As soon as the first assignment is due for a course, the illusion
of classroom camaraderie crashes to the ground. One day you are all
hanging out talking about Thomas Carlyle, and the next day otherwise
poised and articulate young people are stammering out requests for
extensions. They stop meeting your eyes in class, and they start getting
sick. By the time that happened in the Victorian literature class I
taught at Stanford University this past spring, I had granted extensions
to a third of the class. I surrendered, and let the whole class have an
extra weekend. After all, I wanted them to like me as much as they
wanted me to like them.
It is not fun to watch stressed-out teenagers try to wriggle out of
working. But I was a student recently enough to know that it is
better to watch one than to be one. Take many such students, add a
full-time course load, part-time jobs, the absolute necessity of
drinking, sleeping and screwing at every opportunity, and you have a
ready-made market for term paper mills, those businesses that either
commission or stockpile term papers for students to recycle. These days
there are thousands of term papers instantly available to download from
the Web (Erin Carlson maintains a
list of free term paper sites). Could any of
my students have handed in such phony baloney? Would I have caught it?
Curious, I set out to find a paper that matched one assignment for my
course: an eight-pager interpreting Jane's artwork in Charlotte
Brontk's novel "Jane Eyre." The result? As one site disarmingly
acknowledged, "beggers can't be chosers."
Needless to say, term paper Web sites all include disclaimers
insisting that their papers are available "for research purposes only"
and they are not intended to be handed in as a student's own work.
Despite names like Evil House of Cheat and
SchoolSucks, these sites do not condone plagiarism.
Oh no. Never. The double talk is impressive, since the reality is
usually one click away. If you "aggree" [sic] to the disclaimer on
ReportzNet, you will find instructions on how to search
the essay database, download a paper and "hand it in to your teacher the
next day." Many of the sites go so far as to insist they are providing a
public service in the name of educational reform. SchoolSucks' Kenny
Sahr, among others, argues that his site prevents lazy teachers from
recycling the same old paper topics, though why it is preferable for
students to recycle the same old papers is unclear. They assert that
students can use the papers as models, but students truly seeking model
essays would do better asking their teachers for one that more closely
reflects what is expected of them.
So, what do you get for your trouble? Not much. A
few sites, like Cyber Essays or
Essay.org, work smoothly, but most are badly organized and chock-full of redundant or dead-end links. You can spend as much time navigating them as you would have spent writing your own paper. Searching their databases often results in unalphabetized, uninformative lists that tell you little about each paper. Worse, they are filled with typos, to put it charitably. Indeed, a less charitable person might think that these Web entrepreneurs and ardent school reformers have yet
to master the basics of English grammar and syntax. Papers on "The
Illiad," "Hamlet as a Revenged Tragedy" and "Death: A Common Element in
Poetry" (I am not making these up!) do not reassure.
Besides, my search for term papers on "Jane Eyre" yielded nothing
that anyone could have used for my course assignment on Charlotte
Brontk's novel. SchoolSucks produced only the unpromising "Nature in
'Jane Eyre' by Emily Brontk." Evil House of Cheat produced about 12
essays with annoying titles like "p118.txt," though once you get to the
papers themselves they helpfully note the level of the course it was
assigned for and the original teacher's comments. The most popular
paper topic for "Jane Eyre" was definitely Jane-as-feminist, and one of
these college-level papers from Evil House of Cheat was well-focused and
properly documented, but another high-school paper inauspiciously opened
by comparing Jane Eyre to a caterpillar who would soon become a
butterfly. Cyber Essays yielded another paper on nature in "Jane
Eyre" (the second-place topic) that included one plausible paragraph
interpreting Jane's landscape paintings, but that would not an eight-page
paper make. In short, I can now rest assured that any dedicated
plagiarizer in my class would have had to shell out from $64 to $500 for
a custom-written paper.
When SchoolSucks debuted in 1996 it provoked widespread debate in
the media and the
academy about the ethics of paper mill Web sites, but these free sites ultimately seem too pathetic to be much of a threat to universities. Ironically, the larger threat of plagiarized papers may come from the universities themselves: Online
courses often require that students post their work on the Web, so more
and more student papers will be available free to the savvy surfer.
Already a simple Alta Vista search on "Jane Eyre" results in thousands of
links, including some to
Professor George Landow's Victorian Web, a
growing Brown University site devoted to the literature and culture of
Victorian England that boasts more than 100 informative essays on
"Jane Eyre." And when students post research papers on their own personal
Web pages like Harvard student Dorian Berger's oft-cited
paper archive, the search engines
will find them, and their unscrupulous peers will steal them.
The very nature of these controversies over student plagiarism may change as certain notions of authorship and what constitutes intellectual property continue to evolve. Some radical writing teachers are
using the Internet to question the notion of individual authorship. They argue that intellectual property and copyright are relatively recent phenomena, which encourage the mistaken assumption that writing is "authored" by one hand and mind. By making it difficult to trace the origins of a text or idea, the Internet reminds us that writing is a collaborative process. If these ideas gain ground, crediting someone with "ownership" of intellectual property may begin to seem absurd, and plagiarism may become obsolete -- through its sheer acceptance.
Until then, however, online term-paper sites will continue to serve a growing population of desperate students. And teachers like me will have to keep one eye cocked for pilfered prose on poor dear Jane Eyre.