Education lawsuit targets term-paper mills

Boston University (BU) wants to make it harder for all students to cheat themselves out of learning. As a result, the university has sued eight online term-paper services, charging them with mail fraud, wire fraud, and racketeering.

The suit currently is in the pre-trial discovery phase and is not likely to be heard until spring, according to Bob Smith, BU’s associate general counsel. But even if the university’s tough lawsuit eventually does prevail, it probably won’t entirely shield your schools from the new threats to academic integrity.

The defendants in this case, and operations like them, are making it easier than ever for students to succumb to the temptations of high-tech plagiarism.

Last October, when BU filed its suit against the eight firms, the university claimed the companies violated a Massachusetts law that prohibits the sale of term papers in the state. The university wants to stop them from doing business in Massachusetts and wants all of their documents seized. Officials say the lawsuit is the first of its kind against term-paper providers.

Massachusetts is not alone in banning the sale of term papers. Sixteen other states have similar laws. Trouble is, no law prohibits soliciting or distributing term papers and essays free of charge on the world wide web. And, at least according to the legal experts who spoke with eSchool News, attempting to close term-paper sites that charge no fee would violate their First Amendment rights to free speech,

Plagiarism is nothing new, but with the internet, it’s easier than ever for students to short-change themselves. Students using the search engine Yahoo!, for example, can find 41 sites under the subject heading “Business and Economy: Companies: Education: Term Paper Assistance.” Many of these sites are companies that charge a fee for papers.

But students who click on ACI Net Guide to Termpapers receive a pared-down list of 14 sites where papers won’t cost them a dime. They can choose an appropriate essay from a catalog of choices, copy it into a text file, type their name at the top, and click on “print.”

Voila! An instant homework assignment, ready to be turned in as their own work. The papers students can choose cover subjects ranging from “The use of imagery in Shakespeare’s The Tempest” to “How I Spent My Summer Vacation.”

Some term-paper sites offer a disclaimer to the effect that their essays are to be used only for research. Others aren’t bashful about their intent.

Evil House of Cheat, for instance, claims, “This is perfect if you are doing research or are just late with an assignment.” The site even goes so far as to offer students tips on how to cheat in school.

The volume of visits to these sites might surprise you. The Homework Free web site, for example, is boasting more than 3,000 hits a week. That site reportedly had chalked up nearly 50,000 hits since the school year began.

Evil House of Cheat, with a reputed stockpile of more than 8,000 student essays, proudly declares it is “the leader in the essay and term paper cheating arena.” With more than one million hits since its launch (if you can believe its numbers), Evil House of Cheat would appear to have earned the right to make that claim.

So what can you do to combat online plagiarism in your schools?

“Teachers constantly have to be alert for plagiarism,” says Brandon Holt, software and training specialist for the school system serving LaCrosse, Wis. “In this respect, the internet doesn’t change the playing field at all.” The online services just represent a new shape for an old enemy.

Holt adds that teachers can take many of the same steps they always have to safeguard an assignment against plagiarism, such as avoiding open-ended questions.

Instead of asking students to describe the causes of the Spanish-American War, for example, teachers might have students write a diary from a soldier’s point of view. Such assignments not only require higher level thinking skills—they are also harder to plagiarize, said Holt.

Martin Creel, K-12 interdisciplinary specialist for the Montgomery County schools in Maryland, agrees: “One technique we stress to teachers is to give assignments that are creative and unique, covering topics that students aren’t going to find something already written on.” Creel says online plagiarism—complete with demonstrations of how a student could do it—has become part of the county’s technology training for teachers.

Teachers should be fully aware, he says, not only of how technology can transform classrooms for the better, but also how students might abuse it.

Creel identifies another potential danger of the internet when used for student assignments — the proliferation of materials that lack proper sources. It’s easy for students to do a search on Abraham Lincoln, for example, and turn up hundreds of documents, including student papers and other essays written by non-authorities. Such information might be false or misleading.

“We train teachers to require proper sources and to show students how to cite their sources when they use the internet for research,” Creel says.

Boston University

ACI Net Guide to Termpapers

Evil House of Cheat

Homework Free

eSchool News Staff

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