When Paul Roberts dials into the Internet each day, he is greeted by e-mail from students thanking him for his free online archive of term papers.
"It's great to be so appreciated," says the 16-year-old founder of "Cheat.com," a Web site whose motto is "download your workload." The site signs up 80 to 100 members and gets about 13,000 hits daily, he says.
Term-paper "mills" are nothing new - but their growth has exploded on the Internet. More than 50 such sites have appeared on the Web this year alone, allowing students ever more options for retrieving a paper, slapping their name on it, and printing it.
But while some students love the promise of freedom from tedious research - or relief from multiple term-paper deadlines - educators are treating the phenomenon as a call to arms.
"I am very concerned about a surge of unintentional cheating," says Donald McCabe, a professor at Rutgers University School of Management in New Brunswick, N.J., and founder of the Center for Academic Integrity. "We are raising a generation of students who think anything that's on the Internet is free, and they can do that rather than go to original sources."
In the latest salvo against the trend, Boston University (BU) has filed a federal lawsuit against eight Internet term-paper companies in seven states - the first such suit in the country. It alleges that the online services "devalue" the university's degree programs.
Sites such as the "Evil House of Cheat" and "Cheat.com" offer their wares free and were not sued by BU. But the school is going after sites such as "Term Paper Warehouse," "The Paper Store," and "High Performance Papers," which charge fees ranging from $6.50 for off-the-shelf reports to more than $20 per page for customized research. These companies don't disclose their financial results, but indicate that business is expanding.
BU is hardly alone in tackling the problem. Texas and 16 other states have passed laws making it illegal to sell term papers that students may pass off as their own work. But legal action is not the only tool academia wields in the battle against high-tech term-paper cheating. Numerous individual educators and librarians around the country try to track the growing body of cheat sites.
Take academic bloodhound Anthony Krier, who relentlessly hunts down such sites, no matter how they are labeled.
As reference librarian at Franklin Pierce College Library in Rindge, Mr. Krier is on a one-man mission to ferret out and document sites on the Web where students can procure ready-made research papers. His list of 20 such sites in February has grown to 72. And the number of professors and teachers who receive his list has grown to 800.
So far, he has caught 12 students trying to get his list of term paper sites.
"I hate to sound like an old coot, but a good portion of students today just don't seem to care," Krier says. "They just want to get done to get their degree so they can get a job."
Mr. Roberts of Cheat.com agrees that his Web site may make it seem easier than ever to fake academic research. But he denies encouraging plagiarism.
"The site wasn't at all to promote plagiarism, but to sort of put the library online," he says. "I thought if I put term papers online then kids wouldn't have to spend time looking in all the encyclopedias and books and stuff like that. Kind of like Cliff Notes."
Bart Lowe is president of Los Angeles based Research Assistance, one of the firms on the receiving end of BU's lawsuit. His company has been in business for 27 years and provides custom research to businesses and students, but never attempts to encourage student plagiarism, he says. He also cites the company's First Amendment right to free speech.
"I resent being lumped in with all these other companies in that law suit," he said in an interview. "I am not promoting the sale of term papers or trying to undermine the university system."
But BU alleges that that's exactly what his and other companies do. The university has brought wire-fraud and racketeering charges against the firms, using tough RICO statutes typically reserved for fighting organized crime.
Robert Smith, general counsel for BU, says the university acted after workers in his office contacted the companies pretending to be students interested in buying a term paper for an English class. No BU students have actually been caught turning in papers from those services, he says.
"I don't think the First Amendment is implicit in this suit at all," he says. "These people are in the shabby business of selling work to others with the intention of obtaining grades and academic credit."
Mr. Smith's darker view of the services is shared in part by one individual who has written for three term-paper mills for more than 15 years - including one of those currently charged by BU.
A wink and a nod
Requesting anonymity, the individual - who holds a master's degree - says that he has written as many as 100 custom research papers a year during that period and was paid $10 per page. He says he did not usually have direct contact with clients, but could tell from written instructions that many were college students whose native language was not English. He says too that most transactions with students were done with "a wink and a nod."
"So much of it just smells like undergrad papers," he says. "I also did work that hinted at PhD dissertations. I've written six of those. You can tell by the nature of the order when the thing is 100 pages long, and has a chapter breakdown corresponding to that format."'
Still, he feels that it is universities and professors - not students -who are the "unindicted co-conspirators" in student cheating. The problem lies in the fact that they do not make assignments specific to their course or work with students on drafts of their papers.
"Of course, I don't do remotely the work I would do if this were my own paper," he says. "My emphasis was on being clever rather than doing a lot of research - writing it well. You're paid by the page, not by the number of references you use."