Art by Diane Sison

On the website Essay Experts Inc., a slick salesman on a YouTube video pitches to customers “model papers” that are “completely customized and 100 per cent original, with no plagiarism!”

A disclaimer at the bottom of the page explains that “All works ordered through this site … remain the property of Essay Experts Inc. Any written works sold by Essay Experts Inc. are intended for research purposes only and may only be used as a reference source by students writing their own essay.”

Yet when contacted by phone, the customer service representative of the company explained the discrepancy: “For the most part our writers at least have a master’s degree, so if everything is in detail of what needs to be done you should get a pretty decent mark on your paper, but [we] can’t guarantee a mark.” The sales representative continued, “We have a quality department and the paper has to pass a plagiarism test. It comes in a word document and you can change it as little or as much as you want, it’s up to you.”

When management was contacted by email they preferred not to comment, “We are not interested in participating in any articles or talking to anyone. Our website speaks for itself.”

Another representative of a writer-for-hire website, ca.bestessays.com, chuckled when asked if it was okay to use a customized paper from their site to hand into a professor. “That’s usually how the process works, Sir. When the customer orders a paper from the site they hand it into their professor, tutor, instructor.”

The writers of these writer-by-hire companies are composing original essays. This means that these academic papers are virtually untraceable when professors use plagiarism databases like turnitin.com. Of course, there is the cost factor of buying an authentic essay. (An undergraduate, platinum-level eight-page paper can cost $195.68, with a 10 day timeline.) But business is nevertheless booming. Ca.Bestessays.com main-page traffic boasts over 1 400 orders being currently processed and over 900 active writers. Also, the recent proliferation of dozens of these websites online suggests a trend that is only worsening.

An article in the Globe and Mail from 2010 by Kate Hammer looks at this alarming trend in post-secondary institutions. Using data analyzed by the Canadian Council on Learning (CCL), Hammer assessed the rise in academic cheating. Survey data, compiled by Guelph University of 20 000 first-year Canadian university students across the country, found that 73 per cent of students admitted to “committing one of the more serious acts of academic dishonesty” on past written work.

On the CCL site the CEO, Dr. Paul Cappon, was quoted saying:  “Over the past decade internet and high-tech devices have enabled a virtual explosion of classroom cheating … educators, parents and students have to work together in order to properly address what has become a serious and widespread problem.”

Since 2007, Kathryn Carter, Associate Dean at Laurier Brantford, has been in charge of disciplining students caught committing plagiarism or other forms of academic misconduct. Carter, on average, deals with 10 to 30 cases of plagiarism per semester.  “Only one or two get expelled each year, some years the number is zero,” says Carter.

“The first thing that I do is I see if this is a first time offense, or if it has happened before. We deal with it one way for first time offenses than repeat offenders,” says Carter. “The severity of the offense is also taken into consideration.”

Usually a first time offense results in a zero on the assignment, which in many cases results in a failing grade in the course, explains Carter. “A repeat offender usually results in expulsion of two years from the university.”

“We’re going to have an officer who looks after academic misconduct, and they’ve had one forever in Waterloo. This will be the first time that we will have one in Brantford, and it will be Judy [Eaton],” says Carter.

Judy Eaton, currently an Associate Professor in Psychology at Laurier Brantford, is acutely aware of the challenges the university faces in combating academic misconduct. As universities have cracked down on cheating, students have come up with new, creative, and sophisticated ways to cheat.

“You’re no longer allowed to wear baseball caps because people were writing on the brims. You can’t have water bottles or Coke anymore because students were writing the answers on the inside,” says Eaton. “You’re not allowed to have your cell phone because it’s a portal to answers.”

Carter explains that when there is the opportunity to cheat, students find a way.

Eaton has noticed with the vulnerability of online assessment has resulted in rampant cheating.

“I just posted an online quiz—I gave them three days to do it—and the students who did it early on, the grades were much lower than the students who are doing it now” says Eaton. “It’s very difficult to know how to deal with it, other than to maybe scrap online quizzes altogether, because you can’t really monitor it.”

Carter has looked at IP addresses in the past, but even with this circumstantial evidence, she has not been able to prove — without a doubt — that cheating has taken place, because students are doing it in the privacy of their own living quarters. Without any clear evidence, Carter has been unable to discipline suspect offenders of online misconduct.

Eaton, who will be filling her new officer position in a couple of months, is interested in finding out the severity of the cheating problem within Laurier Brantford. “Sometimes [academic misconduct] happens and it doesn’t get to the [on record] stage, so it would be great to develop statistics on whether it’s increasing. Professors may or may not report it, for whatever reason (too much extra work, too much trouble), so I’d like to collect data on the incidence rate that it’s occurring. How many more times is it happening in a more casual way,” says Eaton.

The CCL report supports Eaton’s belief that there are cases of misconduct going unreported. Surveys done by American and Canadian universities found that “41 per cent of faculty had admitted to ignoring incidents of suspected academic misconduct.” The survey shows there is not only an increase in the rate of cheating, but that some professors are also turning a blind eye to the problem. These problems, compounded with impenetrable cheating of online quizzes and purchased-essays — and there is a real epidemic within post-secondary institutions.

Eaton stresses the importance of remaining vigilant for the sake of Laurier Brantford’s reputation: “It cheapens students degrees … we all kind of suffer; it’s bad for all of us if one person does it. If we allow a culture of cheating, no one is well-served by it.”

Carter also sees it from an ethical viewpoint: “I guess this gets to the larger issue of what do students want to get out of this experience … if you are looking to simply get a paper at the end of four years, then I guess it doesn’t upset you, whatever means you use to get to that end. If however you want to learn something while you’re here and digest what we have to offer, and make these skills your own, then obviously the onus is on the student.”

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