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Volume 16, Number 4
July/August 2000

Online Term-Paper Mills Produce a New Crop of Cheaters

The Web makes plagiarism easier—and more tempting—than ever. What can teachers do to discourage students?


"John" sits at his computer working energetically on a term paper, a model of the diligent student-or so it seems.

In reality, John is browsing an online "term-paper mill," looking to make a purchase. He may choose a paper that's already written. Or, he may splurge and order a customized paper tailored to his teacher's specific assignment. All he has to do is make his choice and punch in a credit-card number, and he will have "completed" his assignment with just a few clicks of the mouse.

While plagiarizing and purchasing papers have long been academic problems, the advent of the Internet, with its sprawl of information, has made cheating easier for dishonest students to do—and harder for teachers to catch. More than 70 Internet sites offer research papers, dissertations, and college entrance essays for sale. They're so prevalent that many students practically stumble onto them in the course of legitimate web searches.

High school and college students are visiting online paper mills at an alarming rate. According to the 1998 Survey of High Achievers conducted by Who's Who Among American High School Students, four out of five teens at the top of their classes claim to have cheated in some way, the highest proportion in the 29-year history of the survey. As more cheating resources are offered on the Internet, those numbers are likely to increase.

In response to the growing problem, Boston University sued eight online companies in 1998 for fraud and racketeering in an effort to stop the sale of papers. And the state of Texas recently began levying a $500 fine on companies found to be selling papers over the Internet. "We know the problem has ballooned, not because students have been caught, but because the web sites boast about the number of hits they get and the money made off the sale of papers," says Peter Wood, associate provost at BU.

Papers typically cost from $7 to $35. Term-paper mills generate income not only by selling papers, but also by selling advertising to firms eager to reach the student market. Many of the sites link to other web sites of potential interest to students, including other term-paper sites, along with those about music, sports, even pornography.

Some of the more popular online term-paper sites are: ACI Net Guide to Term Papers, JunglePage,, Cheat Factory, A+ Papers,, Genius Papers, Professor Korn, Evil House of Cheat, and School Sucks.

Many sites are produced by high school, college, or graduate students; some even claim to be managed by professors (e.g., ACI Papers). Most include a disclaimer that says the site is just a study resource; others give papers away, drawing income from ads. For example, School Sucks attracts advertising because it claims to have received more than 3 million hits.

Plagiarism has always existed, but never before could you just type in a phrase like "online paper" and come up with so many quick and effortless alternatives to doing your own work. But why do students risk embarrassment, failure, and even expulsion by downloading a paper? Aside from the obvious reasons such as laziness, the anonymity of the Internet attracts students who might otherwise be too embarrassed to ask for help, according to Kathleen Ross, who trains teachers and students in educational technology at private and public schools in Boston. "The Internet is so much easier to turn to for help than another person, who might make a judgment," Ross explains.

Ross has found that surprisingly few high school teachers are aware of the extent of online temptations facing their students. When it comes to combating online plagiarism and learning about Internet resources, positive and negative, she notes, "There is a certain amount of complacency and a tendency to stick to old approaches." Few teachers get formal training in how to detect or deter online plagiarism.

The quality of the papers offered on these sites tends to be poor, and this may actually help students avoid suspicion of plagiarism, according to New Jersey high school teacher Monica Terry: "The fact that these papers are so full of spelling and grammatical errors makes it hard to suspect that they were actually taken from another source." For example, of the School Sucks site, Terry says, "I don't see much value in using their papers as study guides. The thoughts are too basic and often incoherent. A paper on A Midsummer Night's Dream, a text considered suitable for 9th or 10th graders, was written at a level far below that of a high school student."

Jessica Corr-Bolender, an English teacher at St. George's School in Newport, RI, spot-checks some of the popular online sites when she suspects a paper has been plagiarized. "It would be stupid for a student to take a paper off the Internet. I can find it," she insists. But she admits that not many of the teachers at her school know of these sites and thus are not able to use them to their advantage.

For a price, teachers can get help spotting "digital plagiarism" through sites such as, developed by a group of researchers and alumni of the University of California at Berkeley. At the site, teachers have papers "fingerprinted" or checked against a database of manuscripts from schools, universities, and other sources. Teachers receive an e-mailed "Originality Report" that shows what percentage of a paper appears to have come from other sources and links to those sources. The method is not foolproof: since it relies on matching keywords, it can flag a legitimate paper due to the high recurrence of keywords throughout the Web.

In one sense, any tool for detecting plagiarism could be considered a failure, in that it is just a Band-Aid for the larger problem. In order to truly combat digital or other kinds of plagiarism, teachers need to find ways to help students avoid the temptation to cheat.

Teachers who assign papers on the same topics each year, who assign papers with unrealistic deadlines, or who don't provide enough preparation and information to make students comfortable writing a paper increase the likelihood that their students will cheat, says Oliver Woshinsky, professor of political science at the University of Maine. "I make assignments as specific as possible and require tie-ins with classwork and course texts," he explains. "It's how students get the most out of a course, and it makes plagiarism an impossibility." Woshinsky's strategy is one that many teachers may want to copy.

Orit Ditman is a Boston-based writer and former elementary schoolteacher.

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