From where I sit - Don't join ghostwriters in the lie

February 5, 2009

A relative in his early thirties about to finish an economics degree has told me that cheating at universities is rampant.

Plagiarism is commonplace and many students buy essays and submit them as their own, he said.

As a tertiary educator, I know that plagiarism is common - and probably happens more often than I realise. Who, after all, has time to meticulously google sentences from students' work when marking essay number 78 at 1am? I catch the obvious ones - and there's always one or two in every class.

Most offenders do not seem to realise that cutting and pasting from the internet is not research. Most do not know that it is unethical.

Why do they do it? Because they can. I am sure that in my student days, if lifting material was as easy as it is now, more would have done it.

But when I was doing my bachelors degree in the 1980s, you would have had to copy in your own handwriting from any source you wanted to plagiarise - this feels more heinous than simply highlighting a block of text on screen and moving it to another document.

But back to my relative's observation that blatant cheating - such as paying someone else to write your essay for you - is common and on the rise. Again, in my undergraduate days, it would have been difficult to arrange - you would have had to know someone, arrange to physically pick up the essay, then copy it in your own handwriting.

Today, a cheat is a Google click away. Cheat websites are everywhere. They even have their own euphemistic name: they are "online ghostwriting" sites.

An Australian-based website I visited (which shall remain nameless, because I don't think it deserves any publicity, good or bad) was advertising recently for "writers".

"We are a freelance writing company, specialising in providing high-quality writing, research and editing services to our clients situated worldwide," the advertisement stated.

That sounds OK until you read closely and see that it is looking for writers "skilled at ghostwriting university assignments" and that successful applicants must have gained high marks for their own essays and have at least a bachelors degree.

Writers earn A$7 (£3.28) to A$17 per page, "depending on the academic level and degree of complexity".

I know times are tough, particularly for those of us who make our living by sessional academic work and freelance writing. But I implore students: please do not stoop to writing for cheat sites. By doing so, you will undo all the good work teachers are trying to do.

If there are no university-savvy people to write these assignments for cheats, the market will not be able to continue. I would rather work in a slaughterhouse than write these essays, and I am an animal lover who would not hurt a fly.

I am not fooling myself: ultimately, there is probably no way to stop this kind of cheating. And because of that, we need to keep - and in some cases, bring back - the hated end-of-term examination for every university subject.

The exam is still the best way to show what students have learnt and understood each semester. Simply put, more emphasis on exams will make it harder to cheat.

Caron Dann is a Melbourne-based lecturer and writer. Her latest book, Imagining Siam: A Travellers' Literary Guide to Thailand, is published by Monash Asia Institute.

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