Degrees for Sale

Academic integrity and the burgeoning paper-writing industry

Creative Commons

August 13, 2014

The purchase of academic papers for submission as one’s own is a practice probably as old as academe itself. I’ve been dealing with it for years in my own career. When I was teaching at Hostos Community College in the South Bronx in the mid-1980s, I assisted the state attorney general’s office in pursuing a company that operated an assembly-line "paper mill" serving students at institutions across the New York metro area.

Plagiarism is theft perpetrated by an individual. By contrast, the consumer marketplace in academic papers (prefab or custom-ordered) consists of a commercial transaction between a buyer (who can be either a student or a middleman) and the actual writer or, these days, team of writers who churn out papers in their own business or as independent contractors to a brokering firm.

Finding myself without any courses to teach this summer, I decided to turn my hand to freelance writing online. My adventure into the Wonderful World of Writing For and Via the Internet has been not so much fruitful as enlightening—and deeply troubling.

The top three categories of job listings seeking freelance writers are for: (a) positive product and service reviews (yes, consumers, these are largely bought and paid for), (b) rewriting already-published, copyrighted articles for posting as "original" pieces on other websites and blogs, and (c) writing academic papers for college students, primarily in graduate school.

Here is a recent post I found from one of these companies. It’s more detailed than most, but indicative of the current tenor—and growth—of the industry:

My company is providing course-works to students in exchange for a fee. During the last year I was able to produce 35 business related course works to various students. Because of the demand and the quality I was generating, my business is looking to grow and expand. I am currently offering two types of course works: basic services (essays, article reviews, critical thinking papers, and reflections) and advanced services (reports, business plans, case studies, course works, literature reviews, presentations, research papers, research proposals). … During this academic 2014/2015 year I will be launching a new service around several universities. I am currently operating at the 3rd biggest university in the UK so my volume of customers is growing exponentially. … I am looking for experienced/graduates academic writers that are reliable and can constantly produce high grades around the 60 percent mark. There are also incentives and bonuses for higher grades (above 65 percent) which would be nice commission for your hard work. … Payments: The rates for course works start from the basic rate of $18 for 500 words plus $6 for a grade higher than 65 percent to the advanced rates of $353 for 5,000 words plus $59 for a grade higher than 65%. … The process of each project is as follows: We establish a relationship where we exchange our contact details so that I can put you into a system for future notification. The next step is I find a customer in your area and I get all the requirements for that course work. I create a project on freelancer’s website where you bid and get selected for the project. … Please contact me with any question or if you would like to participate in this project, I believe that I can generate up to 10 course works per month in a particular area with an average pay of $45 per course work. Happy bidding and lets start a long lasting relationship together.

Surely there is something recognizably illegal about these posts and the complicity of the sites that publish them? Surely some investigative body is tracking these "employers" in order to put them out of business?

I’ve also read solicitations online posted directly by students themselves, offering to pay for specific papers for specific courses, or to pay an hourly fee for a "qualified" writer to sign on to do all the assignments in a given course by their stated deadlines. Aren’t colleges and universities concerned about this? It is literally advertising the commission or facilitation of fraud. And I encounter these notices on multiple sites every day.

The home page of declares: "As long as it’s legal, we can write pretty much anything. From response papers to midterm and final essays, all the way to dissertations and thesis chapters, we’ll write it for you based on your custom specifications. With Master’s and Doctoral level experts specializing in disciplines running the gamut from Anthropology to Zoology, we have all of the custom academic solutions that you’ll need to complete those projects which are infringing on your party time."

As long as it’s legal? The academic community seems to perceive these practices as a matter of personal or business ethics to be handled through persuasion, urging students to do the right thing, as opposed to viewing the submission of a purchased paper as a crime, for which perpetrators—and those who facilitate and profit from their actions—should be prosecuted and penalized as in any other cases of purposeful fraud.

I have noticed, for instance, that in news articles I’ve read about this problem, the purchase of academic papers always seems to be characterized as a form of cheating or plagiarism by many "academic integrity" committees at major universities, rather than as a crime in and of itself. But it is not plagiarism, although the writers of these papers, who are at least one if not several steps removed from the perpetrators, might have in fact extracted some text from an original source without attribution. The consumer, however, has simply bought and paid for a product, usually with articulated guarantees as to absence of plagiarism or any other kind of copyright infringement.

In my view, at the point at which the buyer submits a purchased paper (or exam essay, dissertation chapter, or thesis proposal) to the institution as his or her own work in fulfillment of degree requirements, it becomes not a moral issue of "cheating," but a clear case of fraud, with clear criminal intent, and should be treated as such. Further, by the same reasoning that police and prosecutors have used in arguing for prohibiting Internet sites like Craigslist from publishing posts that solicit prostitution or kiddie porn, the freelance-writing sites that publish posts explicitly soliciting the manufacture of academic papers should be held to the same standard and prevented from publishing such posts.

Meanwhile, assures its prospective customers: "Obviously, if you buy one of our model answers and hand it in to your university as your own work, that’s cheating. However, if you buy one of our model answers and use it as a learning aid, it’s no different from using journals, newspaper articles, question-and-answer study books or, indeed, the past paper answers that your own tutor hands out in lectures or seminars. Then our service is not cheating at all and instead becomes a very powerful learning resource that’s catered to your own topic."

To which adds: "For students at a loss of how to go about writing admission essays, they should consider using online writing services to do their essays for them. Although there are fraudulent ones, finding a good company can help the writer achieve exactly what they desire in an admission essay. The legality of buying other types of essays, term papers and assignments custom made on the web is questionable. … Ideally, the admission essay is a description of the student, but the universities the students apply to do not expressly require that the writing be done by the actual student."

Who are they kidding? While the paper mills themselves have apparently become adept at skirting the law with impunity, which suggests to me that some revisions in the law itself might be in order, the websites that promote these services and the customers who buy work that they misrepresent as their own have no comparable rationales.

A student post that recently appeared on reads: "I need of a Chemistry and Bio to do an assignment for me. more details in PM. RATES .5$ PER PAGES (275 WORDS)." Setting aside the functional illiteracy, which typifies about half of the student posts I see, one would be hard pressed to interpret this advertiser as seeking a "learning aid."

On the regulatory side, it would be interesting to chart what would happen to the paper-writing market if companies were required to identify purchasers to a regional, national, or international database exclusively accessible to academic institutions. What would happen to the market if students were required to submit a certification of awareness from their institutions to accompany their purchase of a paper?

To its credit, Google began refusing to accept ads from paper mills in 2007 in response to a high volume of complaints from the academic community, although its browser continues to provide prospective consumers with links to an international array of such services. Neither law enforcement nor policy-making bodies will act on this issue until and unless the academic community itself expresses the outrage and concern it deserves and pushes for aggressive attention.

So what are we waiting for?

Deborah Louis has a Ph.D. in political science from Rutgers University and teaches online for Eastern Kentucky University’s College of Justice and Safety. She is author of And We Are Not Saved: A History of the Movement as People, a social history of the U.S. civil-rights movement from 1959 to 1965.