Education, Features, Top Stories

Notes From an Academic Paper Mill

One evening last fall, my de facto supervisor e-mailed me an audio file consisting of a three-minute conversation between a college sophomore from Saudi Arabia and his English professor in New York. The student had just surreptitiously recorded this chat using his cell phone; he had approached the professor hoping for specifics on how to improve the first draft of an analysis of Sylvia Plath’s work he’d submitted the previous week. His side of the conversation was notable for how painfully little English he knew despite having ostensibly completed a three-page assignment in that language.

From 1,500 miles away, I set to work on a second draft using this new information. I was careful to stick to the grading rubric and minimize grammar errors while still writing in a sufficiently unrefined manner to convincingly imitate a Riyadh native who’d come to the U.S. a year earlier to get a university degree. Within an hour or two, I had e-mailed the new draft—stripped of Microsoft Word metadata to conceal the identity of the document’s real creator—to my supervisor, who reviewed and approved it before dispatching it back to the student in New York.

My name, by the way, isn’t really Tammy. But over the past two-plus years, I grew used to submitting writing assignments using a name other than my own. My work is associated with literally dozens of real names, most of them belonging to people aged 19 to 25 or so, all of them from well-off to extremely wealthy families. I might be a young man from Tunisia one morning and an aspiring bikini model from Colombia that same afternoon.

Yes, I worked for a paper mill. You can find a number of these online, but not the one I was associated with, which was more a concierge-style operation catering to a niche clientele. My boss’s clients were rich and accordingly self-entitled, and they were willing to pay handsomely for good work—and not just the occasional paper. Some of them had me handling entire courses. In fact, a few of them farmed out their entire academic course loads to the people who paid me.

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After getting a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from a New England liberal arts school at the onset of the global financial crisis, I dropped out of a doctorate program after two years and started working part-time for an insurance company handling its corporate communications. I was also training for triathlons (I’d been a competitive swimmer in college) and freelancing for some sports and fitness websites. I was able to cobble together enough money this way to survive, with my partner’s help, in a fairly expensive metropolitan area.

Shortly after New Year’s Day in 2016, I renewed a Craigslist ad that I had let lapse for months and offering my editing and writing services, a spot that had netted me a decent amount of freelance work over the years, from editing a 200-page medical marijuana application to assembling an annotated bibliography for a bilingual doctoral student in neuroscience. Fortuitously, this ad was spotted by a most curious brand of headhunter, who e-mailed me with a specific inquiry: “How are you with academic writing?”

I immediately concluded that this was code for “Can you write papers for people?” And in a phone call that night, I learned that it was. This nameless ‘company’ consisting of the two people who had founded it, and they needed people with the time, the talent, and the flexible ethics to do the work of college students. One of the founders, a secular Muslim, had discovered in his undergraduate days in New York that he had a flair for paper-writing and had parlayed this into a side business by methodically reaching out to Muslim students in the area, targeting those from overseas with lots of cash, little desire to do any real work, and full course loads. Diabolical, but also brilliant.

They explained that, yeah, the ethics were a little sketchy, but if it was any consolation, none of my ‘clients’ would be seeking advanced degrees and thus my work wouldn’t have the effect of depriving hard-working students of slots in PhD or MBA programs. I told them I’d do it for $20 a page and they agreed, which is how I started my new career.

They started me off in an online-only, eight-week, intro-level management class. The explosion of these virtual courses has, of course, made this kind of cheating very easy for anyone willing to fork over the dough and assume a modicum of risk. I wrote a number of short papers, took weekly quizzes (for which I easily Googled the answers in what I regard as meta-cheating) and participated in message-board discussions, being careful to avoid anachronisms and writing as best as I could from the standpoint of the opposite sex.

I got an A+ and they assigned me more work. A lot more. As much as a I wanted, and sometimes more than I could handle given my other responsibilities. Over the next two-plus years, I turned out over 3,000 pages’ worth of work and made over $60,000, reporting this to the IRS as tutoring income. I earned about 60 college credits that I’ll never be able to claim. Most of the full courses I handled were business or marketing ones; science students tend to want to do their own work. I bought a new car last year almost entirely thanks to this dubious enterprise. But I recently parted ways, amicably, with this outfit, because I got a real job—one that, perhaps not ironically, drew on what I’d learned in ‘my’ marketing classes.

And I’m very thankful, because I hated it and loved it at the same time.

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How was this ‘job’ compared to others like it, such as they exist?

As the owners understandably wanted, my direct contact with students was all but nonexistent, although I had to know their names when logging into their student accounts. Almost none of them ever learned my own. I followed a few on social media to help me get ‘in character’ (and briefly had the hots for one, sort of). Everything was brokered through the person who’d recruited me and handled the day-to-day operations.

I found myself in a variety of extraordinary situations thanks to this unanticipated experience, some of them quite funny. One of my most memorable essays was entitled “Why I Don’t Think Cheating Is Prevalent at [Name of Respected University].” I really had to thread the needle in some cases, including one where a student from China was already suspected of having turned in work that wasn’t her own (which was true, but I wasn’t the author). The paper was an opinion essay for a women’s studies course about whether booty-driven Instagram accounts are good for feminism. I did some background on the prof, determined she was an old-school lesbian feminist, and decided I had better go with a resounding ‘no.’ I dumbed down the language enough to be convincing and, although I felt like a racist as I tried to employ Chinese takeout-menu-style English, the paper did well. (The owners are careful to give no assurances of perfect grades, but they consider their operation an elite one and I typically delivered As, even in subjects I was completely unfamiliar with.)

Being generally discouraged from interacting directly and privately with professors was a mixed blessing. I couldn’t lambast them for their own shoddy grammar and errors of fact, so I had to have my supervisor broker such disputes. I found one professor so adversarial that I tracked down her Twitter account and posed as a right-wing loon just to hector her sputtered opinions. On various occasions, I knew when I was almost certainly interacting with another paper-mill hack on a discussion board; 19-year-olds from Turkey don’t typically wax nostalgic about the Back to the Future film franchise.

Because I often had latitude in choosing topics, I wrote about what I knew. A startling number of the clients I served became swimmers. A lot of them liked Arrested Development. And so on. These students were often so disengaged from the process, often off partying somewhere, that as long as they were making progress toward a degree, they simply didn’t care. (Well, usually they didn’t. Sometimes my religious and other convictions collided with those of my clients. For a psych class, I used an actual account of watching someone smoke pot that so horrified the student he was apparently ready to return to Kuwait.)

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Realistically, this could all be squashed. Colleges offering online courses could make some basic technical adjustments to preclude most of this cheating if they cared to do so. But for various reasons—some of them straightforward, others more occult—they don’t. I think Bryan Caplan’s central thesis in The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money is relevant here: Having a degree means getting to tell other people with degrees you have one so you can interact with them in a way you couldn’t otherwise. Nowadays, they’re occasionally useful on resumes, but just as often they’re simply a signalling tool.

I’m convinced that cheating of the type I am describing (and in which I’ve been implicated, obviously) is rampant and that professors often know when it’s happening and choose not to intervene for a number of reasons. Most of them simply don’t want to rock the boat, knowing what a pain in the ass it would be to have to confront, convict, and expel someone—especially someone whose family happened to be writing huge checks to the university. Alternatively, I could just blow the whole operation out of the water myself in less time than it’s taken you to read this story. I’m sure I don’t have to explain how; I’ve kept every paper I ever wrote, and I know lots of names. But I won’t, because I was well taken care of.

Higher education is often dismissed as a joke, typically by those on the Right who see colleges as hyper-liberal PC-crippled sludge-pots. But the reality is that it’s a joke because it’s more of a basic commodity than ever. With online courses, it’s easier for people to simply purchase a degree than ever before. Not only can the richest gain easier entry, but they can buy an easy ride. And since I’ll never be rich, I was happy to pick up some of the crumbs. But as someone with a deep appreciation of education and expertise, it’s troubling to know that college is just one more locus of skulduggery, veiled and overt.

 

‘Tammy Sheeran’ is a pseudonym.

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