It’s easier than ever to hire someone to write your school or college paper for you.
That’s thanks to a booming group of companies known as the “contract cheating industry.”
Many paper-writing companies try to project an air of legitimacy, with offerings like responsive customer service that let users chat right away with a live person to ask about things like prices. And those prices are pretty consistent—about $10 to $12 per page if you allow the companies a week or more to write your paper. That’s an average of $182 per paper, which in the scheme of college costs, may not seem like that much to a student.
Those are some of the takeaways from a new book, “The Complete Guide to Contract Cheating in Higher Education.” It’s written by someone who spent about 10 years actually doing this work, making a living writing papers for cheating students. His name is Dave Tomar, and these days, he advises educators on how to combat cheating.
Of course, turning in someone else’s work as your own is ethically wrong and a clear violation of every school and college’s conduct codes. (The paper-writing companies get around legal trouble by posting disclaimers and policies that say that students shouldn’t turn in the work as their own.) And a student who does lean on surrogate writers misses out on the whole point of school or college, since learning comes in the process of doing the homework and writing the papers.
So why is this type of cheating so common? What does it say about our education system? And what could be done to curb this contract cheating industry?
On this week’s EdSurge Podcast, we’re exploring these questions and going inside this world of assignment-writers for hire.
Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever you listen to podcasts, or use the player on this page. Or read a partial transcript below, lightly edited for clarity.
EdSurge: How did you come to write term papers for a living?
Dave Tomar: When I went to Rutgers University way back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I was an aspiring writer, and not a particularly ambitious student. And in the search for paying work, I found really the only healthy customer base out there were my fellow students.
At the time, the online cheating business was sort of just kicking off, in the early days of the Wild West internet.
You knew this was against the academic rules. Did you feel bad about it?
I felt bad about the money I was spending to be at Rutgers. With all due respect to the university and to those who have a positive experience there, it just was a poor fit for me. It was a lot of big lecture halls and a really bureaucratic system of administration that made it very difficult to get anything done. And these were sources of frustration that I suppose, in retrospect, you might say allowed me to rationalize helping students cheat.
So what was it, then, that caused you to break out of it 10 years later and share your story?
I have always, even from day one, been very forthcoming about what I was doing. I was always really happy to say, if you asked me what I did for a living, ‘I help students cheat.’ I didn’t pull a lot of punches about that.
But I was always working to find my way out. At that 10-year mark, I realized that my way out was that anytime I’d tell somebody I helped students cheat for a living, they’d … have so many questions that it occurred to me that my best path forward was, ironically, to sort of just embrace what this role had been and share it with everybody and become a whistleblower.
And by the end you were making real money doing it. About how much per year?
My last year was probably my best year, and it was a little over $60,000. I should know because I filed for taxes based on it.
Some people may think that contract cheating sites must be some shady underworld. But you’re saying that’s not the case?
You tend to think of it as sort of this black market of shady drug dealers, but it’s not that. It is a business, and you can find these sites on Google. They have customer service, the better ones. Anyway, the companies I worked for 20 years ago are still around, and repeat business is one of the reasons. So they operate above board in spite of selling an illicit product.
How does this end up happening—where the companies can exist and be open about it?
In the back of my book, I include an appendix, which has a legal disclaimer from one of the companies that I worked for at one point. That’s commonplace across the board—to protect yourself with the proper legal language. You know, you call it a study guide [or say] these are editorial services. ‘We strongly urge you—uh, or forbid you—from submitting this work as your own.’ In other words, enough legal language that it’s really not on the contracted company.
What types of students tend to seek out these services?
This is one of those conversations that over the last 10 years I’ve really adjusted my thinking. It’s not because students have changed, but because what I really think our priorities ought to be have shifted.
I always talk about the lazy and arrogant students and the entitled students—and they’re certainly an [audience for this]. But I’ve come to think that those students are generally not our problem. Our problem is the desperate students. Our problem is the students who get to college without the linguistic abilities to succeed, without the basic academic tools to conduct research, or even the reading comprehension to understand what is being asked of them by an assignment. That’s the student that I think is your likeliest future cheater—the one who is struggling, overwhelmed and in over their heads and—while wrongheaded in their thinking— essentially thinks that cheating is the only option for them.
You note that just focusing on policing these sites is not the best way forward in your view, but in your book you do mention some new technologies that are being built to try to address contract cheating.
There are some technologies that are being developed right now that I’ve had the opportunity to [demo]. A lot of them are based on stylometric assessment, which reads cues in your [writing] voice and phrasing to sort of approximate the likelihood of authorship. It’s not [looking for] a smoking gun. It’s more triangulating data to see if there are any red flags.
Hear the complete interview on the EdSurge Podcast, including a look at new laws in Ireland and Australia meant to combat contract cheating sites.