CLEVELAND — Somewhere on a college campus today a student will type the words "how to buy a college paper online" into Google. Maybe you're one of these students. Maybe that's how you got to this page.
Our 5 On Your Side Investigators went undercover, posed as a student and found dozens of websites offering to do our homework assignment for a fee. We purchased papers from three well-established websites and found it might just not be worth it.
We started by typing “Write my paper for me” into the Google search bar and quickly found a website called "Unemployed Professors" which uses cartoons to show students how they can party instead of spending time on their papers.
The site claims to have completed more than 90,000 assignments. It shows students how to post their assignments on its website. Then, the "unemployed professors" bid on the assignment. We selected a "professor" who claimed to be from London and paid $50 for a two-page paper due in just two days. We also paid an additional $18 for plagiarism detection software.
Other websites were just as brazen about selling students’ homework.
On its homepage, Hail Mary Papers, writes it has answered “students’ prayers for more than ten years” by offering 100% original work and the “best prices in the industry.” We created the same assignment and paid another $50.
A third website, PennyPaperWriter advertises “attention and personal service.” We paid an additional $50 more for a third paper.
All three papers arrived ahead of our deadline.
“What do I think about them?” said Rob Kairis. “I wish they didn’t exist.”
For years, the library director at Kent State University’s Stark County campus has been on the frontlines of the fight against plagiarism in academia.
“They’re just capitalizing, unfortunately, on a situation that’s out there, where students are willing to pay for papers,” he said.
Kairis teaches "Plagiarism School" for students caught unintentionally plagiarizing their homework. He shows students how to properly cite sources, paraphrase material, and use quotations.
However, when it comes to intentional acts of plagiarism, he said professors don’t only have to rely on their instincts.
Many schools used special software to help them spot plagiarized papers.
Kent State uses SafeAssign, sold by Blackboard, a learning management system used by colleges and universities.
When professors suspect plagiarism, they can scan a student’s paper through the software.
SafeAssign then looks for words and phrases that match papers previously submitted to the university as well as public websites.
Testing the Technology
But can the technology really stop students from passing off someone else’s work as their own?
With help from Kairis, 5 On Your Side Investigators put our purchased papers to the test.
We sent the papers to Kairis to submit as if they were written by students.
Remember Unemployed Professors?
The paper we commissioned flunked our test, even though we paid $18 extra for plagiarism detection software.
The website, which admits its business is “incredibly” unethical, brags about beating SafeAssign.
However, when we scanned the paper we purchased, we got a surprise. The website we paid to write an essay for us has taken much of the work from another source. In other words, the paper was plagiarized.
SafeAssign showed the Unemployed Professors paper was a 45% match to an article online.
“You might say, well, 45%, that doesn’t sound too bad, but it’s bad,” said Kairis. “If you bought this paper, you should ask for your money back.”
But, the software has its limits.
The essay we purchased from Hail Mary Papers didn’t raise any red flags.
Neither did the paper we purchased from PennyPaperWriter.
A spokesperson for Blackboard, the company that sells SafeAssign, said the software is a tool to help educators identify non-original work in students’ papers. Educators must determine whether the student committed plagiarism.
The spokesperson also sent us the following statement:
SafeAssign does not report instances of plagiarized work. It reports instances of nonoriginal content in papers submitted by students and identifies the original source. Both instructors and students can use this information to review assignment submissions for originality, determine if the matching text is properly referenced, and create opportunities to identify how to properly attribute sources rather than paraphrase. All papers should be reviewed by instructors to prevent detection errors due to difference in citation standards and determine if matches were properly cited.
SafeAssign checks papers against publicly available websites as well as an existing library of academic papers that have been submitted through the platform. SafeAssign cannot access student papers that were not submitted through the platform or websites behind paywalls, including those that sell papers.
“If you’ve got a good idea how to shut them down... good for you,” said Kairis about the cyber-cheating services.
After all, plagiarism is not a crime.
“All the people writing these papers are doing is filling a need,” said Kairis. “That’s kind of scary. “
However, as the saying goes, cheaters never win.
Kairis said both papers were poorly written.
For example, he said the paper written by PennyPaperWriter seemed intentionally dumbed down.
“It might, I would guess, get a “C”, or something like that,” he said.
Students under pressure
“I really want to do well in school,” said Evangeline Pacific Agum. “It’s not exactly cheap.”
The Kent State University sophomore is from Uganda where she is majoring in accounting at the school’s Stark County campus.
Given the cost and impact on your future, the 19-year-old sophomore and some of her classmates said they sometimes feel intense pressure to earn top grades.
“I always strive, like a perfectionist, like A, A, A,” said Zac Cino, a senior, majoring in information technology. “It could affect my career down the road if I don’t get good grades.”
“When you have a class that seems not to be going well, the stress just piles up immensely,” said Lainey Ward, an education major.
“It hits you like a brick wall, to be honest,” said Bryce Black, a senior music technology major.
The students admit the stress has made them feel tempted, at times, to take the easy way out, especially since help could be a mouse click away.
“It would be really easy to cheat,” said Ward.
“Technology has made it 100 times easier,” said Cino.
He said the websites also target vulnerable students.
He told us that when he posts a message on Twitter about homework assignments, he’ll immediately receive ads from “tutoring” websites offering to help with him homework.
We wanted to see how prevalent cheating was on college campuses.
Ohio State, which has more than 66,000 students, has seen a steady increase in academic honesty cases over the past three years. OSU spokesperson Benjamin Johnson said faculty has been more attuned to the problem and detection software is getting better.
"There has also been an increase in unauthorized collaboration between students using social media, such as group chats," said Johnson.
At the University of Akron and Ohio University, the number of academic dishonesty cases remained relatively steady. At each school, the number of students with academic dishonesty violations is small compared to overall student enrollment.
Despite the availability of cyber-cheating websites, the Kent State students we interviewed also said it’s not tough to resist the temptation to take the easy way out.
They know the only person they would really be cheating is themselves.
“When I’m taking a class, I want to learn and get better from it,” said Cino.
“Why go to college if you don’t have the time to actually put the effort into getting what you paid for?" said Agum. “Which is education.”
“Maybe if I cheated once, I could go to bed earlier,” said Black. “But that [feeling] quickly passes, at least for me.”
What do the companies selling papers to students have to say for themselves? Good question.
We reached out to each business by phone and email, but no one responded to our interview requests.