Students Have Easy Access to Ghostwriters for Hire — What Should Teachers Do?

Recently, Eric Winsberg (South Florida), as an experiment, tweeted, “Who could I pay to write a five-page essay for me that I need to turn in for my philosophy class?”

As the semester comes to an end and assignments pile up, some students may be tempted to cheat by hiring others to write their papers for them. Professor Winsberg (@ewinsberg) found out you no longer need to approach these ghost-writing services or visit their sites. They’ll come to you—quickly, and in droves.

A sample:

This is not exactly news. Winsberg himself joked at his naivete in being surprised by the responses to his tweet. “I was aware there were paper mills,” he said in response to someone who linked to a news report on Kenyan ghostwriters who do some of that work, adding “I wasn’t aware that all you had to do was tweet and 20 would pop up.”

According to a New York Times article on the use and production of ghost-written papers, it is not clear how many students purchase them. It reports that 7% of undergraduates admitted to submitting papers written by someone else, but that statistic is from 14 years ago, an eon and a half in Internet years. There are worries that it is now “a huge problem.”

The use of ghost-written essays is difficult to detect. Plagiarism detection software will not catch it unless the ghost-writer uses plagiarized material, and, as David Tomar, who says he worked as a ghost-writer for essay mills for years, says:

Though the optimistic educator may take some comfort in the view that paper mills are not legitimate enough to constitute a threat, there are rules for professional paper writers and the more successful companies will enforce them. Chief among these rules is the responsibility to provide completely original, never-before-used material crafted to respond to a specific assignment inquiry. This product is the cornerstone of this industry’s success.

So what to do? Here are some pieces of advice from Tomar for making it more difficult to use ghost-written work:

1. Teach up-to-date, carefully-constructed courses that make use of distinctive content and assignments:

A generic assignment begets a generic essay. If this is all an instructor seeks from his or her students, said instructor makes it nearly impossible to differentiate between the work of a pupil and the work of a person who has never set a foot in the lecture hall. If, by contrast, one designs materials, assignments and exams with thought, care, and specificity, one has much better odds of spotting the work of an outsider.

2. Give in-class writing assignments:

Partial emphasis on in-class writing exercises, when supplemented by out-of-class assignments, is a powerful way of getting to know students’ writing capabilities and voices. Class time should be used to challenge students with unique and fun writing exercises… No matter how convincingly a ghostwriter writes on a given subject, this approach provides a document whose authorship is not in question as a point of comparison.

3. Assign multiple drafts:

Using the multi-draft process can stretch an assignment out across weeks or months. This results in a greater length of exposure for the cheating student. Instead of the once-and-done security of getting away with a single ghostwritten assignment, each student knows that his or her work will be held up to sustained and ongoing scrutiny. By inserting one-on-one conferences into this draft process, the instructor can heighten this scrutiny by requiring each student to defend the approach, argument, and decisions comprising the written work.

4. Personalize the subject matter:

Assignments that incorporate personal experiences and interests not only offer students a welcome reprieve from the rote, repetitive, or regurgitation-based work that makes up so many courses, they also make it more difficult for the ghostwriter to assume a student’s identity. This challenge may even strain the credibility of submitted assignments to the point of making them more detectable… Knowing one’s students on a personal level might, in this case, provide more than enough information to peg suspicious assignments.

5. Emphasize class discussion in writing assignments:

Assignments that rely strictly on standard texts make the ghostwriter’s job very easy. Most texts are readily available online. By contrast, a lecture, a class discussion and the experience of being a part of both should be something unique and impossible to replicate. 

6. Give assignment “exit interviews”:

Standardizing one-on-one conferencing with each student following assignment-submission requires each student to defend his or her writing. This is an especially attractive approach because it need not revolve around the suspicion of cheating. This healthy exercise can simply serve as a way of helping the student to reflect on the content of an assignment and the process involved in its completion.

Tomar  gives much more advice here, including tips on detecting ghost-written assignments but also on getting students to be sufficiently engaged in the course that they are less motivated to outsource their assignments.

Feel free to share your experiences, advice, and ideas.

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