sale of term papers. Earlier this month, a federal judge
dismissed the case. The university plans to refile its case in state

“It was a significant decision for Boston University to take this
step,” Bell says, emphasizing the uniqueness of the legal action.
“[Fighting student use of term paper mills] is one of many important
legal issues schools have to confront.”

Schools are under pressure to develop sophisticated approaches to
combating student use of term paper mills, according to observers. Some
faculty and administrators believe that successfully dealing with the
issue requires them to make sure that students clearly understand the
underlying moral and academic issues.

At Georgetown University, Dr. William McHenry, associate professor
at the McDonough Business School, enhanced, with the help of his
students, the university’s Honor Council Web site to include an
extensive explanation on plagiarism, a listing of term paper sites, and
a research brief on term paper mills.

The enhanced Honor Council Web site is intended to provide students
a broad spectrum of information rather than a mere policy statement.
McHenry, who is chairman of the Georgetown Honor Council, says a school
should not assume that all of its students fully understand what
constitutes plagiarism and why it’s wrong.

“I sought to develop a resource that speaks to students who are at
different stages of academic and moral development,” McHenry says. He
added that listing the term paper mill sites was done to make students
understand the risks of using them. “Let’s not pretend these sites
don’t exist,” McHenry explains. He says he believes that by urging a
“Buyer Beware” approach to the term paper mills, the Honor Council will
get students thinking about issues of academic integrity.

Minority Scholars On the Watch

The term paper mills have alarmed minority scholars, such as UCLA’s
Mullen, because she has seen evidence that a good portion of the term
paper trade involves research on African American studies and other
ethnic minority studies topics.

That Boston University would employ someone as an undercover
student to purchase a paper on Toni Morrison demonstrates that works by
Black authors are getting serious attention in the academy, Mullen
says. She visits legitimate Web sites and Internet chat rooms where
undergraduates are constantly seeking assistance on topics involving
Black authors and African American history. Such activity is “a sign
that faculty are bringing these writers into the canon,” she explains.

“These authors are being assigned because there are a lot of faculty teaching African American literature,” she adds.

The flip side, however, of this trend is that a high demand for
term papers on such topics is generated partly because scholars have
failed to produce sufficient levels of critical scholarship. That means
students are getting assignments to read Black authors, but they are
having trouble finding commentary on the assignments. In writing
papers, commentary is useful because it allows students to compare and
contrast their own ideas about an author’s work with those of prominent
scholars. Students are also allowed to cite the ideas of scholars to
construct arguments in their term papers.

“There’s a gap between the teaching of certain topics and the critical material that should accompany it,” Mullen says.

As a scholar who teaches African American literature, Mullen
believes she has to be “vigilant” in reviewing her students’ work. But
she adds that all faculty, regardless of their discipline, have to work
harder to guide students away from resorting to using term paper mills.
She agrees with McHenry in that many students are not fully aware of
what constitutes plagiarism and why it matters.

“Some students don’t know the difference between citing a source
and plagiarizing one,” Mullen says, emphasizing that faculty have a
responsibility to inform students on the definition of plagiarism. “I
think it’s a good idea to pass it out in writing.”

COPYRIGHT 1998 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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