Essay Mills and the Cheating Epidemic
A guest post from author and WriteAtHome writing coach Rhonda Barfield:
The headline caught my eye as I sat in my doctor’s waiting room browsing the May issue of Readers Digest: “A Paid Academic Ghostwriter Explains How Thousands of Students Cheat–and Why”. That’s what hooked me into reading “The Cheating Epidemic” by Ed Dante (a pseudonym).
Just two months ago, I’d Googled “essays” online, hoping to learn how to improve my teaching skills for the WriteAtHome courses I coach. That’s when I first discovered the extent of the college cheating epidemic. Side by side with helpful sites such as “Purdue OWL” and the “Essay Writing Center,” I found ads such as “We Write Papers for You” and “Custom Essays at Affordable Prices.” There are dozens–maybe hundreds–of essay mills offering services like these.
Still, Dante’s confessions shocked me. “I work at an online company that generates tens of thousands of dollars a month by creating original essays for cheating students,” he says. “I’ve worked there full-time since 2004. . . During midterms and finals, my company’s staff of roughly 50 writers is not large enough to satisfy the demand.”
Dante’s clients include many undergraduates, but also students working on masters’ theses and doctoral dissertations. Ironically, “I do a lot of work for seminary students,” he says. This year, he estimates a take-home income of $66,000 from his unethical work.
Does this bother him? Not really. “I understand that in simple terms, I’m the bad guy,” he admits. “But pointing the finger at me is too easy. Say what you want about me, I’m not the reason students cheat.”
So why do they cheat? I have a theory: students are often dismally unprepared for writing, and they see essay writing, an essential for many college courses, as unbearably challenging. But any student can learn to write competently with a little effort and some common sense instruction. In my WriteAtHome essay courses, for instance, I teach a logical, step-by-step approach that students can apply to any paper. I show them a pattern they can follow in constructing essays–one that I’ve used in professional writing for my five books and more than 80 published articles.
Dante uses his own system, constructing roughly 5,000 written pages in the past year. During his seven-year stint with the company he says, “I’ve never had a client complain that the originality of my work was questioned [by a teacher]. As far as I know, not one customer has been caught.” This is tragic, and could be avoided. If they were armed with adequate writing tools, students would not feel the need to buy essays to get through college courses. We can help stem the tide of academic cheating by teaching our children the basics of good writing.
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