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How to buy a college paper online, and how schools are fighting back against plagiarism

Posted at 12:21 PM, Sep 24, 2019
and last updated 2019-09-24 14:35:27-04

CLEVELAND — Somewhere on a college campus today a student will type the words "how to buy a college paper online" into Google. Maybe you're one of these students. Maybe that's how you got to this page.

An investigation by Scripps station WEWS in Cleveland found dozens of websites offering to do a homework assignment for a fee. But purchasing academic paper online might just might not be worth it.

Cyber Cheating
A Google search for the term "write my paper for me" pulls up a result for a website called "Unemployed Professors." The site uses cartoons to show students how they can party instead of spending time on their papers.

Unemployed Professors
Unemployed Professors

"Unemployed Professors" claims to have completed more than 90,000 assignments. It shows students how to post their assignments on its website. Then, the "unemployed professors" bid on the assignment.

For $50 and an $18 fee for plagiarism detection software, a "professor" who claimed to be from London agreed to write a two-paper within two days.

Other websites were just as brazen about selling students' homework.

Hail Mary Papers<div class="Figure-credit" itemprop="author">Hail Mary Papers

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On its homepage, Hail Mary Papers, writes it has answered "students' prayers for more than ten years" by offering 100% original work and the "best prices in the industry." Hail Mary Papers charged $50 for the same two-page paper that Unemployed Professors did.

A third website, PennyPaperWriter advertises "attention and personal service." It also charged $50 for the same two-page paper.

All three papers arrived on time, ahead of the fictional "due date."

Plagiarism prevention

For years, Rob Kairis, the library director at Kent State University's Stark County campus, has been on the frontlines of the fight against plagiarism in academia.

"They're just capitalizing, unfortunately, on a situation that's out there, where students are willing to pay for papers," he said.

Kairis teaches "Plagiarism School" for students caught unintentionally plagiarizing their homework. He shows students how to cite sources, paraphrase material, and use quotations properly.

However, when it comes to intentional acts of plagiarism, he said professors don't only have to rely on their instincts.

Many schools used special software to help them spot plagiarized papers.

Kent State uses SafeAssign, sold by Blackboard, a learning management system used by colleges and universities.

When professors suspect plagiarism, they can scan a student's paper through the software.

SafeAssign then looks for words and phrases that match papers previously submitted to the university as well as public websites.

Testing the Technology

But can the technology really stop students from passing off someone else's work as their own?

Kairis ran the three papers purchased by reporters through SafeAssign.

Remember Unemployed Professors? Its paper flunked the test, despite the $18 fee for plagiarism detection software.

The website, which admits its business is "incredibly" unethical, brags about beating SafeAssign. But the Unemployed Professors pape had taken much of the work from another source. In other words, the paper was plagiarized.

SafeAssign showed the Unemployed Professors paper was a 45% match to another online article.

"You might say, well, 45%, that doesn't sound too bad, But it's bad," Kairis said. "If you bought this paper, you should ask for your money back."

But SafeAssign has its limits.

The essay purchased from Hail Mary Papers didn't raise any red flags. Neither did the paper we purchased from PennyPaperWriter.

A spokesperson for Blackboard, the company that sells SafeAssign, said the software is a tool to help educators identify nonoriginal work in students' papers. Educators must determine whether the student committed plagiarism.

The spokesperson also sent the following statement:

SafeAssign does not report instances of plagiarized work. It reports instances of nonoriginal content in papers submitted by students and identifies the original source. Both instructors and students can use this information to review assignment submissions for originality, determine if the matching text is properly referenced, and create opportunities to identify how to properly attribute sources rather than paraphrase. All papers should be reviewed by instructors to prevent detection errors due to difference in citation standards and determine if matches were properly cited.

SafeAssign checks papers against publicly available websites as well as an existing library of academic papers that have been submitted through the platform. SafeAssign cannot access student papers that were not submitted through the platform or websites behind paywalls, including those that sell papers.

"If you've got a good idea how to shut them down... good for you," Kairis said about the cyber-cheating services.

After all, plagiarism is not a crime.

"All the people writing these papers are doing is filling a need," Kairis said. "That's kind of scary. "

However, as the saying goes, cheaters never win. Kairis said both papers were poorly written.

For example, he said the paper written by PennyPaperWriter seemed intentionally dumbed down.

"It might, I would guess, get a 'C,' or something like that," he said.

Students under pressure

"I really want to do well in school," Kent State sophomore Evangeline Pacific Agum said. "It's not exactly cheap."

Agum is from Uganda and is majoring in accounting at the school's Stark County campus.

Given the cost and impact on your future, the 19-year-old sophomore and some of her classmates said they sometimes feel intense pressure to earn top grades.

"I always strive, like a perfectionist, like A, A, A," Zac Cino, a senior information technology major said. "It could affect my career down the road if I don't get good grades."

"When you have a class that seems not to be going well, the stress just piles up immensely," education major Lainey Ward said.

"It hits you like a brick wall, to be honest," senior music technology major Bryce Black said.

The students admit stress has made them feel tempted, at times, to take the easy way out, especially since help could be a mouse click away.

"It would be really easy to cheat," Ward said.

"Technology has made it 100 times easier," Cino said.

Cino said the websites also target vulnerable students, claiming he receives targeted ads from "tutoring" websites after posting about his homework assignments on Twitter.

Academic Dishonesty

A few hours south of Kent State, Ohio State — which has more than 66,000 students — has seen a steady increase in academic honesty cases over the past three years. OSU spokesperson Benjamin Johnson said faculty have been more attuned to the problem and detection software is getting better.

"There has also been an increase in unauthorized collaboration between students using social media, such as group chats," Johnson said.

At the University of Akron and Ohio University, the number of academic dishonesty cases remained relatively steady. At each school, the number of students with academic dishonesty violations is small compared to overall student enrollment.

Resisting temptation

Despite the availability of cyber-cheating websites, the Kent State students we interviewed also said it’s not tough to resist the temptation to take the easy way out.

They know the only person they would really be cheating is themselves.

“When I’m taking a class, I want to learn and get better from it,” said Cino.

“Why go to college if you don’t have the time to actually put the effort into getting what you paid for?" said Agum. “Which is education.”

“Maybe if I cheated once, I could go to bed earlier,” said Black. “But that [feeling] quickly passes, at least for me.”

What do the companies selling papers to students have to say for themselves? Good question.

We reached out to each business by phone and email, but no one responded to our interview requests.

This story was originally published by Sarah Buduson on WEWS in Cleveland.