Honesty, hardwork and the academic life

New York Times published this article recently that talked about writing companies offering essays, academic papers and the like, as services to American college students. I have seen examples of this in my own classroom, though have been handicapped in proving that this work is completely written by someone else. This goes to the heart of an issue in academic integrity : You cannot detect plagiarism if it is someone else doing your entire work. For that, you need good old commonsense.

The authors of the story, Stockman and Mureithi point out that “The essay-for-hire industry has expanded significantly in developing countries with many English speakers, fast internet connections and more college graduates than jobs, especially Kenya, India and Ukraine. A Facebook group for academic writers in Kenya has over 50,000 members.”

What this means is that many American and international students get help and an unfair advantage over others.

I have seen this in my classroom and it makes me sad that students resort to this sort of behavior. What this does is make learning purely an instrumental idea, something purely done for the sake of earning that degree/ diploma.

The statistics are not positive. As the article in NYT points out, “A 2005 study of students in North America found that 7 percent of undergraduates admitted to turning in papers written by someone else, while 3 percent admitted to obtaining essays from essay mills.” I would hazard a guess and say that this number is possibly higher, given the difficulty in getting accurate responses on such sensitive topics.

This sort of ‘contract cheating’ is harder to detect, point out folks from Turnitin, a software that catches plagiarism. However, the same company is coming up with another product called Authorship investigate, that will determine if the said author actually wrote a piece.

There are no federal laws against contract cheating in the US, the authors point out. Such laws have come into effect in Australia and the U.K.

So, what can universities do to address this? What can professors do, to eliminate such practices?

There are no easy answers. While it is easy to accuse someone of contract cheating, it is very hard to prove it.

I have tried to institute inclass work, to see how much of their work matches with what is turned in – I tend to have writing heavy courses – so this is a real problem for me.

I have also interviewed students suspected of this practice. I talk about plagiarism and related issues regularly in class, not to shame anyone but to let them know that it is not ok!

But I still wonder, how can I teach someone the value of putting in the effort, of actual learning – that is supposed to enhance one’s life and quality of thinking? That is a tall order indeeed.