Psst, Kid! Wanna Buy a Term Paper?

In response to complaints that college graduates are unable to write effectively, the pursuit of educational excellence has led to increased writing requirements. This will improve the writing skills of students who fulfill the tougher requirements. But it will also lead more students to seek refuge from them by purchasing papers instead. Colleges must, therefore, better understand the market for purchased papers.

Most teachers have a vague notion that a market for purchased research papers exists. Little thought is given to the problem, however. As a result, we are woefully ignorant of how accessible this market is, and the extent to which it undermines learning.

The evidence for a thriving purchased-papers market is obvious to anyone on a college campus. There are thinly disguised ads in college papers, flyers on windshields and campus bulletin boards, and cards in gym lockers. They give phone numbers and addresses, trumpet their broad ``product line,'' make available both catalogs of existing papers and custom research, and often invite students in to ``shop'' before they buy.

One catalog provides prospective customers with the number of papers available (16,242), prices (from $6.50 per page for catalog papers, to $20 per page for ``more sophisticated'' custom papers), subjects covered (all), telephone order numbers (two each for catalog and custom papers), and for each paper (neatly indexed), it gives the title, a two-line description, the number of pages, footnotes, and bibliographical references. The ``product variety'' is impressive as well. Not only are there several papers on common topics, but esoteric ones as well, such as ``Tibetan Influences on Buddhist Painting.''

How do paper ``mills'' defend themselves? By explaining that ``all materials are sold for research purposes only,'' as one catalogue says. Buyers are also required (the result of an earlier lawsuit) to initial a statement that the ``research material will be used for research purposes only and will not be submitted in the same or substantially similar form for academic credit.'' Of course, ``millworkers'' also tout that their papers get good marks.

Despite claims to the contrary, the policies of purchased-paper mills make sense only if their purpose is to do exactly what they deny - sell papers for student submission. These policies include statements that ``all orders are absolutely confidential;'' ``orders are sent in unmarked envelopes;'' ``if you can't find a paper that satisfies your needs, we also provide custom research;'' and ``more sophisticated papers are extra.'' Other policies require student IDs to buy papers; keeping records of when and to which schools each paper has been sold; papers ``misfiled'' when paper requests seem suspicious; and anonymous authorship.

Such policies indicate that claims of providing legitimate research are false. If the papers were for research, one would want to cite the anonymous author and his or her credentials. Confidential orders and unmarked envelopes seem more appropriate to pornography. Why advertise, as mills do, for ``regular'' or ``more sophisticated'' papers?

These policies make sense as ways for firms to make their papers accessible to students, while keeping themselves from being caught on fraud charges.

How do ``research'' firms get away with it? Simply because selling ``research'' papers is legal (although copyright laws may be violated). Just in case, they have the signed student declaration as insurance. But what they sell violates the ethical standards of every school in the country. Why haven't schools done anything?

The answer is that it is prohibitively costly for a teacher to catch and discipline a student suspected of submitting a phony paper. Ethics-code procedures make such enforcement difficult. First, ethics proceedings are costly to a teacher in terms of time. Second, ethics violations have a high burden of proof and result in relatively light sanctions. So teachers often don't bother. Finally, paper-mill policies raise the cost of prosecuting violations by making it hard to purchase or even examine a paper recently sold to a university - necessary evidence. These include the student ID requirement, diligent record-keeping by school to prevent a second purchase of papers recently sold, and misfiled (lost) papers when requests raise suspicions. In short, paper mills can openly sell papers because it is too costly to catch the customers.

WHAT can be done? First, awareness of the severity of the problem is essential. A paper mill that can advertise, ``Each year we write thousands of papers'' and then raises its prices is a clear indication of a serious problem. Second, clear procedures and substantial penalties are necessary. Third, paper-assignment strategies, such as assigning current issues (not yet in the catalogs) may be useful. So are graded oral presentations or debates.

Finally, because the costs of enforcement after the fact are so high, the most effective strategy would be to increase teacher involvement in the paper-writing process. For example, require the serial submission of references, outlines, and rough drafts - each subject to comments and suggested revisions by the teacher. However, until laws are changed or teachers get compensated for such diligence, the problem of purchased papers will remain a serious one.

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.