Tuesday, July 15, 2008


The ghostwriters seem to be getting more and more brazen - and seem to be earning lots of money.

The plagiarism conference I attended last month in England noted that there was a rising tide of ghostwriting that we needed to be fighting. The only question is: how? It is legal to pay someone to write something. It is just not legal to submit it to a university as your own work. Not only do you not learn what you were supposed to - and that might end up being very costly when you enter your profession - but you cheat.

I just discovered that a magazine that is put out for free at all German universities and colleges, Unicum, takes open advertising for ghostwriters and prints ads for ghostwriting services. I have written to the magazine to ask why they accept such advertising. If I do not get a satisfactory answer, I will request my school to forbid this magazine from distributing to our students.

Of course, that doesn't hurt the ghostwriters. But maybe it gets the ball rolling. What strategies can we come up with to combat the ghostwriters? Perhaps apply to be a ghostwriter ourselves and then hide a "bomb" somewhere in the text, as was done in the case described in 2005 in Inside Higher Education. Any good (legal) ideas?


  1. Deborah,

    this is not a new problem, students in the US in particular have been using paper mills for several decades. My personal solution is to change the assessment process. I teach in Information Systems and our students are very aware of the possibilities of getting their work done by someone else. In programming especially, it is difficult to detect.

    So over ten years ago I instituted interviews with the students, it can be quite enlightening to have a student in front of you with absolutely no idea what the code on the screen means and completely unable to do the simplest of programming tasks. In such a situation, there is no need to take disciplinary action, a mark of zero just comes naturally and students soon learn that getting someone else to do your assignment is a losing strategy.

    It's not infallible, I have run into students who are very good at explaining other people's work but can't do it themselves. In these cases, the exam (if based solidly on the assignment work) sorts them out.

    It also has a bunch of other positive effects, such as increasing contact with your students, providing feedback right on the spot, demonstrating to students exactly what is wrong with their assignment etc.

    The big drawback for some situations is the cost. If you've got used to using multiple-choice tests or automated marking, this costs a lot more to do, but in my experience, these types of strategy are not effective teaching when you are trying to create realistic learning situations.

  2. Oh definately, I love this. My favorite one was someone submitting code with the line

    x = a & b;

    and I asked what this line did. Zip. I said: assume a is 4 and b 3, what is the value of x after executing the statement?

    After some thought I got the answer: x is 4. I asked back: so we can ignore the "& b" part? Oh no, the answer was, x is also 3. Also? Yes, x has both the values of 4 and 3. This was an epic fail.

    But in Germany we have programs, for example in the social sciences, that have 50-200 people in the course. My husband teaches a first-semester course with 100 students and 3 papers to write over the course of the semester.

    Changing the system is not an option, and they need to learn how to research and write papers. So I do think alternate assessments are important.

    I still would like to find some way of making life more difficult for ghostwriters and their customers.

  3. Deborah,

    I always like it when I ask them to run the application and it takes them several minutes to find the button to press :-)

    But size is not the issue, interviews scale fine, I've run interviews with a course with 260 students in them. The key is what structure you are using.

    If you are using a staff-student teaching structure where you only have lectures and there is 1 lecturer to 100 students, then yes, interviews are not possible, but then I would say that plagiarism is only a very minor problem with that structure. It is not possible to do good teaching with that structure in my opinion, you may be able to be a good entertainer, but you can't teach 100 students by yourself. You are relying on that structure for the students to basically teach themselves with some guidance on the side. As Biggs points out, there are two basic types of students, the self-motivated and the ones that require external motivation and guidance, the former will be fine, the latter will struggle.

    Currently, my course is structured as 12 weeks with a 1 hour lecture and a 2 hour tutorial. Each tutorial has 20-25 students and the tutor is paid for 2 hours preparation, 2 hours teaching and 2 hours marking a week. If I have 2 assignments over the course of the semester and I arrange a 20-30 minute interview for each assignment for each student, and base the assessment marks on the interview, then I'm paying exactly the same amount of money to my tutors as I was in the past.

    So, economically feasible, educationally feasible, seriously deters plagiarism and cheating of all sorts and educationally sound in all sorts of ways.

    Now, you say we can't change the system, if that is really the case, then we are going to have a growing problem because ghostwriting is not going away and it is only going to become more prevalent given the facilitating nature of the Internet. One student was caught here doing it, and he paid a Romanian on Rent-A-Coder $25.00 to do his assignment. It got a C and would never have been caught except a UK lecturer saw the ad on Rent-A-Coder, he was silly enough to place the ad from a Uni computer and he cracked too easily when confronted about it. Our domestic students pay A$1000 per course, our internationals pay A$2000 per course, $25 seems like a pretty good deal.

    I think universities are going to have to face up to the fact sooner or later, that the system is going to have to change. What I'm afraid of is that if we're not careful the system will change back to 100% invigilated exams.

    Some ideas I've seen heard of are:

    - making them write the essays in a controlled environment
    - making it based on a personal aspect,
    - insisting that it is an iterative process and making the students present their drafts as they go and not accepting work that miraculously appears at the last minute.
    - basing the exam heavily on the assignment work
    - extend the assignment beyond a simple review of the literature and saying some clever things about the theme and make the students do some field work. this is what the sciences and IT do, I'm sure there are ways to do this in the social sciences as well.

    I'm sure there are other things we can do, but there is no simple technological solution to the problem, maybe we can get it made illegal to write assignments for students, but that could be a very dangerous path to go down

  4. OMG. I wasn't aware of this site. Just browsing through 3 pages of offers I found one that could be one of our exercises. Great idea for small companies needing coding fast, bad idea for rich kids wanting exercises fast.

    German universities and colleges are vastly underfunded. It's just me, teaching 18 hours a week. Programming is 4 hours of lecture for 40 students and 2x20 students in a 20 person lab. It's me prepping and it's me correcting and it's me interviewing..... I managed to get funding for an extra tutorial for the students for a few years, that is drying up from next year.
    I like having them describe the process by which they arrive at their results in Complete Sentences (tm). This means, they can even say: I had this coding monkey make a basis for me and I added on this delta. It won't get top honors, but it will pass. And CS students need practice writing in complete sentences.

    I have, however, had students try and pass off personal process-oriented reports as their own. I (still) have the memory of an elephant, lucky me.

    Germany still assumes the self-motivated, intelligent, and articulate beginner who gets a few ideas and some books thrown at them and then discovers the world for themselves. Worked great in the 1700s and 1800s, but is headed for extinction, IMHO.

    I heard one good suggestion for papers: only accept a commented bibliography that includs the name of the library and the call number. This at least makes people who purchase papers have to do a bit of research at a local library in order to dig up the call numbers.

  5. I wrote to the magazine "Unicum" and expressed my displeasure with them hosting such advertisements. They wrote back to say that they are debating the issue of having ads in the print issue hotly, but they have pulled the ad for ghostwriters from their job database.

    I do hope that they realize that accepting ads like this is not acceptable for magazines that are distributed on campus.