The Shadow Scholar: Essay from a Cheat Author

November 15, 2010 at 8:30 pm 21 comments

And this is someone who provides prose for cheating.  It’s even easier to cheat with code, since there are fewer degrees of freedom.  My guess is that cheating as he describes is even more prevalent in computer science.

This part is particularly scary, for those of us interested in K-12 teaching: “I, who have no name, no opinions, and no style, have written so many papers at this point, including legal briefs, military-strategy assessments, poems, lab reports, and, yes, even papers on academic integrity, that it’s hard to determine which course of study is most infested with cheating. But I’d say education is the worst. ”

In the past year, I’ve written roughly 5,000 pages of scholarly literature, most on very tight deadlines. But you won’t find my name on a single paper.

I’ve written toward a master’s degree in cognitive psychology, a Ph.D. in sociology, and a handful of postgraduate credits in international diplomacy. I’ve worked on bachelor’s degrees in hospitality, business administration, and accounting. I’ve written for courses in history, cinema, labor relations, pharmacology, theology, sports management, maritime security, airline services, sustainability, municipal budgeting, marketing, philosophy, ethics, Eastern religion, postmodern architecture, anthropology, literature, and public administration. I’ve attended three dozen online universities. I’ve completed 12 graduate theses of 50 pages or more. All for someone else.

You’ve never heard of me, but there’s a good chance that you’ve read some of my work. I’m a hired gun, a doctor of everything, an academic mercenary. My customers are your students. I promise you that. Somebody in your classroom uses a service that you can’t detect, that you can’t defend against, that you may not even know exists.

I work at an online company that generates tens of thousands of dollars a month by creating original essays based on specific instructions provided by cheating students. I’ve worked there full time since 2004. On any day of the academic year, I am working on upward of 20 assignments.

via The Shadow Scholar – The Chronicle Review – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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21 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Erik Engbrecht  |  November 15, 2010 at 9:43 pm

    I wonder what it says about the depth of various so-called specialties if a single person can effectively produce graduate level material in such a variety of fields under tight deadlines.

    I have no doubt this is prevalent in CS. Perhaps the two humps correspond to the students who are actually good at CS, and the students who know someone who is actually good at CS.

    • 2. Aaron Lanterman  |  November 15, 2010 at 10:27 pm

      “I wonder what it says about the depth of various so-called specialties if a single person can effectively produce graduate level material in such a variety of fields under tight deadlines.”

      That’s the elephant in the room. It’s been wrecking the furniture for ages.

  • 3. Alfred Thompson  |  November 15, 2010 at 9:52 pm

    I have to wonder what sort of person does this. Obviously a smart fast learner. Wy not find something more honest? It upsets me that people hire this sort of person as well. It speaks to the fact that we have put grades and “paper” ahead of actual learning. I also wonder how widespread this is in other countries.

    As for cheating on coding. I would think that coding homework for first and second year courses would be pretty easy for a good programmer. Someone not wuite good enough to cut it as a professional developer could probably handle it. I really good programmer could probably make more money doing “real” programming.

    • 4. Aaron Lanterman  |  November 15, 2010 at 10:25 pm

      Grades are the coin of the realm, and students will naturally optimize accordingly.

      I don’t see any way out of it, though; not just the education system but large chunks of society would need to be rebuilt from scratch.

      • 5. Erik Engbrecht  |  November 16, 2010 at 7:50 am

        I wonder if there is any relation to the fact that tuition is so high. A student who doesn’t earn grades above a certain threshold, or who fails, will likely find himself with a significant amount of debt but no increased earning potential.

        College has become so expensive that it’s more an investment than an experience.

  • 6. Daniel Hickey  |  November 15, 2010 at 10:19 pm

    Thanks Mark!
    That was chilling to read the article. It is a good testimony to one of the biggest risks in online education, but clearly it was far deeper than that. Many programs, expecially online programs have shyed away from tests because they are a hassle to adminster and can’t be done securely. So they rely on papers, and often give detailed scoring rubrics which seem perfect for helping foster this travesty. That article at the chronicle seems to verify that. One of our core participatory assessment design principles is “assess reflections rather than artifacts”. It does not rule this kind of stuff out but it makes it a lot harder.

  • 7. Alan Kay  |  November 16, 2010 at 7:48 am

    I think there are several deep points to be made here.

    One has already been made by several of the above commenters: that a talented amateur can produce graduate material deemed “good enough” by supposed professionals in fields that are supposed to have high thresholds.

    The other is that the general quality of writing from degree receiving students in all fields is so poor. This somehow seems much worse to me than the “hired gun” or “simple plagiarism” sins.

    This goes back to the British lady who told me that we had the best high school education in the world, but “What a pity you have to go to college to get it”. That was almost 30 years ago. Today she might replace “high school” with “elementary school”!



    • 8. Erik Engbrecht  |  November 16, 2010 at 7:57 am

      The scary thing is I think no one pointed out your second point because it simply isn’t news. We’ve been living with it for so long that we just take it for the natural state of things.

      • 9. Alan Kay  |  November 16, 2010 at 8:03 am

        Hi Eric

        Do you think the reason the students aren’t dinged for poor writing stems from the desire of the institutions for retention?

        For most people, to get good at writing means to write a lot in an environment of useful criticisms and comparisons.

        Could another part of the problem be that teachers and profs don’t want to read and critique several mini-essays a week from their students?



        • 10. Erik Engbrecht  |  November 16, 2010 at 8:39 am

          I think the issue is deeper than retention. How loudly do you hear employers complaining that they can’t hire anyone who can write a good essay?

          Writing good prose is hard work. So is reading it. Bullets on PowerPoint are much easier. Good prose also tends to communicate more, particularly things that the author does not really wish communicated. It’s so much easier to deceive when there’s so little written content. We live in a society that seems to value conciseness over both completeness and correctness.

          I think teachers and professors optimize their time. Why would they dedicate significant amounts of time fostering skills that aren’t in demand?

          • 11. Alan Kay  |  November 16, 2010 at 9:03 am

            Hi Eric

            I think your several questions and points are related by the important distinctions between “wants” and “needs”. People and institutions often “want” things, but actually “need” something else.

            In businesses, outsourcing, especially of programming, etc., is popular because the businesses “want” to save money. Most businesses quickly lack the ability to choose good systems goals for themselves along with the ability to realize them. So they lose quite a bit in the long run. They “needed” something very different.

            I’ve written before about the deep problems of university education being convolved and confused with vocational prep.

            From the standpoint of business the students are simply outsourcing the work of creating an essay that is demanded. This is very bad for them educationally, but businesses do it all the time.

            To me the real goal of real education is *transformation* via providing what young learners “need” rather than what they might “want”. So most good real education starts with learners who want to go from A to B, but actually brings them to a C they were not able to see at the start.

            My answer to your last question is that teachers or profs who are educators (rather than trainers) will absolutely devote their precious time fostering skills that are needed, both by the students and by our society.

            In other words, we need to get straight about the most important learning goals for students.

            To me universities, especially, are kind of half and half. They have caved into businesses and vocationalism to an alarming extent, but still bewail the deterioration of some of the other educational standards that have been compromised (they don’t help students learn to write), but do grade students in such a way to encourage plagiarism and ghosting.



          • 12. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  November 16, 2010 at 12:26 pm

            We live in a society that seems to value conciseness over both completeness and correctness.

            The way I teach, there are 4 C’s in writing: the three you list and “clarity”. I’m afraid that clarity has suffered even more than completeness and correctness.

    • 13. Michelle  |  November 17, 2010 at 1:36 am

      To go further on Alan’s point, I wonder if some of the poor writing skills of high school graduates isn’t a natural consequence of the accountability movement.

      All that is valued officially in our education system today is scores on high stakes tests. Students are trained to succeed at these particular tests – to some extent by learning the material and just as much through test-taking skills. (Diane Ravitch cites some evidence that students who can pass the test they’re prepared for cannot pass a different test covering the same material.)

      The tests look for basic skills in English and math, they do not look for deep thinking, good writing, reflection, or non-cognitive skills. In a climate where passing tests is valued and learning and knowledge are not, why would we expect students to value working through academic challenges and learning over doing whatever it takes to get a passing grade?

  • 14. Bonnie MacKellar  |  November 16, 2010 at 8:08 am

    I caught a student in my CS1 course doing something like this last year. It was really easy to catch. In CS1, the students don’t know that many programming language constructs, so the programs are all going to be constrained in particular ways. When this student handed in a fully OO solution to a simple programming project, long before we had covered any OO constructs, I was pretty sure he hadn’t written it. I did a quick Google search using a string from my assignment, and lo and behold, there it was, posted on a Chinese website. I can figure out enough Chinese to quickly realize it was a site where people exchange solutions to homework assignments. The student was amazed that I was able to catch him, but it only took me 15 minutes.

    The point is, in introductory programming courses, ghost-programmers are unlikely to understand the programming “style” that is expected in the course, and the constructs covered up to that point. I think it is likely that ghost-programmers will produce a program that sticks out like a sore thumb, as was the case in this instance.

    The much bigger issue is the way that students plagiarize among themselves. It is really hard to prove in a CS1 course because, again, the programs are so constrained – there are only so many ways to write a program that calculates gym membership fees when the students have only seen (for example) while loops. Because of that, the programs all look more or less alike even if the students aren’t copying from each other. When they do copy, they realize that all they have to do is change some variable names, and rearrange some output lines, to make it very hard to prove that cheating occurred.

    • 15. Mark Guzdial  |  November 16, 2010 at 10:37 am

      I’ll bet in later courses, it’s harder to catch:

      • 16. Aaron Lanterman  |  November 17, 2010 at 12:01 am

        Good grief.

      • 17. Mark Miller  |  November 26, 2010 at 7:54 am

        Wow! That particular example is shocking, though in essence it’s not that surprising to me anymore. During a job search I was doing about 7 years ago I used a site like this as one of the regular places where I’d look for projects. I think it might’ve been Rent-A-Coder, in fact. I hunted around for projects that I thought I could do from home, and get paid for it. It was clear from the descriptions of most of the projects that they had practical/commercial value, and sounded legit. I found that the vast majority of them sounded very challenging to me in the sense that my learning curve would be very steep. They involved knowing something about a business sector, or being able to be a “handyman” with a lot of different technological components. However, every time I’d check back there were several project proposals that seemed easy for me to accomplish. I was seriously considering bidding on one of them when I stopped to think for a moment about what was being proposed. I realized that it was the kind of thing that would be a typical exercise in an undergrad CS course. It involved strictly problem solving strategies, was prototypical of what’s taught in CS theory, and appeared to have no practical/commercial value, though the description was not nearly as explicit and blatant as your example. In fact none of the proposals of this type were that explicit. They would just say, “I need a program that does X.” Nothing about a course, “I need to get an ‘A’,” or any of that. After “putting two and two together” I decided not to participate in this intellectual fraud, and it was shocking and dismaying to contemplate the fact that new proposals of this type were appearing on the site a few times a week. I figured they must’ve been getting traction or else students wouldn’t have been posting them. By that time I had heard for a few years that English and history students had been using services like what the “shadow scholar” describes to cheat on essays. Innocent old me, I hadn’t thought about CS students using the web to cheat, except perhaps looking up published code on the internet, which was, and is, a temptation that’s within easy reach.

        We can take heart in the fact that there are some students out there who are still genuinely interested in the rewarding process of learning things for real, despite these temptations. I have encountered a few of them on my blog, where I’ve been discussing the exercises in SICP that I find really interesting. I don’t give out answers, as that would ruin the challenge and the fun ( 🙂 ). Instead I clarify and coach. As with all technologies, usually it’s not a case of a technology or facility being inherently bad. What makes it bad or good is in how one uses it. Even though it would be easy for CS students to use published solutions to problems to cheat, they can also be instructive when a student has done the work, and just wants to compare it against someone else’s. This way they can do a self-assessment. I have found it useful to do that at times, though I imagine doing this would not be kosher in a formal school environment, where doing one’s own work alone is what’s generally expected.

    • 18. Barry Brown  |  November 19, 2010 at 1:02 pm

      You got lucky. If on/y English and History classes were like that. In those courses, students are rewarded for writing above and beyond their grade level.

  • 19. Erik Engbrecht  |  November 16, 2010 at 8:10 pm

    I think the vocational aspect, despite its obvious influences on CS and engineering education, may be somewhat of a red herring. At some point in our history graduating High School was an accomplishment. Many people led productive lives with no diploma. Then at some point the lack of an HS diploma became a substantial stigma. At about the same time I bet college degrees were becoming common place.

    Today the perception is you need a college degree in order to achieve middle class status or higher. Failing to acquire a college degree has the same stigma that failing to graduate HS once had.

    Stigmatizing a person has much stronger social connotations than failing a person for lack of achievement. There’s almost an obligation to not do it, because you (as a teacher, professor, or school) don’t want to be the one who condemned the student to a life of poverty on the fringes of society.

    As each level of education becomes perceived to be a prerequisite to living the American Dream, forces will collude to ensure that it is achievable to most Americans, even if it means stripping it free of all intrinsic merit.

    I agree with you about the purpose of education, and I think making meaningful changes will require us to confront some of the primal forces of our society and redirect them in productive ways. This is not an easy task, and I suspect it will require sacrificing many sacred cows along the way.

  • […] edubloggers have commented on the shadow-scholar article. For example, Mark Guzdial is concerned that It’s even easier to cheat with code, since there are fewer degrees of freedom. […]

  • 21. Mark Miller  |  November 26, 2010 at 6:06 pm

    Further thoughts on this. I’m wondering if your experience with Rent-A-Coder, and what the “shadow scholar” describe would explain what’s described in this article, “Why Can’t Programmers.. Program?” on the Coding Horror blog. This was written in 2007. Ever since I read it I’ve wondered from time to time, “How could this happen?” Quoting from it:

    “I was incredulous when I read this observation from Reginald Braithwaite:

    ‘Like me, the author is having trouble with the fact that 199 out of 200 applicants for every programming job can’t write code at all. I repeat: they can’t write any code whatsoever.

    The author he’s referring to is Imran, who is evidently turning away lots of programmers who can’t write a simple program:”

    Imram is quoted talking about his “Fizz-Buzz” test for applicants.

    Continuing from the Coding Horror article:

    “Dan Kegel had a similar experience hiring entry-level programmers:

    ‘A surprisingly large fraction of applicants, even those with masters’ degrees and PhDs in computer science, fail during interviews when asked to carry out basic programming tasks. For example, I’ve personally interviewed graduates who can’t answer ‘Write a loop that counts from 1 to 10’ or ‘What’s the number after F in hexadecimal?’ Less trivially, I’ve interviewed many candidates who can’t use recursion to solve a real problem. These are basic skills; anyone who lacks them probably hasn’t done much programming.

    Speaking on behalf of software engineers who have to interview prospective new hires, I can safely say that we’re tired of talking to candidates who can’t program their way out of a paper bag. If you can successfully write a loop that goes from 1 to 10 in every language on your resume, can do simple arithmetic without a calculator, and can use recursion to solve a real problem, you’re already ahead of the pack!’

    Between Reginald, Dan, and Imran, I’m starting to get a little worried. I’m more than willing to cut freshly minted software developers slack at the beginning of their career. Everybody has to start somewhere. But I am disturbed and appalled that any so-called programmer would apply for a job without being able to write the simplest of programs. That’s a slap in the face to anyone who writes software for a living.”


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