Write My Essay, Please!

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These days, students can hire online companies to do all their coursework, from papers to final exams. Is this ethical, or even legal?

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A colleague tells the following story. A student in an undergraduate course recently submitted a truly first-rate term paper. In form, it was extremely well crafted, exhibiting a level of writing far beyond the typical undergraduate. In substance, it did a superb job of analyzing the text and offered a number of trenchant insights. It was clearly A-level work. There was only one problem: It markedly exceeded the quality of any other assignment the student had submitted all semester.

The instructor suspected foul play. She used several plagiarism-detection programs to determine if the student had cut and pasted text from another source, but each of these searches turned up nothing. So she decided to confront the student. She asked him point blank, "Did you write this, or did someone else write it for you?" The student immediately confessed. He had purchased the custom-written paper from an online essay-writing service.

The teacher believed this conduct represented a serious breach of academic ethics. The student had submitted an essay written by someone else as his own. He had not indicated that he hadn't written it. He hadn't given any credit to the essay's true author, whose name he did not know. And he was prepared to accept credit for both the essay and the course, despite the fact that he had not done the required work. The instructor severely admonished the student and gave him an F for the assignment.

But the roots of this problem go far deeper than an isolated case of ghostwriting. Essay writing has become a cottage industry premised on systematic flaunting of the most basic aims of higher education. The very fact that such services exist reflects a deep and widespread misunderstanding of why colleges and universities ask students to write essays in the first place.

These services have names such as WriteMyEssay.com, College-paper.org, and Essayontime.com. Bestessays.com claims that "70% of Students use Essay Writing service at least once [sic]" and boasts that all its writers have M.A. and Ph.D. degrees. Some of these Web sites offer testimonials from satisfied customers. One crows that he received a B+ on a ghostwritten history essay he submitted at a prestigious Ivy League institution. Another marvels at the scholarly standards and dedication of the essay writers, one of whom actually made two unsolicited revisions "absolutely free." Another customer pledges, "I will use your essay writing service again, and leave the essay writing to the professionals."

Such claims raise troubling questions. First, is the use of these services a form of plagiarism? Not exactly, because plagiarism implies stealing someone else's work and calling it one's own. In this case, assuming the essay-writing services are actually providing brand-new essays, no one else's work is being stolen without consent. It is being purchased. Nevertheless, the work is being used without attribution, and the students are claiming credit for work they never did. In short, the students are cheating, not learning.

Most essay-writing services evince little or no commitment to helping their customers understand their essay topics or hone their skills as thinkers and writers. They do not ask students to jot down preliminary ideas or submit rough drafts for editing and critique. They do not even encourage them to pose questions about the subject matter. Instead, the services do all the work for them, requesting only three things: the topic, the deadline, and the payment.

Second, how do these essays manage to slip past an instructor undetected? If most institutions knew their students were using essay-writing services, they would undoubtedly subject them to disciplinary proceedings. But the use of such services can be difficult to detect, unless the instructor makes the effort to compare the content and quality of each essay with other work the student has submitted over the course of a semester. But what if the entire semester's work has been ghostwritten?

Another disturbing question concerns the writers who produce such essays. Why would someone who has earned a master's degree or Ph.D. participate in such ethically an dubious activity? One answer may be that many academics find themselves in dead-end, part-time teaching positions that pay so poorly that they cannot make ends meet, and essay writing can be quite a lucrative business. For students who can wait up to 5 days, one service charges $20 per page, but for those who need the essay within 16 hours, the price quadruples to $80 per page. The "works cited" portion of essays can generate additional revenue. The same service provides one reference per page at no additional cost, but if students feel that they need more citations, the charge is $1 per source. Some struggling academics may also view ghostwriting as a form of vengeance on an educational system that saddled them with huge debts and few prospects for a viable academic career.

A far deeper question is this: Why aren't the students who use these services crafting their own essays to begin with? Some may simply be short on time and juggling competing commitments. As the cost of college continues to escalate, more and more students need to hold down part-time or even full-time jobs. Some are balancing school with marriage, parenthood, and other family responsibilities. The sales pitch of the essay-writing services reassures students that they are learning what they need to know and merely "lack the time needed to get it down on paper."

But more disturbingly, some students may question the very value of writing term papers. After all, they may ask, how many contemporary jobs really require such archaic forms of writing? And what is the point of doing research and formulating an argument when reams of information on virtually any topic are available at the click of a button on the Internet? Some may even doubt the relevance of the whole college experience.

Here is where the real problem lies. The idea of paying someone else to do your work for you has become increasingly commonplace in our broader culture, even in the realm of writing. It is well known that many actors, athletes, politicians, and businesspeople have contracted with uncredited ghostwriters to produce their memoirs for them. There is no law against it.

At the same time, higher education has been transformed into an industry, another sphere of economic activity where goods and services are bought and sold. By this logic, a student who pays a fair market price for it has earned whatever grade it brings. In fact, many institutions of higher education market not the challenges provided by their course of study, but the ease with which busy students can complete it in the midst of other daily responsibilities. The shrewd shopper, it seems, invests the least time and effort necessary to get the goods.

But when students outsource their essays to third-party services, they are devaluing the very degree programs they pursue. They are making a mockery of the very idea of education by putting its trappings - assignments, grades, and degrees - ahead of real learning.. They're cheating their instructors, who issue grades on the presumption that they represent a student's actual work. They are also cheating their classmates who do invest the time and effort necessary to earn their own grades.

But ultimately, students who use essay-writing services are cheating no one more than themselves. They are depriving themselves of the opportunity to ask, "What new insights and perspectives might I gain in the process of writing this paper?" instead of "How can I check this box and get my credential?"

Some might argue that even students who use essay services are forced to learn something in order to graduate. After all, when they sit down to take exams, those who have absorbed nothing at all will be exposed. That may be true in a traditional classroom, but these days, more and more degree programs are moving online -- and in response, more and more Internet-based test-taking services have sprung up. One version of "Take-my-exam.com" called AllHomework.net boasts, "Just let us know what the exam is about and we will find the right expert who will log in on your behalf, finish the exam within the time limit and get you a guaranteed grade for the exam itself."

And why stop with exams? Why not follow this path to its logical conclusion? If the entire course is online, why shouldn't students hire someone to enroll and complete all its requirements on their behalf? In fact, "Take-my-course.com" sites have already begun to appear. One site called My Math Genius promises to get customers a "guaranteed grade," with experts who will complete all assignments and "ace your final and midterm." And why should the trend toward vicarious performance stop with education? How long must we wait until some intrepid entrepreneur founds ""Do-my-job.com" or "Live-my-life.com?"

Meanwhile, the proliferation of essay-writing and exam-taking services is merely a symptom of a much deeper and more pervasive disorder. For that reason, the solution is not merely tougher laws and stiffer penalties. We need a series of probing discussions in classrooms all over the country, encouraging students to reflect on the real purpose of education: the new people and ideas a student encounters, and the enlightenment that comes when an assignment truly challenges a student's heart and mind. Perhaps an essay assignment is in order?

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Richard Gunderman, MD, PhD, is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is a professor of radiology, pediatrics, medical education, philosophy, liberal arts, and philanthropy, and vice-chair of the Radiology Department, at Indiana University. Gunderman's most recent book is X-Ray Vision.

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