Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Gaming the gamers

I'm fairly confident that I design writing assignments that, while not plagiarism-proof, are at least plagiarism-tough — that specific enough topic prompts, etc., make it harder for students to plagiarize.

But a simple study by Dan Ariely and a colleague suggests maybe I'm too worried, since at least one way for students to plagiarize — buying papers from an 'essay mill' — should be awfully easy to catch. Ariely ordered papers from four essay mills, ironically on the topic of cheating.

The fictitious prompt:
“When and why do people cheat? Consider the social circumstances involved in dishonesty, and provide a thoughtful response to the topic of cheating. Address various forms of cheating (personal, at work, etc.) and how each of these can be rationalized by a social culture of cheating.”

We requested a term paper for a university level social psychology class, 12 pages long, using 15 sources (cited and referenced in a bibliography), APA style, to be completed in the next 2 weeks.  A pretty basic and conventional request. The essay mills charged us in advance between $150 to $216 per paper.
Ariely then got back papers that he described as "gibberish."

A few of the papers attempt to mimic APA style, but none achieve it without glaring errors. Citations are sloppy, and the reference lists abominable – including outdated and unknown sources, many of which are online news stories, editorial posts or blogs, and some that are simply broken links. In terms of the quality of the writing itself, the authors of all four papers seemed to have very little grasp of the English language, or even how to format an essay. Paragraphs jump bluntly from one topic to another, and often fall into the form of a list, counting off various forms of cheating or providing a long stream of examples that are never explained or connected to the “theses” of the paper. Here are some selected sentences from the four papers:
“Cheating by healers. Healing is different. There is harmless healing, when healers-cheaters and wizards offer omens, lapels, damage to withdraw, the husband-wife back and stuff. We read in the newspaper and just smile. But these days fewer people believe in wizards.”
“If the large allowance of study undertook on scholar betraying is any suggestion of academia and professors’ powerful yearn to decrease scholar betraying, it appeared expected these mind-set would component into the creation of their school room guidelines.”
“By trusting blindfold only in stable love, loyalty, responsibility and honesty the partners assimilate with the credulous and naïve persons of the past.“
“Women have a much greater necessity to feel special.”
“The future generation must learn for historical mistakes and develop the sense of pride and responsibility for its actions.”
I guess there's good news all around here: Stuff this bad shouldn't be hard for instructors to catch. The awesome part: The plagiarizing got plagiarized papers!

But the story does not end here.  We submitted the four essays to, a website that inspects papers for plagiarism and found that two of the papers were 35-39% copied from existing works. We decided to take action with the two largely plagiarized papers, and contacted the essay mills requesting our money back. Despite the solid proof that we provided, the companies insisted that they did not plagiarize. One company even tried to threaten us by saying that they will get in touch with the dean at Duke to alert them to the fact that we submitted work that is not ours (just imagine being a student who had used the paper for a class!).
Huh.  I wondered if students are aware of just what they're paying for.


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