September 10, 2006

The contrast between “Brave New World” and “1984,” the nature of Ophelia’s madness in “Hamlet,” and the theme of colonialism in "Lord Jim."

I love the hilarious obviousness of the paper topics chosen to test those on-line paper-writing services. Guess what? The papers they write for you are incredibly crappy.
Stephen Greenblatt, a Shakespeare scholar at Harvard and a confessed “soft touch,” said the grade he would give [the Ophelia] paper “would depend, at least to some extent, on whether I thought I was reading the work of a green freshman — in which case I would probably give it a D+ and refer the student to the writing lab for counseling — or an English major, in which case I would simply fail it.”

He added: “If I had paid for this, I would demand my money back.”
Hmmm... yeah, but you're thinking, I don't go to Harvard. Maybe I can still get by with it.

I hope teachers have a lot of ways to deal with the problem. Students who aren't cheating also write bad papers. It's not enough for students to know the web-bought papers will be fairly bad. They may be rather sure the paper they'd have to write would also be bad.

It's also not enough to use plagiarism detection search engines:
Thanks to search engines like Google, college instructors have become adept at spotting those shop-worn, downloadable papers that circulate freely on the Web, and can even finger passages that have been ripped off from standard texts and reference works.

A grade-conscious student these days seems to need a custom job, and to judge from the number of services on the Internet, there must be virtual mills somewhere employing armies of diligent scholars who grind away so that credit-card-equipped undergrads can enjoy more carefree time together.
At least these search engines are causing the papers to get worse. If students know that -- and I'm trying to help here -- that's a disincentive.

One thing I would recommend to teachers is having paper topics that are very closely tied to the idiosyncratic way the material was presented in class, so that a researcher outside of the class (including a student who skipped class) would not be able to handle it properly.

Another alternative is to base the grade on a proctored exam, which is what I do. Even where the exam is open book, you can ask a question that is not generic, that is tied to the way the material was discussed in class, and that presents a specific question that cannot be anticipated beforehand. And then you have to have the nerve to grade so that only writing that answers the question can receive credit. That's my technique.


Old Dad said...

I've graded thousands of freshmen compositions (years ago), and I have an almost foolproof method that works well for composition classes, but probably isn't practical for medium sized lectures.

Get an in class writing sample from each student the first week of class. Make a copy. Require fairly frequent short writing samples. Get another midterm in class essay. It's pretty straight forward to establish what a student is and is not capable of writing. Proving plagiarism can be tougher, but every student I ever caught caved when we jointly compared his in class work to the plagiarism.

Simon Kenton said...

Back in my day, there was a phantom paper-writer who could get his customers a "C" on any subject. And these were students for whom a "C" was just fine, thank you. Now the internet would expose him (or her) in his 'dank glory,' but then it gave the professors fits because there was nobody behind the curtain. How could you find someone whose style was lumpish, who never wrote a phrase memorable enough to mind-stick?

Fenrisulven said...

I hope teachers have a lot of ways to deal with the problem

But also be fair. I was accused of plagerism by an English teacher. She claimed I copied an advertisement [creative writing]. After convincing her with my two rough drafts and the backing of the English dept head [who was mentoring me and knew my style] she raised my F to an A-....

A- ? So good that it was mistaken for a professional advertisement, but not good enough to garner an A+?

Ross said...

I don't understand the economics of it all. $130 for a four-page paper? How long could that take a college student to write? Surely less time than it would take a typical starving student to go out and earn the money waiting tables.

Ann Althouse said...

Ross: I've heard it's all done with credit cards.

dearieme said...

Greenblatt - the one who said that Wm Shakespeare, being a country boy, would be familiar with porcupines? That Greenblatt?

bearbee said...

Periodic and random oral exams?

Kathy said...

How long could that take a college student to write? Surely less time than it would take a typical starving student to go out and earn the money waiting tables.

I have a website with extremely simple instructions for writing a five-paragraph essay, the kind of essay we learned to write in grade school or at a minimum in early junior high. I can't tell you how amazed I am at how much traffic that site gets from people in high school or college or even in some cases graduate school who don't know where to start. I often get emails asking for my help with their essay, or giving me their topic and asking me to write the essay for them. I always refer them back to the website and tell them to follow the steps, one at a time. Many times they email back to say thanks, just for telling them to go read the website! I think some of them are just lost and can't figure out where to start. Others, though, are assuredly lazy. :-)

Derve said...

One thing I would recommend to teachers is having paper topics that are very closely tied to the idiosyncratic way the material was presented in class, so that a researcher outside of the class (including a student who skipped class) would not be able to handle it properly.

Interesting, but I wonder if you would run into the problem of students then acting as stenographers. They can score high just for attending every class, visiting often after class and figuring out what the teacher wants, and parroting it back.

Students brag of this -- not learning or agreeing with what they write, just satisfying the instructor's ego in his/her take on the issues.

I was amazed in attending law school that so many students involved in legal clubs, had access to outlines and daily notes from previous students who took a class. You have noted before that you "mix it up" every year -- changing your syllabus. So many don't.

I knew a fellow student who attended about one quarter of the classes, had access to these previous notes and materials, and was flattering to the professor.

He did well in many classes, just noting what was being looked for, and giving it to them. And I'm not talking about the ones who work hard buy deny it. I mean really bragging about how little it takes.

In my opinion, grades are overrated. As we've noted before for example, the valedictorian in high school classes is rarely the most intelligent, but the most pleasing. Standardized test scores are something different.

Hey, it's a gift that can take you far, but eventually shows up in your work.

Elizabeth said...

Plagiarism is a growing battle for me; my teaching assignments are usually about 1/2 freshman compostion (beginning and advanced) and 1/2 2000-level literature courses, mostly intro and survey, but some special topics as well. It used to be that I looked closely only at the literature courses for plagiarism, but now I get at least two a semester in my freshman comp classes.

In the lit courses I don't allow generic, choose-your-own-topic papers; I follow a multi-step process where they develop the topic in stages, and discuss them with me along the way. That helps but isn't foolproof.

Of two required papers, one is written in class, so that's hard to plagiarize, at least on the prose level. It's certainly possible for students to come in with borrowed ideas and then develop them in their own fashion.

My main defense is to assign lots of short writing assignments throughout the semester; that allows me to become familiar with each student's style and level of ability; when I get a paper that's out of whack with what I know about the writer, well, I can use a search engine as well as they can. Students at my state university aren't as well-heeled as those who'll pay a lot for a paper, and they tend to grab them off the free sites.

My favorite response was from a girl who, on being confronted with her plagiarized paper on a short story, said, "Oh! I didn't know it was plagiarized. I got it from my cousin."

JohnF said...

Capitalism at work! How many fortunes have been made by hiring others to do one aspect or another of the work that must be done?

Now, you can say the purpose of the paper is to help the student learn something, from how to write a paper to whatever the subject matter may be, or you can say the purpose of the grade is to evaluate the student's acquisition of those skills, or that knowledge. You can say that.

But let's face it. The world runs like Rodney Dangerfield in "Back to School."

So, ... oh, hell, I can't keep this up. I give.

Danny said...

College courses are definitely leaning away from the epic 20+ page papers and putting weight into shorter 1-3 page response papers due every week. I'm a senior at UW with three concentrations in the humanities, and still the longest paper I've ever written was fifteen pages for an 8th grade research project.

MadisonMan said...

The problem with long papers is in the grading of them. Especially if they are end-of-term papers, and grades are due in three days.

My worst example of plagiarism (turned in to me, not by me, just to be clear) was from a women who plagiarized something that had been written in the 19th century. Let me tell you, something written in stilted 19th century English is really very noticeable from present-day English. I was laughing while I read it. Google quickly took me to the source.

The college I'm teaching at now is using on a trial basis this year. I'll be curious to see how it does on the 2-page papers I require to be turned in in November.

howzerdo said...

I assign short papers on specific topics, and require students to use sources and class materials. These papers can't be purchased from the Internet, and because of the guidelines, it isn't possible to turn in a completely plagiarized paper, but sections can be copied from websites. It is always obvious (a horrible paragraph is followed by a brilliant one, and the brilliance inevitably scores a hit on Google). More common, however, are students who hand in an essay that was written and submitted by another student in a prior semester. I change the topics every semester, so this is very easy to detect too. The students make no or very few changes, and don't think I will notice that the essay does not match the assigned topic. I require electronic submission of essays, so I have the original. Sometimes students do not even bother to change the author's name in the word processor properties!

AntiCitizenOne said...

Well stealing goes 2 ways. I'm sure I'm not the only person to get my work "used without permission" by my tutor.

I wrote a program, got a 'B' grade then a year saw it used as the example for the class! I have a distinctive coding style and they'd used the same variable names so I knew it was mine.

I think getting the 'B' grade stung the most though as imitation is the highest form of flattery.

Gahrie said...

I once wrote a paper on King Lear in which I argued that the fool was a split personality of the king. My high school English teacher (when the hell did it become Language Arts by the way?) was sure that I had to have copied the paper or had it written for me. Rough drafts saved me. Moral of the story...always save your rough drafts until you get your grade.

Craig said...

Ah, if only college budgets could afford a return to oral exams, hopefully in front of a battalion of professors, under harsh lighting, and without the favor of make-up!

Wayne Wei-siang Hsieh said...
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Wayne Wei-siang Hsieh said...
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Ann Althouse said...

The stories of false allegations of cheating are horrible. With one half-way exception, I have never accused anyone of cheating in all my years of teaching. It is a terrible thing to have to do, even if you feel sure you are right. I think it is far better to structure things to make it difficult to cheat (and to do lesser things like avoiding class and not doing the readings). Unfortunately, many teachers don't want to believe students will cheat and don't put enough effort into preventing (or catching) cheating.

Troy said...


My university uses Turnitin -- I'm starting it this year finally. One of my colleagues -- the resident Turnitin expert says it's a great tool, but not a weapon. The are false positives, etc., but if you use the site to have them turn in rough drafts, etc. it works as a great tool to teach them about citation, etc. Once a paper is entered -- even the 2-page variety -- it will be in the database for the next.

Most appears to be inadvertent (though I'm no Pollyanna) -- and many of my students are in Elizabeth's student's boat -- not that much money to buy a paper for a C-note, but, many through student loans, are mortgaging their future anyway -- what's a few hundred on that shiny Mastercard they gave you in a Student Center?

C. Schweitzer said...

Cheating is epidemic in my environment of the community college, especially among foreign students who are used to doing that regularly in their home countries.

My favorite moments are when I put their papers down in front of them right next to the internet print out of the same damn paper and they still deny its plagiarized.

I even had one student who vigorously defended himself from plagiarizing from the internet by saying that his girlfriend wrote it for him.

If I suspect someone of cheating and I have no proof, one method I've found invaluable is to ask them to write the essay out by hand from memory right there and then. If you've really written a 4-6 page essay--you know that essay well. Most of those to whom I've done that fess up at that point.

dick said...

I am glad to see professors are trying to crack down on plagiarism. I graduated in 1960 but I can still remember a professor in chemistry whose tests were so old that the papers were yellow. Every fraternity on campus had copies of all his tests stowed away and all you had to do to ace them was study all the tests and the answers. You could walk in with the answers memorized and get away with it. Ridiculous.

I also hated it that I had classes with one or two papers and the final and that made up the whole grade. The papers were almost predetermined and would be easy to plagiarize. We were told in advance what the books would be and when the papers would be due and what was needed on the papers. There were only a couple of them but you could have gotten the papers ready and then turn them in on the last day and get away with it. Luckily there were only a couple of classes like that.

The only saving grace was that the classes were small and the professors had a pretty good idea of our thought processes by the end of the class so they may have been able to catch the plagiarists.

Steven said...

A- ? So good that it was mistaken for a professional advertisement, but not good enough to garner an A+?

See, given my opinion of the writing in ad copy, I'd tend to give out a C to something that I'd mistake for "professional ad copy". But I'm a vicious snob.

(Actually, I'm sort of wondering how you get a job writing these papers. Back in school, I was consistently praised by my English teachers . . . )

Ernst Blofeld said...

Aren't the suck-ups who parrot back what the prof wants also displaying a certain low cunning that is arguably rewardable? After all, they're figuring out what their audience wants, and giving it to them.

Revenant said...

Aren't the suck-ups who parrot back what the prof wants also displaying a certain low cunning that is arguably rewardable?

You call it "sucking up"; I called it "getting the guaranteed 'A'". :)

With rare exceptions, professors don't care what undergrads think. Just agree with their opinion, regardless of whether or not you think their opinion is nonsense. That gets you the grades you need to graduate. You have your whole life to actually learn stuff in.

John Henry said...

I taught, as an adjunct, in a graduate business program for 22 years.

We were required to give at least a final exam and "encouraged" to give a mid-term.

I hate making up questions so my policy was to pick 10 questions from the backs of all the chapters. I told the students this the first night of class.

At least a couple times a year, I would have a student dispute my grading and haull out a sheaf of papers where they had studied by taking every question in the book (sometimes 150 or more), looking up the answer and writing it out.

I figured anyone who did that much work deserved the credit for the answer.

Never had any problems with plagiarism on papers or case studies. That I could tell, anyway.

Last year, teaching in an engineering school, grad program, I required a 10 page research paper.

Most students did OK. One copied an article on robots, word for word, out of a trade magazine. Not cut and paste. Simply lift the entire article, print it and turn it in.

It was not only a recent article, it was an article I had read and enjoyed. When I got the paper I thought "Hmmmm.... looks familiar"

It really pissed me off and I asked the student if he thought I was really that stupid.

I discussed this with my dean and gave him an F for the course. the Hell of it was, it was a required course and I had him again the next term.

John Henry

P. Froward said...

Old Dad has the right idea: Get a baseline sample and compare.

There are algorithms which determine fairly reliably (not 100%, duh) whether two writing samples are from the same author.

The weak point seems to be ensuring that the in-class sample is genuine, but the sample doesn't have to be the student's actual work. It just has to be from a different author than at least one of the papers the student submits. That's not trivial for the student to beat.

We know how to nail 99.9% of these little pricks. What's lacking is the awareness of that fact, the will, and the resources to fight off all the lawsuits from irate parents who just can't believe it was really little Bobby who put all those charges to Plagiarized Term Papers International on their credit card. And isn't it unfair to ruin his education just because he isn't actually getting one?

But you have to think of the unintended consequences, too. Who's writing this comment? If you had my real name associated with something I'd written at work, you'd be able to find out. If you can compare two writing samples for a match, taking one writing sample and searching for a match among 300,000,000 candidate samples is just a matter of scale.