The newest issue of The Blue and White will be landing on campus soon. In the meantime, Mark Hay investigates Craigslist and the black market for academic essays.
Editor’s Note: To protect confidentiality, names marked with asterisks have been changed.
On any given day this past summer, a student trawling Craigslist.com would have found numerous ads for school essay writing services. This Blue & White reporter monitored the New York area’s site on 20 randomly selected days from July through August, and found on average nine to 10 ads explicitly offering to write a student’s essay from scratch — not to mention scores of posts for dubious and vague “editorial/tutoring services.”
One such apparently aboveboard ad posted by a student at NYU’s Tisch School boasted, “I tutor a various array of people from all over the world in Manhattan and Brooklyn and have helped many students to better their grades and understandings in and about writing and English in its various forms.” When asked if his or her services included full essay writing for a fee, the student responded, “Yes…I do a lot of that.”
Combined with the broad ads masking essay services under tutoring or editing (roughly half of those opaque advertisers contacted for this piece offered to write a full essay when the service was requested), it becomes near impossible to tell how many essay writers are active at any given time. One may roughly estimate, though, that well over 100 are active just on the New York section of Craigslist.com—some recent graduates trawling for a quick buck, and a couple dozen hardened professionals who have turned this practice into a job, at times banding together in individualized essay writing firms, the latter constituting approximately 30 percent of advertisers.
The simple answer is to blame this bounty of unethical services on the wild frontier of commerce that is Craigslist.com. But much as with the escort or narcotics services advertised in stealth on the site, anonymous postings have just re-popularized ancient trades to a new market, which previously relied on word-of-mouth advertising in the years before Craigslist first extended its services to New York in 2000. We’re no more devious now — just more efficient.
“I’ve been at this for eight years and working with the firm for five,” said Jackson*, an essay writer at one of the larger, original content-producing “firms” who was contacted via e-mail.
Another independent provider, Paul*, has been making quick cash by writing student essays since middle school, but he has been able to make a full-fledged job out of the practice for three years now.
“After graduating and while at a dead-end job, I talked to a family friend who has been doing this for 20 years. [I] figured I would give it a shot myself, advertised on Craigslist, got a few replies, got some money, and I was hooked,” said Paul in a recent e-mail interview.
Although Craigslist.com helped Paul get his start, it is hardly his lifeblood.
“Word-of-mouth is my best asset,” he said. “The people I ‘meet’ off Craigslist refer me to their friends and so on.”
Jackson’s experience echoes Paul’s.
“Most of my customers are repeats due to the quality of my work and the nature of my personality,” said Jackson. “[I have] maybe 25 regulars per semester and then one or two new ones. Out of the new ones, sometimes they become regulars or I never hear from the again.”
Keeping repeat customers necessitates regularity and quality of work–job offers stop coming if you turn in late, sloppy papers. Professionals typically receive an initial inquiry; acquire the paper topic, syllabus, and guidelines; negotiate a price; and write the paper. An amateur provider usually charges $13 to $15 per page, while old hands like Jackson can charge $25 per page for undergraduate work and $35 per page for graduate work. Open-ended papers requiring the selection of a subject or additional research may incur an additional $10 to $15 hourly research fee, and overnight deadlines can similarly merit a bump in price.
Paul, who maintains what he considers an average flow of work, will handle between two to ten papers a week, averaging five pages. “I usually do a five-page paper in an hour,” said Paul.
Assuming one cuts to the mean of his workload, charging $15 per page, Paul can make $450 in a five hour work week. This is not to mention other services Paul provides–like completing online distance education courses on behalf of customers–and the more substantial fees someone like Jackson can generate. And it’s not dreck — he, like so many others, guarantees at least B-level work, and many are more than willing to advertise their credentials as graduates of Berkeley, University of Chicago, Harvard, Princeton, and so on. One might even say that these ghostwriters represent the ideal established by basic rhetoric courses like University Writing — they have isolated the skill of essay writing and honed it to an almost factory-level precision.
“I have had some instances where the professor gave the student a bad grade, for example a C on an English paper, and I knew the reason was he/she knew the student didn’t write the paper […] but that’s rare and has only happened a few times,” said Paul.
“My clients are satisfied and will write to tell me that they received the grade they desired,” said Jackson. “When they come back unhappy, I review the comments and help them make arguments to raise the grade—many times they are successful.”
These services achieve such great success in part because they are nearly impossible to detect, if carried out correctly—these essays are “custom-tailored,” so to speak, and not lifted from easily searchable Internet sources. Jackson is not aware of any of his many clients ever having been caught, and Paul knows only of a few cases where his work was detected, but still, punishment came only via middle-of-the-road grading, not disciplinary measures.
Professors may also not be on as close a look-out for these services as they are for other, more typical forms of cheating — in other words, they have bigger fish to fry. “The most common method of plagiarism is using Internet sources without attribution,” said Scott Halvorson, Dean of Students at GS. “In most cases, a faculty member brings the complaint, sometimes with the help of plagiarism prevention services such as Turnitin,” a Web site which compares student papers to Internet materials and a database of other papers for copied elements. Jeri Henry, Senior Assistant Dean of the Office of Judicial Affairs and Community Standards for Columbia College and SEAS, is hesitant to identify what types of plagiarism are most prevalent, most detected, or most suspected, but assures all that educators are well-trained in detection methods.
With these ghostwriting services, however, a student could slip by unnoticed if only essays were assigned. Detection services will not catch them, and, as the financial model for the services depends on repeat customers, a teacher is likely to see only plagiarized work for a whole semester, thus never detecting a difference or suspecting foul play. The disparity in quality of thought, structure, and writing style between writing an essay and an in-class assignment would still make it difficult for a professor to prove plagiarism. Conceivably, a writer’s papers for other students could be floating in a database for cross-checking, but even the most advanced software cannot pin down voice as easily as copied content. And Paul, Jackson, and their cohorts will, if asked, attempt to alter their voice or approximate their client’s style to confuse detection.
“We recognize there is no foolproof way to guarantee all instances of academic dishonesty are detected,” admitted Henry. “But even in instances of ‘creative cheating’ [the euphemism being used for essay writing in this exchange], the likelihood is that someone else—a roommate, a classmate, a teammate, a friend—is aware of the behavior. […] It is OJA’s goal to foster a community where students hold one another accountable for responsible decisions—academic and otherwise.”
Translation: For this sort of cheating, the University relies on informants and peer pressure to stem the tide. But as anyone who has seen On the Waterfront, Scent of a Woman, or almost any episode of The Sopranos knows, community ethos favors peer loyalty to peer monitoring. It seems a futile endeavor.
Henry’s response points to one reason why it is so easy for providers to operate—blame is heaped upon the student, not the essay provider.
“[People who know I do this] are more shocked that the students hire me, not that I write for them,” said Jackson. “That’s how they perceive them, as snotty kids.”
And while Jim*, who offers editing services, refrains from writing papers because he considers it an unethical circumvention of education, he sees it mainly as a trespass by students, rather than providers. “Most larger colleges and universities have support services […] Using Craigslist to get the same strikes me as a little shifty,” he said.
The only obstacle for a provider of such services is conscience. But most of them have found handy rationalizations for their services beyond just the need for money.
“I went to a private Christian school that had a lot of Ethiopian kids come in. They needed help with schoolwork so I would do their homework at times,” said Paul of his origins. Henry, Halvorson and Jim all bat down these rationales as delusional, given services available to students.
“I usually respond [to such claims],” said Jackson, “that most of [my clients] do not attend ‘rich-kid’ schools where they can casually sit around a dorm with friends and then go study at their leisure. That being said, I do get college students who [go] to wealthier schools too; however, most of the time it’s people who work and have kids.”
This may account for the University’s insistence that plagiarism holds steady year-to-year and school-to-school, while Halvorson admits he has had, “conversations with frustrated [School of General Studies] students who feel that the problem is getting worse, not better.” Indeed, GS would seem to fit Jackson’s profile of a school where a sizable percentage of students hold down both a job and family life.
Setting aside ethics momentarily, the practice makes a frightening amount of economic sense for any student. Theoretically, enrolling in six classes per semester for eight semesters at Columbia, carefully selecting classes that only required take-home finals, final papers, or term papers (not a difficult task), one could graduate Columbia with a degree and decent GPA without ever lifting a finger. In fact, if one speculates that each class would entail four five-page papers, one final ten-page paper, and ten hours of research for a consummate professional charging $35 per page and $10 per research hour (something of a middle price range), one could comfortably buy a Columbia education for $55,200 in addition to tuition and fees, undetected.
Considering the man-hours one would otherwise spend on such courses, a student might easily earn back that fee by re-appropriating their time. Such is the power of the Internet and a wad of cash that a reporter might even put his name on these pages never having lifted a finger to write them, and the reader may never know.
Illustrations by Cindy Pan