Confessions of a Student Ghost-Writer: The New Face of Plagiarism in Academia
I confess: I'm an academic cheater -- an inveterate one, in fact. But what I do isn't illegal. Technically, it's not even “plagiarism.” That’s because I don't steal other people’s work. People steal mine. Or rather, I "sell" it to them, and they take public credit for it. That makes me something else: a "ghost-writer."
But I’m not one of those ghost-writers that so many people admire. One-time heavy-hitters like Ted Sorenson, the gifted Democratic speechwriter who allegedly wrote JFK's Pulitzer-prize winning book, Profiles in Courage. Or Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the French novelist and author of The Little Prince who is widely believed to have penned aviator Beryl Markham's fabulous memoir, West with the Night.
Ghost-writers to the stars have the status of celebrities. No one considers what they do unethical. At worst, it’s just part of the “trade.” And their clients? No one doubts they’re talented, either -- just supremely busy. Far too busy to write their own books.
The people I write for are busy, too. But they’re not celebrities – they’re just college students. They’re mostly young minds struggling to learn how to think, reflect, argue, and frame their views. Society says they still need to “prove” themselves. That means, they’re supposed to do their “own” work.
But most don’t want to. Many have full-time jobs, are single mothers, don’t speak English fluently, or just think their 20s are a time to party. They feel entitled to a “break.” And they consider people like me – academic turncoats -- a Godsend.
So far, in a little more than two years, I have completed more than 350 separate “assignments. Most were thesis or term papers, but increasingly, there are final exams, masters’ theses, and PhD proposals. I’ve even written the kind of thoughtful first-person essay that can make or break a student’s college entrance application. And when one of “my” students recently got accepted to the college of their choice, she was so happy that she sent me a thank you note – and a handsome tip.
How far will some students go? One busy PhD student – in the field of education, no less -- recently asked me to complete her doctoral program for her. And she wasn’t talking about editing her dissertation. She was willing to pay me to conduct her field research, analyze the data, and actually write the thesis, before turning it into a book. We even discussed how we might handle a possible publicity tour if it ever came to that (I ended up declining her offer).
“Ghost-writer” in this setting is pure politesse. Instead of defending the standards of intellectual honesty which institutions of higher learning use to credential academic professionals – including me -- I am deliberately subverting them -- and helping my all-too-eager clients do the same. In the fierce generational Holy War between faculty and students -- between the intellectual elites and the unschooled masses -- I have quietly sided with the rabble.
It all started -- as such things tend to – on a lark. I noticed an ad on Craig’s List from a student desperate for “help” with a term paper. It soon became clear that he was willing to pay me to write the entire paper for him. Not much, but enough to pique the interest of a contract writer starved for work. We met, and I asked for a small deposit. Then, in short order, I wrote the paper.
It turned out to be great fun. When I got paid, I felt a little dirty, but the student was thrilled, especially when she read the paper. “Oh my God, you just got me an ‘A,’” she declared. It was true. She did get an A, and I felt a sweet tingle of validation when I heard the news. But it wasn’t from her – it was from her teacher. In the midst of a slack market, when I could barely get a hit on my resume, someone was affirming my work. Enough to grade it even. And with exclamation points, no less.
Maybe it was that affirmation I received from that first assignment. A wistful and suppressed longing for recognition fulfilled. Or maybe it was the money, which was so easy to earn, and just as easy not to report, should I choose not to. Whatever it was, soon I was “hooked.”
I didn’t perform any more assignments for my first “client.” Like some of the people I write for, her feeling of relief was tinged with a sense of guilt at having knowingly cheated the system. It was too easy. And in a funny way, it was supremely invalidating. It was as if she were admitting that she wasn’t able to do her own work, and needed a crutch. That she wasn’t “smart.”
Not all of my clients feel this way. In fact, most don’t, at least not openly. They are part of a growing legion of youngsters in school that believe that “gaming” the system is a requirement for getting by, and one they feel entitled to.
Buying “original” papers is just one dimension of their cheerful fraud. They also pay for past exams for their classes. Or make trades for them. I had one client from Afghanistan who bragged that she could get any exam she needed – and apparently she could. She’d get positively indignant when a student she knew had the exam answers she needed but wouldn’t part with them for a “fair” price. Or perhaps, at all.
“I think it’s un-American,” she confided to me.
The lengths to which some students will go to obtain help are mind-boggling. Last year, I obtained a student’s passcode to her account and logged in to complete her weekly assignments for a history class. I even participated in online discussions and was graded on the quality of my participation. Occasionally, things could get chatty. I learned about my new friend’s menstrual cramps, and the death of her grandmother. One student asked me for advice about her boyfriend. “Wow, Melissa, you know a lot about guys,” she said. “You must have lots of experience.”
The “real” Melissa never cracked a book, but she did email me every so often to see if I needed anything. And to brag about all the parties she’d gone to. She hated it when I volunteered that her class was interesting, and that she might want to read some of the material in her spare time. “Booooo-ring,” she’d say. “That’s what I’m paying you for. So I don’t have to think about this stuff.”
The paper-writing business isn’t just a one-off, free-lance gig anymore. Students like Melissa are literally flooding Craigslist with their requests for writing support -- and hundreds of writers like me are starting to hang out our shingles, too. Often our ads have special marketing language aimed at the student consumer. “College Essays! Fast, reliable, plagiarism-free!” is a typical headline. You almost expect it to say “bonded” and to include a Better Business Bureau bug.
In fact, there are a growing number of web-based businesses that now cater to this same market. They have catchy names like PaperHawks.com and Powered Essays.com but they all offer the same basic service. The student submits a paper idea, and the site finds a trained academic like me to write a top-notch paper. No one promises you an “A,” but judging from the comments on these sites, the grades are top-notch. For most students, it’s clearly a step up from what they might achieve on their own.
Last February, I joined a service that I consider the best of the bunch. It also has the most user-friendly web site, and most sardonic name: “Unemployedprofessors.com.” It’s run out of Montreal, Canada and naturally, many of the students seeking help are Canadian. Not all the paper writers are actually out-of-work university professors but like me, we all have advanced degrees and a professional track record. The site screens us to verify our academic credentials. We also post profiles of our writing experience accompanied by a photograph of a favorite pop icon or cartoon character -- anything that might hint at our personality without giving away our real name - which is verboten.
Otherwise, the site pretty much runs itself. Students post paper assignments and ask for bids. The writers bid, usually adding a detail or two about why they feel especially qualified to write that paper. Once the bid is accepted, the assignment is yours. And not just the assignment, but the money, too. The student has already deposited the funds in escrow via PayPal and the funds are automatically released once the student uploads your draft paper – sight unseen.
For the writers, it’s a great system. It means you definitely get paid, which doesn’t always happen these days. Meanwhile, the student is unlikely to get ripped off. That’s because the site also includes the student’s evaluation of the writer. These are listed right next to your profile posting. So, were you to perform poorly, or worse, try to rip a student off, it would follow you everywhere. Most writers follow up with their student clients and are willing to revise their original paper, either gratis, or for a small additional fee, to boost their rating.
I am glad there’s an online “auction” to help regulate the clandestine paper-writing trade. It makes my life a whole lot easier. I receive five times the monthly business I did when I was still chasing clients all over the country on Craigslist. And with so many papers under my belt, I’ve even started to “recycle” them. I take an old paper I wrote for a student at one university, tweak it a bit, and then sell it again. Who knows, maybe they’re even students at the same school. It’s a great day when I can achieve a “two-for” with a minimum of extra work.
And make no mistake: The new web-based businesses are no longer the fly-by-night “paper mills” they once were. The site I wrote for, Unemployedprofessors.com, has fulfilled more than 4,500 contracts over the past three years, for a gross revenue of roughly $3.2 million. The company took 23% of that gross off the top as its fee for managing the hiring hall. That translates into roughly $750,000, or $250,000 per year. The site has a single owner who claimed the lion’s share of those revenues – and probably never paid taxes on them. Do the math: The new student ghost-writing trade is fast becoming profitable.
What does academia think? They’re pretending not to notice. Many of the assignments I receive contain a statement from the professor, warning the student not to commit “plagiarism.” Sometimes the professor asks his or her students to use the web site turnitin.com, which compares their paper to available online text to see if they might have stolen work from others. However, I have yet to read a single explicit warning about hiring outside writers to produce “original” papers.
But students do, in fact, get “caught.” In some classes, students submit a series of papers but make the mistake of writing one on their own, then hiring one or two outside writers for the rest. The teachers are busy, but they’re not oblivious. At some point, they notice that the writing styles vary widely, and become suspicious. Or a paper might be so well conceived, crafted, and written that the teacher concludes that the student simply could not have written it alone.
What do teachers do? Under current guidelines, there’s not much they can do. According to students I have spoken with, some teachers have threatened to fail them, sometimes forcing faculty heads or administrators to intervene. Other teachers might give the students a low grade and try to make their life miserable, hoping they will drop the class, or take an incomplete, which, in fact, some do.
But some have chosen a more ingenious route. For example, last spring, one of my clients re-contacted me to say that his teacher didn’t believe he had written his paper. Would I agree to invent two “earlier” drafts of the paper, he asked? The idea was to show how he had “progressed” in his thinking through a series of stages, so that the “final” more polished version would seem more credible. It wasn’t just the additional money that piqued my interest. I actually relished the new challenge. Could we fool an openly skeptical teacher, or at least neutralize her objection?
I dutifully re-invented my own writing process, dumbing myself down, and then building myself up again. The first rough draft wasn’t particularly hard. It was creating the “intermediate” draft that required the real skill. It had to show definite progress but still leave enough room for another leap forward. When I finished, the student was extremely pleased. It took the teacher weeks to get back to him, and when she did, the paper still didn’t have a formal grade. But he got a solid B+ for the class.
Some student paper writers have found a clever way to avoid these messy conflicts.
They not only agree to write the paper – they agree to write it the way the student might, just slightly better. One writer I know asks her prospective clients to submit two papers they have previously written; she wants to get a feel for how they think and express themselves, so that she can mimic their style. These are the master counterfeiters in the world of student ghost-writing. They’re simply following an old behavioral law: “Build a better mouse-trap, the mice will get smarter.”
In fact, academia is at a complete loss over what, if anything, to do about writers like me turning literary “tricks” with their students. I called the sociology department of American University in Washington, DC. The administrative chair said the faculty was well aware of the phenomenon but couldn’t herself comment on it. She referred me to a leading professor in the department, who left a message on my voicemail: “I have nothing to say about this alleged phenomenon.” The reaction from teachers at other universities was similar.
Without more guidance – and perhaps legal counsel -- from the campus administration, they are reluctant to open the door to controversy not knowing where that controversy might lead – or how it could affect their own careers.
How outrageous can things get? Consider this: during the 2014 spring semester, two different students had the temerity to request bids for papers on the following topic: “Should students be allowed to hire third-parties to write papers for them?” I decided to pass on these opportunities, but other writers eagerly scooped them up. One can only imagine the reaction of the teachers that sat down to read and grade these papers, all the while wondering if their students had actually written them.
In Hebrew, this is called “chutzpah” – which translates as “shameless audacity.” You can look it up, if you want. Or better yet, let me do it. For a reasonable fee, I’d be happy to explain the term’s origins and contemporary usages in a tight 1,000-word essay that your teacher might marvel at. Ten sources? No problem. I can format it in APA or MLA, and would be glad to include some nifty in-text quotes and citations, too.
How’s next Wednesday?
Stewart J. Lawrence is a published scholar and policy analyst whose research and
writing interests range from presidential politics to public health. Since 2008, he
has contributed regularly to several online news magazines, including The
Guardian (UK), The Huffington Post,, Counterpunch, Daily Caller,and The World
and I. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times and The Christian
Science Monitor. He obtained his BA in sociology from the University of California
at Santa Cruz in 1985 and his MA in International Affairs from Columbia
University in 1989.