Academic cheating is not new or particularly inventive. There are, all in all, only a few ways to misrepresent your grasp of information.
Of the available options, contracting ghost writers, or paying someone to do another person’s coursework, has long been the most difficult to detect and eradicate because catching it relies at least in part on a sense of teacher intuition—that something about the turned-in work doesn’t quite align. However, if a student starts out using academic pinch hitters or invests in personalizing the material, even teacher intuition can be blunted.
Add to that the reality that, even when it’s suspected, ghost writing is one of the more difficult forms of malfeasance to prove. Unless it’s outright, undebated plagiarism, a charge of “I think this is not your work” can be slippery to make stick.
A recent survey from Turnitin, the company that’s helped thousands of schools detect and deter plagiarism, underscores the points about the prevalence of ghost writing in academic communities, as well its difficulty to substantiate. According to the survey of more than 1,000 higher-education instructors in the U.S. and Canada, nearly one in three (32 percent) suspected a student of turning in work that was done by someone else. Two in three said they may not act on those suspicions due to “insufficient evidence.”
(Next page: Ways to wipe out contract cheating)
Those numbers are chilling.
Turnitin released the survey data in coordination with its announcement of a new product aimed at finding and flagging academic work done by contract ghost writers. Called Authorship Investigation, it’s expected to be available in the second half of 2018 and it will be able to alert professors to potential ghost writing by using “…a combination of machine-learning algorithms and forensic linguistic best practices to detect major differences in students’ writing style between papers.”
In other words, Turnitin is promising that its new offering will be able to not just pick up repeated phrases from other work but identify the tone or structure or style of work–perhaps catching if a particular style of paper has been submitted across different institutions or courses. In addition to checking where teachers cannot, Authorship Investigation may be able to quantify what teachers previously called “a feeling” about this sort of cheating.
Still, Authorship Investigation’s best use may be in deterrence. Simply knowing that ghost-writing- detection technology exists and is being used will likely put a dent in the contract-writing marketplace, just as Turnitin’s core plagiarism-detection services surely cut down on that practice. From a student’s perspective, the newly increased risk in contracting a ghost writer may finally outweigh the ease of short-cutting class work. And as the pool of customers recedes, the supply of providers may as well.
Additional tips for reducing contract cheating
Deploying new technologies such as Authorship Investigation is not the only thing teachers and institutions can do to reduce contracted, ghost-written cheating. Here are some other suggestions.
1. Assign in-class, in-person, or on-demand writing.
One of the reasons ghost writing is difficult to prove is the lack of comparison samples. If every class assignment follows a similar pattern–a two-page writing assignment, for example–students can hire the same outside writer for all the assignments.
Professors and deans may consider having at least one in-class, in-person writing assignment so that they can compare it with subsequent submissions from the same student. While in-person assignments will, on average, be of lower quality than out-of-class varieties, significant breaks in depth, style, comprehension, or even basic grammar can be helpful tip-offs that the work may have different origins.
For online classes or work that’s assigned digitally, consider a writing assignment that can only be obtained when a student has logged in and must be completed within a set time. This could allow teachers to compare ISP records, log-in times, and online ID-verification tools while ensuring a reliable example of actual student-produced work.
2. Try to shut down providers.
Many contract ghost writers advertise either on campus or online via sites such as craigslist. School administrators can contact these providers as well as the places they advertise. While not strictly illegal in most places, everyone involved knows it’s an unacceptable practice in academia. Accordingly, frequent calls and inquiries from school leaders to content providers may dampen their eagerness to seek out new customers–making the entire process more difficult and more expensive.
3. Consider retroactivity.
College leaders may also find it helpful to consider a policy in which subsequent instances of contracted, ghost-written cheating may be applied to previous students who used similar tactics. In other words, if some future student is caught using a ghost writer and it can be proven, through Authorship Investigation or some other means, that a current student used that provider, the current student could face penalties such as suspension, expulsion, or revocation of credits or degrees.
Students may have many reasons to use a ghost writer, but by understanding and accepting the possible penalties, they may be less included to wager on the future sloppiness of students or ghost writers or the inevitable improvements in technology.
While it’s a fool’s errand to try to eradicate cheating entirely, contracted work production remains among the last, wholly untouched fields of fraud and, because it is, every turn of the vice to squeeze it is both necessary and helpful.