- Buying In, Selling Short:A Pedagogy against the Rhetoric of Online Paper Mills
I don't cheat, but not because it is unacceptable. I don't cheat because I'm picky about my work and would never use someone else's, especially if they didn't write as well as me.—English 101 student
Unlike other forms of academic dishonesty, which are driven only by the desire for a reward or at least the pursuit of a discrete "right" answer, plagiarism is additionally, and importantly, reliant on students' perceptions of authorship. The purchase of essays from paper mill Web sites, as one of the more egregious forms of plagiarism, is generally undertheorized in English studies, perhaps because it is often viewed as a less complicated problem in the context of larger, more "forgivable" acts such as the visible rise of cut and paste and other types of academic dishonesty at the postsecondary level. Clearly, however, the advent of digital technologies that allow access to completed papers on a variety of topics, often at a low price or at no cost and delivered instantly to one's e-mail inbox, has created valid concern among faculty, especially those involved in the teaching of writing.1 This concern has generated a great amount of discussion about detecting such wholesale (and frequently labeled as criminal) plagiarism, diverting attention away from [End Page 25] the more productive discussion of how faculty might prevent such plagiarism from occurring in the first place.
As I have argued elsewhere (Ritter 2005), student patronage of paper mills is reinforced in the college writing community by students' disengagement from academic definitions of authorship; their overreliance on consumerist notions of ownership, especially in Internet commerce; and, importantly, students' lack of confidence in their own writing and research skills. Many first-year writers, such as the one quoted above, have divorced academic integrity from authorship such that choices about writing come down to issues of quality. Students base their choices specifically on which site of authorship—that which resides within themselves or that which resides online—will provide the better product for gaining a college degree, which students believe is a proof-of-purchase certificate and faculty believe is an intangible intellectual achievement.
When a student buys a paper to call his or her own, it is not generally due to a failure to study for an exam or a panic over whether the answer is "A" or "C." Nor is it only about achieving the short-term goal of a "good" grade. While it would be naive to completely discount the factors of panic and desperation in this equation, the decision to purchase a whole paper—rather than shore up an incomplete, insufficient, or otherwise poor quality paper of the student's own making—ultimately comes from a clear disassociation with both process and product, both the act of writing and the value of the written product itself. This lack of understanding of (or concern for) the tenets of authorship is widespread, especially among first-year writing students who more often than not have had no corollary expository writing instruction in high school. Patronage of paper mills is, as a result, a learned behavior, which may be unlearned, to an extent, through faculty efforts to integrate into first-year writing courses challenging, thought-provoking assignments that ask students to be active agents in their own writing.
As writing teachers continue to puzzle over how to find instances of plagiarism, we are most desperate to answer to those external forces asking why we can't stop "all this cheating," especially in our charged (and often self-appointed) capacity as the Plagiarism Elimination Task Force for our universities-at-large. Thus we patronize our own special Web sites (turnitin.com, plagiarism.org) seeking detection solutions, only occasionally asking why such wholesale plagiarism is occurring at all. A recent mass-mailed advertisement for turnitin.com (which I received on 2 April 2005), titled "One of These Students Is Plagiarizing a Paper. Can You Tell Which One?" claims the following: "The internet is an invaluable research tool—but it also [End Page 26] gives some students an irresistible opportunity to plagiarize...