When I assigned my freshman composition class at Allan Hancock College the task of writing a critical essay on Jack London's novel The Call of the Wild, I had no idea of the far-reaching implications it would have. As I graded the students' essays one in particular stood out-not for its merit, but for its familiarity: I had seen it already. Looking back through the essays I had graded so far, I came upon the very same essay, identical in every way except the student's name.
What had happened? Had one student taken what the other had written? That seemed unlikely. Then another thought struck me. I copied the first sentence of the essay, then pasted it onto Google.
I didn't realize it, but this was to be my introduction to the world of cyber-plagiarism, the use of essays purchased from websites that provide them to anyone with access to the internet and a credit card. Two of my students, unbeknownst to one another, had, for $19.95 each, bought the same mediocre essay on The Call of the Wild from one of the thousands of websites that offer compositions for sale on every conceivable subject. But the price they paid was much higher than the money they wasted on the essay. They failed this assignment and ultimately, the class, for now my suspicions were aroused and I subjected the essays they had previously turned in to the same scrutiny I had given this one. What I found was no surprise: They had purchased their other essays as well.
Cheating in college is nothing new. In 1931 Dean Clarence W. Mendell of Yale University declared that cheating on his campus was widespread. A 1964 survey found 75% of college students admitted to cheating; a similar percentage was found in a 2011 study. But the internet offers an entirely new universe of opportunities for students to turn in work that is not their own.
When I entered the words "College Essays For Sale" on Google recently, I got no less than 14,100,000 results. With titles like "Essays R Easy" and "Best Writing Service," along with taglines that read "Easy to choose... Easy to use... Easy to get an 'A,'" these sites entice students to make use of their services with promises of a good grade while at the same time easing their consciences about cheating. "Only a few students are actually good at college essay and paper writing," says one, "while a good number of them are in dire need of online college essay assistance services." Prices typically start at anywhere from $10 to $14 dollars per page, depending on how soon the product is needed (papers needed tomorrow morning cost much more than essays not due for a week).
These sites offer essays on every subject imaginable, from art to history to science, but they do more than just provide freshman or undergraduate level papers. College admissions essays, master's thesis, and doctoral dissertations are all there for the purchase (these generally cost a great deal more than your ordinary composition on The Great Gatsby).
What can be done? Besides pointing out that cheating is morally wrong, teachers can also (as I now do) demonstrate how easy it is to catch a plagiarizer; all it takes is a little cutting and pasting and using Google or an anti-cheating site like Turnitin.com. But more importantly, students need to know that writing a good essay is not an impossible task. Writing is a skill that can be learned and mastered with effort and study. All that is required is hard work, concentration-and honesty.
By Mark James Miller