Online essays: Cheating in the Information Age

The deadline is a few short days away. The assignment: a 10-page paper analyzing the roots of the Weimar Republic’s failure. So far, the computer screen is blank.

After weeks of procrastinating, what can an enterprising student do? Grab a credit card, log onto the Internet and download a sample essay from a “cybercheating” site. Turn it in as original work.

Welcome to the Information Age; please have your 15-digit credit card number handy.

Web sites abound to serve the needs of harried students. An Alta Vista search with the keywords “essay” and “cheat” brings up thousands of matches. Additional searches on a specific paper topic call up dozens of related sites.

“We are aware of (cybercheating), but we have not had a case as yet of a student buying a paper online,” said Freida Kulish, program manager of the GW Academic Integrity Council.

Kulish said faculty members conduct independent investigations of students who are suspected of cheating and then bring the charges before the Academic Integrity Council.

During the 1996-’97 academic year, seven hearings were held on cheating accusations. Twenty-three other cases were handled by faculty members.

Punishment for cheating can be any measure the faculty member chooses, from failing the student to expulsion, Kulish said.

“There haven’t been any (cases of cybercheating) this year, but there have been suspensions,” she said.

But with the number of sites on the Web, professors are hard-pressed to catch cybercheaters.

Political science Professor Michael Sodaro assigns a 10-page paper on the Weimar Republic each semester in his “Introduction to Comparative Politics” course, but said he has no idea how successful he is at catching cybercheaters. He said he does not anticipate much cybercheating in his undergraduate course since he changes the format of his essay questions each semester.

In his smaller graduate class, he said he knows his students well enough to recognize their work.

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Though GW has seen no reported cases of cybercheating, the ease of finding papers online makes it a temptation as finals approach.

A Web search for the phrase “Weimar Republic” brings up several hundred matching sites. One link brings up the “Weimar History Web Site,” which was created by 16-year-old Matthew Ashby, an Australian eleventh-grader.

The site, which contains a vast supply of historical information on the short-lived Weimar Republic, was developed by Ashby as a “non-written” project for his modern history course.

“Anyone is welcome to use my site as a reference for their assignments, and I welcome their feedback,” Ashby said in an e-mail.

Ashby’s site has received more than 100 “hits” since September.

“Evil House of Cheat” (www.cheathouse.com) is perhaps the largest online “term paper mill,” boasting more than 8,000 essays in more than 40 categories.

But “House of Cheat” papers come with a price. For $9.95, students can purchase a password that allows unlimited searches for up to a year.

The site also lists tips for cheating on in-class exams without getting caught. Throughout the site, users are reminded that papers downloaded from the site should be used only for research and as study guides. “House of Cheat” has links to dozens of other cybercheating sites.

Visitors to the “School Sucks” site (www.schoolsucks.com) get free access and downloading capabilities. Like “House of Cheat,” the site warns users against turning in downloaded material as their own; all material on the site is purportedly for research purposes only. The site makes money by selling space to advertisers – often other term paper mills.

“School Sucks” reportedly gets about 40,000 hits a day and there are plans to have it available in 15 languages by September 1998.

Kenny Sahr, the site’s 26-year-old Webmaster and a journalism student at Florida International University in Miami, told The Washington Post that sites like his are necessary today because “so many students are desperate and this allows them to do much more impulse buying.”

According to Time magazine, Sahr makes “easily above five grand a month” from advertisers who pay $20 for every 1,000 times their ads appear on the site.

Papers for a price

Sahr says on his Web site that students should not be foolish enough to turn in downloaded material as their own.

“Many of the papers are garbage, actually. If I spell-checked them, we’d have a new president by the time I finished,” Sahr told The Post.

In an interview with People magazine, Sahr said his site will put traditional term paper mills out of business and “force lazy faculty members to come up with more creative and specific assignments.”

Many sites offer student-donated material, but a few go further. For a per-page fee, some cybercheating sites will send a students an “expertly written” customized paper by fax, e-mail or Federal Express.

“Research Papers On-line” (www.ezwrite.com) boasts that “theses and dissertations are our specialty” and that all papers are “new and have not been previously circulated.” Students can rest assured that their professors will not be able to find a similar paper if they do an online search – each is specifically written. The charge for all this? $4.95 a page.

Other sites offer term papers at no cost. Many are student Web pages that claim to have high-scoring term papers available – but only for research purposes.

The battle against cheating

As technology makes cheating easier than ever, professors attempt to combat term paper fraud by giving very specific guidelines for paper organization and content, and by varying the format of their essay questions each semester.

Forrest Maltzman, a professor of American politics, said he has not had any problems with cybercheating in his classes.

“In the end, some students will always search for ways to cheat,” Maltzman said. “Hopefully students will have enough integrity and interest in learning that they will not employ technology to cheat.

“One of the most effective ways to stop (cybercheating) is to come up with original assignments that are unlikely to be used at other universities,” Maltzman said.

“Students have submitted papers from the previous semester, but there is no duplication in the questions from one semester to the next,” Sodaro said. He said students who use papers from previous semesters are not always caught, but usually get poor grades on the paper.

“There are always going to be cheaters, but eventually it is going to catch up with them,” Sodaro added.

In October, Boston University sued several cybercheating sites in federal court alleging wire fraud, mail fraud, racketeering and violation of a Massachusetts law that prohibits the sale of term papers. Attorneys for the University want to seize the companies’ records and stop them from doing business in Massachusetts.

According to Kulish, GW is “definitely not” considering any legal action against cybercheating companies. But she said the University might reconsider if a case of cybercheating is brought before the Academic Integrity Council.

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