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Buying the wrong words

| Thursday, Sept. 21, 2006

It's easy to buy a term paper.

It's no small task to get away with it.

A "buy term paper" Google search came back with more than 150 million hits. The phrase "term paper services" produced more than 650 million possibilities.

SuperiorPapers.com claims it will "lighten your academic load." MasterPapers.com says it was founded "to help those who are in need." And TermPaperRelief.com advertises it has "a huge network of PhD (sic) writers, retired from well-known universities" just waiting to take your order.

Online companies promising "plagiarism-free" papers for a fee have become a new foe in the battle against academic cheating.

Most sites charge per page, and papers cost more if a deadline looms. SuperiorPapers can get a paper to a customer in as little as 12 hours, for a cost of $29.95 per page.

Cheating online, it seems, doesn't come cheap.

Maggie Brown, 20, a Duquesne University junior, said her professors are acutely aware of how easy it is for students to use a Web site to buy a paper. At the beginning of the term, three of her four professors issued stern warnings about what students could expect if caught plagiarizing or otherwise cheating, Brown said.

"You could fail that assignment, or you could fail the entire course," she said. "They do take it very seriously."

To be clear: Brown said she has never used an online site to cheat, and doesn't hand in others' work as her own.

"It's a waste of the money you're spending to go to college," Brown said.

How easy is it?

Trib p.m. decided to test the waters. We ordered a paper on the bland topic of natural imagery in Emily Bronte's "Wuthering Heights." TermPaperRelief.com delivered quickly: The order was placed last Thursday afternoon and was available the next morning.

But it reads like a rush job -- possibly written during a late-night cram session or at a keg party. Plus, it came in short of its requested five-page length -- there were only eight lines on the fifth page.

The essay had numerous typos -- "or" for "our", "analogues" for "analogous" -- along with stilted language and grammatical errors that almost made the paper seem like it was written by someone for whom English is a second language.

Here's a highlight: "The natural imagery is reflected when Bronte describes the windows of the Heights as deeply set in the wall. Similarly, Heathcliff has deep-set dark eyes. Alongside with this association, Bronte's title of her book holds definite meaning. The very definition of 'Wuthering' is 'to dry up, shrivel or wilt as from decay.'"

That passage is not only clumsy, but apparently wrong. The meaning of "wuther" is "to blow with a dull roaring sound," according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary.

TermPaperRelief claims to have all its papers penned by people with masters or doctoral degrees, but after reading the "Wuthering Heights" essay, one scholar said it's more likely the work of a high school student.

Stephen Carr is a professor of English literature at the University of Pittsburgh who regularly teaches a course on 19th-century British literature.

Put bluntly, Carr knows "Wuthering Heights" -- and was completely underwhelmed by the TermPaperRelief essay, calling it "appalling" and "hackneyed." It's blatantly padded, he said, pointing to a superfluous quote that isn't even properly formatted.

"It's an 'F' in any college course," Carr said. "It's unacceptable in a good high-school course."

And, Carr said, he would consider it a work of plagiarism, because its themes have been regurgitated so often they're unoriginal.

Daniel Lowe, an associate professor of English at Community College of Allegheny County, agreed that the paper was of poor quality and obviously "canned."

Lowe said instructors can reduce student cheating by creating fresh assignments every semester, giving in-class assignments and asking for drafts before the final work is due.

But with some distance learning courses, he added, the challenge is even greater. "Often you never meet the student face-to-face," he said. "It makes it harder to get to know a student's work."

Copy cat sites

Penny, who wouldn't give her last name, answered the phone at SuperiorPapers.com. She tried to explain how paying for another's work doesn't amount to plagiarism.

SuperiorPapers, she said, are not intended to be presented as a student's own work.

"We write a sample for the student to follow," she said. "We do research and gather information."

What the student does with the paper after that is out of the company's control, she said.

Still, the site advertises a "no plagiarism guarantee."

Timothy Dodd, executive director for the Center for Academic Integrity in Durham, N.C., dismissed claims that the sites are doing nothing wrong.

"What is so despicable about SuperiorPapers.com is that it is seeking comparative advantage over its sleazy competitors by promising that students who purchase their papers won't get unwittingly caught by a school's text matching software," Dodd wrote in an e-mail.

Universities, such as Pitt, subscribe to programs which can detect plagiarism. The software uses algorithms to create a "digital fingerprint" for each document in its database and scans papers against millions of other documents.

John Barrie, a neurobiology professor at the University of California-Berkley, created Turnitin.com in the mid-90s after he realized his students were stealing each other's papers for use in other courses.

Barrie said the site, which is only available to educators, gets 60,000 to 70,000 papers every day. He claims that in the last seven years Turnitin.com has reduced by half plagiarism rates at the 6,000 schools that subscribe.

If the side effect of Turnitin.com is to put term-paper mills out of business, Barrie said, that's fine with him.

"If we can crush those sites like a bug, great," he said.

Schools of thought

All colleges have strict rules regarding plagiarism, and go to great lengths to catch and punish students who turn in others' work as their own.

Duquesne University 's code of ethics specifically addresses purchases from term paper mills. Included in Duquesne's definition of plagiarism is "a paper prepared ... by another person or agency engaged in providing or selling term papers." If a student is caught cheating, the penalties vary by department, but include expulsion.

The University of Pittsburgh subscribes to Turnitin.com, an Internet-based company that specializes in plagiarism detection. It works like this: a professor suspecting less-than-original work in a student paper uploads it to the Turnitin Web site. The site uses what it calls "document source analysis," using algorithms to create a digital fingerprint for each document in its database of 22 million papers, in addition to more than 10,000 periodicals and archives of Internet sites.

Turnitin then provides a color-coded report outlining how similar the submitted paper is to other sources.

Pitt also has a range of punishments available for plagiarists, depending on the department and the circumstances of the offense.

At Carnegie Mellon University , there's no specific mention of online term papers in its code of ethics. But a student who might think he's gotten away with cheating could have an unwelcome surprise down the road: there's no statute of limitations on cheating at CMU. Even after a student has graduated, if an example of cheating turns up, the school could take action.

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