On Political Books

November/December 2012 Memoirs of an Academic Fraudster

Inside the shadowy business of ghostwriting college students' papers.

By Daniel Luzer

The Shadow Scholar: How I Made a Living Helping College Kids Cheat
by Dave Tomar
Bloomsbury, 272 pp.


Academic paper mills—the companies that write papers for students—don’t really advertise. One doesn’t see their services in the backs of magazines or populating the margins of Web pages. If such companies market at all, it’s frequently done using spam text, with links, in the comments section of Web sites read by college students. On one such site recently, for example, “SolisSharon26” posted the following item:

Young people who are studying in the universities feel necessity for professional writing online because usually they do not have enough time so that deal with there assignments by themselves. Browse the site and you will find the firm which crew is accessible 24/7 to order essay.

I’m not sure I’d trust people who write like this with my credit card number, much less to take care of my Intro to American Government term paper. But there are more professional ads like this all over the Internet, where a cheating student can follow the link provided, send a fee, and in a few hours or days receive a paper. It’s pretty easy to picture the stressed-out or lazy students who buy this stuff. It’s harder to imagine the kind of people who make their living producing it.

This world became a little less shadowy when, on November 12, 2010, the Chronicle of Higher Education ran an article, “The Shadow Scholar,” in which a writer using the pseudonym Ed Dante wrote that he’d been turning out American college students’ essays for the last decade. Dante had written some 5,000 papers. “I work at a company that generates tens of thousands of dollars a month creating essays based on … instructions provided by cheating students. On any day, I am working on upward of 20 assignments. You’ve never heard of me,” he explained, “but there’s a good chance that you’ve read some of my work.” At least if you are a professor.

A few readers thought Ed Dante was made up. One blogger wrote that the Chronicle piece, which became the publication’s most-read article, seemed to have been written by someone “skilled in the art of literary hoaxes.” In fact, he was very much a real person. Meet Dave Tomar, freelance journalist, Rutgers graduate, and Phillies fan.

Tomar used the Chronicle article as the basis for his new book, The Shadow Scholar: How I Made a Living Helping College Kids Cheat, the story of his life as an academic fraudster. Tomar wrote every day, and he wrote about anything. He wrote about the policies of the Jackson administration. He wrote lesson plans for gym teachers. He produced papers on cancer cell structure and how to develop appropriate study skills in elementary school children. He even wrote love poems and once helped someone edit her profile on Match.com. He’d do these pieces one right after another, routinely churning out five or six papers a day.

What could have been a depressing tale becomes, in Tomar’s hands, a funny and charming read. He writes of one Thanksgiving spent with a girlfriend’s family: through-out the meal, his girlfriend’s father berated him for helping people cheat; the next week, the girl’s mother called Tomar to ask him to write a paper for a friend’s daughter. Then there was the time he wrote an entire doctoral dissertation, 160 pages, for a psychology program. The graduate student gave him $4,000 and one page of instructions. It was, says Tomar, “like buying a used car on the specifications that it had four wheels and was blue.”

At a time when his friends were moving into condos and going to conferences and working at jobs with cubicles and 401(k) plans, Tomar was living a very different life:

On a romantic getaway, I sneak in a last-minute assignment while the lady gets dressed for dinner. When I ride the bus, I type furiously while apologizing to those around me for my flying elbows. I write papers in crowded bars. I write papers in the midst of drunken debauchery, pausing between paragraphs to hit the blunt going around the room. Sometimes during my Thursday-night poker games, I write a few sentences every time I fold a hand. Once I wandered through an antique garden in New Orleans searching desperately for a wireless Internet signal via which to submit my paper on toxicology. I battered my keyboard furiously at the edge of a hotel bed in Las Vegas, reasoning out an assignment on the cognitive psychology tool known as the Johari window just before the strippers showed up for a bachelor party. I wrote a paper on improving English curriculum design on a midnight flight to Chicago, buzzed on Valium, scotch, and acrophobia.

Reading this book is sort of like watching an indie movie take on the academic cheating industry. It’s a light romp—complete with irony, self-deprecation, fun regional adventures, and an understanding hipster girlfriend—through what one might ordinarily think of as one of the world’s worst jobs. Despite this lightness, The Shadow Scholar is ultimately an indictment not just of the paper mill industry—which has, let’s be honest, few real defenders—but of the contemporary higher education system, which allows the industry to flourish. For instance, says Tomar, he’d write a paper, often plagiarized, but with heavy use of a thesaurus, because the student has to submitit via a plagiarism detector software like Turnitin.com. The paper gets a passing grade, the student is happy, and presumably the professor is none the wiser. But it is hard to believe that colleges themselves are unaware that these tactics are widespread. And it is not clear, Tomar argues, that they have much motivation to investigate the problem. Indeed, there is a sort of sleaze triangle of academia at work here, with for-profit ghostwriting companies, for-profit plagiarism-protection sites, and universities—many of them for-profit these days—all making money in a fake academic exercise in which students pay for credits they did not earn.

Tomar suggests that today’s students are more likely to cheat because of a combination of factors unique to people born in the last twenty-five years. Students today, he writes, are characterized by a “sense of entitlement, a constant need for validation, and a mediocre work ethic.” At the same time, they expect fast and easy entertainment. They have short attention spans, and they’ve been constantly receiving gratuitous praise for minor accomplishments from their parents. Together with the convenience and power of the Internet, we’ve created students very eager to have someone else do their work.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer

Comments

  • TCinLA on December 01, 2012 10:09 PM:

    American academia has been a fraud employing the otherwise-unemployables for decades. I have three advanced degrees and can remember exactly three professors in all that time as anything other than morons.

    Not only that, but as a relative of mine who used to be a professor told me when we once discussed this topic, the school administrations go out of their way to make it hard on any instructor (I include those wielding the title "professor" on down in that category) who wants to make a big deal out of this. The schools want the money and they don't really give a rat's patootie how they get it.

    The students are merely reacting to what they see going on around them. American academia supposedly leads the world. I submit the one thing they lead the world in is moral corruption.

    People like you who make a living out of defending the system have as much reason to say this doesn't happen, or doesn't happen as much as Tomar suggests, as those who ignore it. You're all part of the same system, whether you want to believe it or not.

  • Robert Abramowitz on December 02, 2012 10:25 AM:

    Sure looks like a picture of Bill Hader from "Saturday Night Live" on the front page lead-in to this story.

  • Anonymous on December 03, 2012 2:52 PM:

    @TCinLA No one said it didn't happen. The question is whether it's any worse than it ever was.

  • smartalek on December 28, 2012 3:08 PM:

    I once wrote a paper for a friend of mine as a favor -- and because I liked the assignment so much; it was fun to do for its own sake. (In the frosh art-history survey class we shared, it was supposed to be a little 3-pager analysis / assessment / personal response to any single object from our local art museum.)
    Ironically, I wound up doing a significantly better job on her paper than on my own -- but mine got an A+, and the one I did for her got her only a B-.
    I was convinced that (despite my confidence that I'd successfully squelched my own voice, and convincingly emulated my friend's), the prof was on to us, and had deliberately undergraded the work as a challenge, and/or the best way of dealing with our suspected academic malfeasance.
    I begged my friend to grieve the grade, offering to feed her everything she needed to know to succeed at doing so. But she refused, saying she was perfectly satisfied with the outcome. (Her future was assured by her family's very successful business. Gradewise, any distinctions above passing were nearly irrelevant to her.)
    That still ticks me off, decades later -- though I do recognize that I have little ground, by most reasonable standards of justice.

    @TC: That's deeply discouraging.
    I never finished my college, nevermind advanced degrees, and the college I attended was a well-regarded libarts institution, but no Ivy. But I never had a single prof, nor have I met or worked with any in any of the two-dozen schools (including one actual Ivy, two Ivy-level, and a range of others down to less-competitive state colleges) I regularly deal with for my firm, whom I've found to be anything less than very bright, and highly committed to their students. Perhaps I've just been lucky -- or am easily snowed.