The pressure on students to succeed — both academically and in all other aspects of their lives — has never been greater. Beginning in the earliest years of their education, students face ever-mounting expectations to excel in their studies, to devote themselves to at least one sport or other extracurricular activity, and to develop specialized interests and skills that will eventually lead them to a career path. By high school, most college-bound students are also expected to perform some form of community service or volunteer work. On top of all of this, these kids also need (and want) to be happy, well-rounded people, with friends and hobbies and interests unattached to the pursuit of a bright future. And the pressure only mounts once they do get into college. The fierce competition for internships, jobs, and graduate school slots means that starting freshman year, students must again begin scrambling to find ways of setting themselves apart and surpassing the status quo.
In this pressure-cooker environment, it is perhaps no wonder that students of all ages look for ways to cut corners in order to save time or make themselves seem exceptional. In fact, a recent study by The Josephson Institute of Ethics revealed that 71 percent of high schoolers admitted to cheating on an assignment in the past 12 months. And according to Education-Portal.com, between 75 and 98 percent of college students admit to cheating today — up from 20 percent in 1940. Cheating has always, to a greater or lesser extent, been a part of student life, and in this day and age many students would argue that it’s the only way to stay ahead of the game.
More surprising than the frequency of cheating is the profusion and variety of opportunities for academic crime now available to students. The perceived increase in the need for academic excellence, combined with the extraordinary ease and speed with which information can now be exchanged via the Internet, have given rise to an entirely new kind of Black Market specializing in education. These accessories to crime in education run the gamut from shady, $10-per-paper Craigslist deals, to full-fledged operations, such as diploma mills and ghostwriting companies. Some of these engage students in academic crime without the students necessarily realizing it. Others profess merely to want to help struggling students, while making it all too easy for their clientele to cross the line into cheating. And while the punishment for students caught cheating is quite severe at many schools, the people and organizations who facilitate academic crime seem to go mostly unchecked and unreprimanded.
“Outsourcing” Term Papers
The single most common form of academic dishonesty is plagiarism: copying or referencing another’s work without proper citation. This offense can range from using an argument or an explanation from a piece of literary criticism without citing the source, all the way up to turning in an entire paper written by somebody else. It is the latter practice that has resulted in a booming business in paper ghostwriting. According to a 2009 CNN report, there are at least 250 Web sites where students can buy reports and research papers, often referred to as “paper mills.”Prices range according to the length and quality of the paper desired, with most landing in the $50-$100 range. There are also countless other sites that offer papers for free.
Regardless of price, the quality of these papers nearly always leaves something to be desired. This may be in large part because the papers are very often written by non-native English speakers in countries such as Pakistan, India, Ukraine, and Indonesia. Other factors contributing to low quality include the fact that many papers are pre-written, rather than customized to the buyer’s specific assignment; and even with customized papers, deadlines are generally too short to allow for truly in-depth research and analysis. Then too, there is the fact that the rate of pay is generally well below the industry standard for freelance writers, so even professional writers who sell papers for extra cash are not likely to put in the kind of effort they otherwise might.
The punishment for students caught plagiarizing their papers varies from school to school and even classroom to classroom. Many teachers and professors nowadays have access to software programs that check passages from students’ papers against vast databases of material from the Internet. And even without a plagiarism detector, an instructor can often spot a downloaded paper from the shoddy scholarship, inconsistent style, or lack of focus on the assignment. As one teacher explained, “I’m a professor who has no trouble spotting purchased or plagiarized papers. Our university even has software that one can use to scan suspicious papers and determine if they were plagiarized from an online site. I rarely have to use it, however, since I can easily determine on my own whether a paper is a particular student’s original work…. I’ve “busted” my share of students, and in accordance with my university’s policy, some of them were expelled. All of them received a failing grade for the courses in which they cheated, and their transcripts were marked with the notation “failed for reasons of academic dishonesty.”
Expulsion is indeed common practice at some universities, but more often the penalty for plagiarism is somewhat less harsh, and ranges from being forced to redo the assignment with a cap on the potential grade to failing the assignment or the class or being asked to pay a fine. The paper mills, meanwhile, face no threat of castigation. The majority advertise themselves as “study sites,” and maintain that the papers they sell are for reference purposes only, never to be turned in as original work.
Study Tools: A Gray Area
Buying a term paper written by somebody else and turning it in as your own work is cheating, no two ways about it, and the Web sites that sell them are accessories to educational crime. But what about the more ambiguous issue of study guides and homework tools such as Cliffsnotes, Sparknotes, and “homework help” iPhone apps? These tools have been developed for the express purpose of helping students learn better and complete their assignments more efficiently. It is entirely possible to use any of them as a study aid without venturing into academic crime. But as often as not, time-pressed or lazy students find the temptation too great, and use these tools as a means to cheat rather than to learn.
Take Sparknotes.com, a study guide site established in 1999. The site offers in-depth summaries and study guides for most of the books and poems on the average high school curriculum, including character descriptions, themes and motifs, practice tests, and analysis of important quotes. There’s even an entire section entitled “No Fear Shakespeare.” Ostensibly, the fact that these are broad overviews rather than customized answers to specific assignments should confirm that Sparknotes is not a feasible cheating tool. Nevertheless, many students find that the Sparknotes study guides provide them with all the information they need to pass the test or write the paper, and feel no need to read the book. As high school senior Aagya Sharma explained, “It’s way too crazy for me to try to read the whole book and not understand a word of it. If you just read the summary, then you can get the whole thing. You’re actually just utilizing your time.”
Representatives of Sparknotes.com insist that the site is strictly a study tool, and that they are adamantly against plagiarism and cheating in general. Yet this claim is somewhat at odds with tools like Spark-Mobile, a service that allows students to send in questions via text message and receive answers instantly. Unsurprisingly, cheating via text message is an increasing problem in classrooms at high schools and universities alike.
Of course, the Internet makes cheating easy and, in the case of using Sparknotes guides, fairly undetectable. If an answer on a test is correct and there’s no visible evidence of cheating, a teacher usually can’t find a way to confirm their suspicions even if they’re certain that the answer was learned from Sparknotes. But other, offline technologies are also available to help bolder students commit academic crime. Tatsiana Anop, a high school student in Belarusa, described one occasion when she saw a classmate with a tiny earphone in his ear during a test. It turns out the boy’s friends were hiding just outside, and could hear the teacher’s questions through their own headsets. They looked up the answers in the boy’s textbook and whispered them into his earphone. Amazingly, Anop says, the boy got away with it.
There are academic effort crimes, and then there are crimes in education on a much grander and dodgier scale: the buying and selling of fake diplomas. This unconscionable practice has quite a long history: medical quackery goes back at least as far as the legitimate medical practice does, and there has been a healthy trade in fraudulent medical degrees in the United States at least as far back as the mid-19th century. But in the past twenty years, diploma mills have exploded thanks to the Internet, and now fake degrees are readily available in every field of study and endeavor. Anyone with a credit card can purchase anything from a Bachelor’s Degree to a Ph.D. in as little as two weeks, for between $50 and $5,000. Classes are brief or nonexistent, as is homework, and there are no physical facilities or classrooms.
Within the academic community, there are two distinct types of vendors of fake credentials: degree mills, which is a nonexistent or unaccredited college that provides “real” degrees; and diploma mills, which sell counterfeit degrees from real, Degree mills tend to use names that are extremely close to names of real academic institutions, such as St. Regis University (the real school is St. Regis College). Both types of mills use a variety of marketing strategies and other ploys to appear legitimate, such as dummy accreditation boards, online bookstores, and transcripts.
These days, diploma mills can’t really get away with trying to deceive customers into thinking they are legitimate universities. This would be a direct violation of the Federal Trade Commission Act — a felony that carries a penalty of up to $10,000 per violation, a ruinous prospect for a mill with as many as 15,000 “graduates” per year. Instead, these mills focus their energies on convincing customers that their degrees are indistinguishable from legitimate ones.
People who are caught trying to pass off a fake degree, meanwhile, face a range of penalties depending on the state and their professional field. The increasing incidences of fake degree cases is prompting some states to pass legislature making it a Class-C felony, which carries a fine of up to $10,000 and a prison sentence of up to 5 years. In fields where the consequences of practicing without proper credentials can be hugely harmful, such as medicine and engineering degrees, the penalties are more severe. USA Today reported the case of Gregory Caplinger, for example, who claimed to have a medical degree from Metropolitan Collegiate Institute in Great Britain. Caplinger collected money from patients and investors in order to market drugs for cancer and AIDS. He also ran an HIV clinic where he “treated” HIV positive clients for thousands of dollars. When it was discovered that his MCI was from a degree mill, Caplinger was “convicted of six counts of wire fraud and two counts of money laundering, and was ordered to pay more than $1 million in restitution as part of his 2001 sentencing.”
John W. Santrock, Jane S. Halonen, Your Guide to College Success: Strategies for Achieving Your Goals, Cengage Learning, 241.