Online Cheating — How to Detect and Deter Ghostwriting

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Cheating in college is rampant. I should know. I used to make a living helping students get away with it. For 10 years, I worked as an academic ghostwriter. That’s a fancy way of saying I completed homework assignments, wrote essays, and composed senior theses for the desperate, lazy, and disengaged students of the world.

More importantly, I was hardly alone. I was part of a real and competitive cottage industry, one with thousands of players. I worked as an independent contractor, usually for online paper mills. Beginning in the year 2000, I spent every waking minute of my life immersed in academic research and writing. I wrote more than 5,000 pages a year. It didn’t make me wealthy, but I was certainly earning more than the average adjunct professor.

I left in 2010, announcing my retirement in a tell-all article published in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Using the pseudonym Ed Dante, I offered what was, for many, a first glimpse at the geekiest black market in the world.

Of course, since my departure, ghostwriting has remained a real and thriving industry. Thousands of web services — employing tens of thousands of ghostwriters working in the United States and around the world — peddle custom-written, totally original, nearly undetectable papers on sociology, political science, biology, and every other subject under the sun. Students hand them in and, in most cases, get away with it.

Since my retirement, I’ve done my best to illuminate this industry in every way I can. I consider it part of my penance for a youth of ill-repute. For example, check out my article on the Economics of Online Cheating. There, I explain how the online cheating business works and why it succeeds.

If you already understand the economics, then you’re probably more interested in the logistics of prevention. If so, dig in because I’ve got a bunch of tips you won’t find anywhere else (unless somebody plagiarized me, which I guess I had coming).

The following comprehensive guide offers ways to combat student cheating culled from a combination of research and first-hand experience. Whether you’re an educator seeking a stronger grasp on what you’re up against, a student with a conflicted understanding of your school’s honor code, or an employer curious about the shenanigans of future applicants, I hope this resource will provide perspective and illumination.

The Four D’s of Ghostbusting

Let’s start with a well-traveled and apocryphal anecdote:

A college student spends an entire semester blowing off his Intro to Sociology course. It’s in a 500-person lecture hall, so he figures correctly that nobody will ever notice his absence. He shows up only for the final exam, and with all the answers written obviously on his arm. He finishes the exam and brings it to the front of the room. As he places it on the top of the test pile, the professor looks down at him from the lectern, sees the cheat-sheet conspicuously tattooed to his body and demands an explanation.

“How dare you!” the student responds defiantly. “Do you know who I am?! Do you know who my father is?!”

The professor admits that he does not. So the student shoves his exam in the middle of the stack and quickly departs.

This story has been around for a long time. So, of course, has cheating. But the challenges suggested by this story — the motive, the anonymity, and the impersonal nature of the college experience — are all greater today than ever before. Much about today’s costly and consumer-driven system of higher education makes cheating easy, desirable, and perhaps even practical.

The viability of the ghostwriting industry is a symptom of real structural and practical higher educational failures — the enrollment of students with linguistic and academic limitations; an emphasis on outcomes (transcripts, degrees, etc.) over experience (learning, enrichment, etc.); and the permeation of mediocre educational experiences that may encourage an ends-justifies-the-means approach to completion.

On the other hand, some students are just lazy, dishonest, and flush with disposable income.

The goal of the present account is to highlight ways educators can confront cheating on both of fronts. This tall task calls for a strategy that combines prevention and enforcement. I’ll break that strategy into four distinct prongs, which I’ll call the 4 D’s: Design, Deterrence, Detection, and Dedication.

  Design

Design refers to the way a professor constructs assignments, course materials, tests, classroom time, and curriculum. Of course, plenty of professors work tirelessly to tailor assignments, materials, and examinations to remain in-step with constantly evolving subject matter, student culture, and best practices. But plenty of professors also recycle old materials, reuse old tests, and depend entirely on content that most students can Google without the help of an educator.

It’s easy to see which of these approaches is more conducive to cheating. Lazy professors don’t just make it easy for would-be cheaters. They also make it easier to rationalize. The attitude is essentially, If the professor doesn’t care, why should I?

According to a 2012 study from Teaching Sociology, strategic design effectively mitigates the risk of plagiarism.

The New Zealand Qualifications Authority agrees, and advises instructors to

“vary (or rotate) assessment tasks from year-to-year and course-to-course. One of the most common forms of cheating involves submitting work produced by students in previous courses. Relatively subtle changes to assessment tasks can be enough to alert markers to cheating. Case studies, contexts, data sets, and actual items can be changed while assessing the same outcomes.”

Ghostwriter’s Perspective

When I was a ghostwriter, I made a living off of lazy students, but the lazy professors made my life easier. Pretending you’re a student in somebody’s class is easier when the professor expends no effort to distinguish his or her assignments, essays, or exams from the millions of other assignments, essays, or exams that have been completed on the same exact subject from time immemorial.

As a ghostwriter, I was probably assigned the same paper on Plato’s The Republic, the same essay on globalization, and the same critical analysis of B.F. Skinner every other month. It was a great time saver. All I had to do was pull up the last essay, rewrite it using my mental thesaurus, slap a bow on it, and send it to market.

Before you call me out for being lazy, just remember, I’m not the one who gave my students some trite, cliched assignment pulled straight from the Dead Poet’s Society playbook. This slacker approach to design makes it nearly impossible to differentiate between the work of a student and a person who’s never set foot in a lecture call.

Practical Strategies

Educators who design materials, assignments, and exams with thought, care, and specificity have a much better chance at spotting the work of an outsider. More importantly, it signals that the professor cares, and that the student, therefore, should care as well. There are a few practical ways to do this:

In-class Writing

Partial emphasis on in-class writing exercises 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, as well as preemptively providing educators with a writing “fingerprint” to judge against any future assignments that may come into question.

Multi-draft Process

For assignments of greater depth, a balance between in-class and out-of-class draft-writing offers a measure of oversight even as the student pursues the assignment independently. By inserting one-on-one conferences into this draft process, the instructor can challenge each student to defend the approach, argument, and decisions comprising the written work. Not only does this engagement heighten exposure for cheaters, but it can also help honest students improve their depth of understanding on a given subject.

Personalization of Subject Matter

Assignments that incorporate personal experiences and interests not only offer students a welcome reprieve from the rote, repetitive, and regurgitated work that makes up so many courses, they also make it more difficult for the ghostwriter to assume a student’s identity.

Original Course Materials

Instructors can reduce the ease with which an outsider can replicate old assignments by updating course materials and creating new assignments on an annual basis. Ghostwriters rely on materials that are readily available online and prefer the efficiency of assignments summoned from memory and experience. Creating challenging course material not drawn verbatim from standard texts can serve as a distinguishing feature when it comes time to read students’ work.

Emphasis on Class Discussion

Assignments that rely strictly on standard texts make the ghostwriter’s job a snap. Most texts are readily available online. By contrast, an insightful lecture or a compelling class discussion may be harder for a ghostwriter to channel. Every professor should strive to give his or her students something they can’t get on the Internet.

Mixed-format Testing

Good testing methods should offer insight into a student’s abilities and comprehension. Mixed-format tests — those that include multiple-choice, essay questions, short-answer questions, etc. — require the student to demonstrate writing capacity and retention of knowledge in real time. This forms a good basis for comparison with suspicious take-home work and might also give the student pause before submitting ghostwritten work.

  Deterrence

Deterrence refers to ways of reducing the motive, desire, or need to purchase a ghostwritten paper. A 2011 study by Research in Higher Education notes the decision to cheat is often based on rational reasoning.

That is, students believe they are cheating out of expedience, opportunity, or necessity. The study finds the onus falls on instructors to live up to student expectations regarding clarity and engagement of course content. The researchers therefore argue that deterrence should use strategies that make cheating seem less rational.

Ghostwriter’s Perspective

This research echoes my experience in the business. Each of my customers had his or her own reasons for cheating — academic difficulty, language barrier, laziness, overly burdensome workload, fear of squandering the enormous investment already committed to college by failing a costly course. The motives are many. But each customer made a rational calculation in which he or she considered the pros and cons of cheating, and ultimately decided that the former outweighed the latter.

Educators who wish to confront cheating must reframe their perspective. Thinking of this as an ethical issue misses the bigger picture. My thousands of customers had an array of concerns, including getting a decent grade, passing a class, and not getting caught. Few ever mentioned an honor code or the underlying ethical quandary. It was perhaps a factor for some, but one relegated behind other more pressing and tangible pressures.

Many students think of academic honesty pragmatically. To some, the ghostwriting service is just one more practical tool in the arsenal. Educators must deter with the same level of pragmatism.

Practical Strategies

Individualization

Large lecture halls and generic instruction can create a sense of anonymity, which is just one practical argument in favor of cheating. Instructors can remove this sense of anonymity by creating opportunities where students advance along individual research paths while sharing the same larger educational experience. Strategies include greater research subject flexibility, more opportunities for independent study, and the chance to complete work directly relevant to a chosen career path.

Conferencing

Regular one-on-one conferences can create a relationship between student and professor that produces a feeling of accountability. This feeling can make a student innately less comfortable with handing in a ghostwritten paper. This is a particularly valuable strategy in online educational contexts, where videoconferencing can foster a relationship between educator and student that serves as its own deterrent.

In-class Participation

Incorporating class participation into student evaluations heightens the imperative for students to become familiar with course content. Emphasizing contributions to class discussions gives students a strong incentive to establish a consistent voice and perspective on course subjects, one that can be a lot harder for a ghostwriter to fake. As a bonus, this approach may help students refine their ideas in ways that better prepare them to handle their written assignments.

Student Engagement

This one is truly up to each educator. It is within every educator’s power to be as creative, energetic, inspiring, original, unpredictable, and engaging as he or she wants to be. When the professor demonstrates passion for the material, this helps to create a moral dilemma about cheating that has more to do with the student/teacher relationship than with the notion of academic integrity.

  Detection

Detection is the process of identifying cheating. The online ghostwriting business has heightened the difficulty of detection. Today, detection occurs on two complimentary fronts: through an array of plagiarism-detection applications and other technology-based solutions; and through the watchful eye of perceptive and attentive educators.

On both fronts, detecting ghostwritten materials requires familiarity with each student’s subject knowledge and writing style. In a research article entitled “Fifty Ways to Detect a Ghostwriter” (which I wishfully presume was inspired by Paul Simon), the author argues “the best way to catch a ghostwriter is to compare writing styles in all essays” and notes that most students display distinguishing characteristics in their writing. Among them, the research identifies “frequency of words and short phrases consisting of at most five words; frequency of most frequent verbs; and frequency of conjunctions.”

Researchers suggest this dependency on certain verbiage and phraseology serves as a reliable indicator of authorship.

Ghostwriter’s Perspective

What differentiates customers of ghostwriting services from other cheaters is their willingness to go the extra mile to avoid detection. Turnitin and other plagiarism-detection services have all but eliminated the threats of copy-and-paste, duplication, and other primitive modes of online cheating. Even if a few of the dimmer students try to get away with this, they rarely get too far.

Ghostwriting customers have selected this specific product because detection is so difficult. Apart from any critical evaluation of the student and his or her body of work, a ghostwritten paper will usually be indistinguishable from the countless other papers a professor or TA will grade. Detection then hinges on contextualizing each student, creating a lens — classroom participation, personal interaction, and past assignments — through which to view all future work.

Practical Strategies

Assignment Exit Interviews

Requiring a brief exit-interview with each student following assignment-submission places the student’s work in context. Inconsistencies between the ideas, voice, and knowledge expressed in the written work and in the interview will serve as red flags. As a bonus, it can also be a healthy exercise that allows each student to critically reflect on the research and writing processes.

Literary Fingerprinting

This is a preemptive detection strategy, one that requires the completion of an in-class writing sample. This sample will serve as a literary fingerprint for each student to be matched against voice, diction, and other distinguishing features when evaluating future assignments for signs of ghostwriting. Beginning a semester by establishing a writing baseline and profile for each student can serve as a point of reference, both in the event of a questionable submission and in tracking each student’s progress as a writer.

File Properties

One way to improve the chances of detecting ghostwritten work is to be a savvy technology user. You’d be amazed what you can learn by simply looking at the “Properties” or “File Properties” tab on a submitted document. It may contain information about the file’s author, the registered user of the machine or program on which it was created, the date it was created, and file modifications history. All of this information constitutes genuine evidence in making a case against a student suspected of cheating.

  Dedication

Detection is all well and good, but let’s face it, people interested in detecting are more likely to join a police force than a teachers’ union. Teachers are in the classroom to teach. This is where the fourth “D” comes into play.

It’s easy to demonize students who cheat, to accuse them of laziness, dishonesty, and moral failing. However, many of these students need serious help. Many cheaters have been failed by the system, gone long unsupported in their academic needs, been shoehorned into the wrong academic environment, and find themselves in over their head. If a drowning student sees ghostwriting as the only life-preserver, something is missing from the educational experience.

Dedication refers to the work that advisors and educators must do to ensure that desperate students have better options. Students who struggle with the material, write poorly, or speak English as a second language require both academic and counseling support to remain grounded in the educational process. Each professor therefore must be more than an intellectual, researcher, and author. The professor must also be an educator.

Ghostwriter’s Perspective

Too many students stroll into the classroom or lecture hall without even the basic fundamental writing skills needed to compose a Tweet. For these “reluctant cheaters,” which were most of my client base, deterrence isn’t a realistic goal. For most, the fear of getting caught is substantially less than the fear of failing. No amount of threatening can stop a desperate student from taking the last resort.

Day in, day out, my work as a ghostwriter brought me into contact with students who completely lacked the capacity to communicate through the written medium. Many were, of course, international students working with the English language for the first time. But many others were students who had graduated from wealthy suburban high schools. The writing deficiencies that students carry into college and beyond are nothing short of disturbing.

Students deficient either in learning or language face tremendous pressure to stay afloat in educational situations they simply aren’t qualified to handle. To deter struggling students from hiring ghostwriters, it is necessary to do more than scare them. We need to help them.

Practical Strategy

Identify Struggling Students and Get Them Help

To reduce the presence of the ghostwriter in the classroom, educators must take preemptive steps to identify those most likely to feel they need his services. Addressing their struggles reduces the biggest motive for academic dishonesty. Struggling students are far more tempted to cheat. But we must presume that most struggling students would rather not cheat but see no suitable alternative. Finding that suitable alternative could be a game-changer for many would-be ghostwriting clients.

Alternatives may include the following:

Getting Rid of the Ghost

No magic bullet will kill the ghostwriting business. And no one-size-fits-all solution exists to spotting or stopping student who cheat. Instead, the suggestions here offer a multi-front strategy for weakening the ghostwriters’ ability to do their job, diminishing the practical appeal of ghostwriting services for students, creating a more keenly aware educator, and taking a curative rather than punitive approach to students in need of help.

Thoughout this piece, you may also notice the promotion of more varied, distinctive, creative, and enriching learning strategies, and those which foster educational intimacy between students and educators. The combination of these strategies enables educators to discourage and detect ghostwriting while minimizing student justifications for using these services in the first place.

Many of these strategies are labor-intensive. Many demand that instructors spend more time working on course materials, interacting with students, and becoming familiar with students as writers and as individuals.

But these strategies come with their own rewards.

Even if the motive here is to detect or deter ghostwriting, the outcome will be a more positive and engaging educational experience for educators and students alike.

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