Write My Essay, Please!

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.

Presented by

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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