There are lots of challenges facing faculty today when it comes to evaluating students’ written work. Plagiarism has long been identified as one challenge in terms of both identifying and dealing with student work not actually written by students (see Richard A. Posner, The Little Book of Plagiarism [New York: Pantheon Books, 2007] and Susan D. Blum, My Word! Plagiarism and College Culture [Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009]). Now, with Jeffrey Alfred Ruth’s insider account of the business of selling forged papers, Papers for Pay: Confessions of an Academic Forger (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Co., Inc., 2015), we have something else to worry about. Ruth, who spent six months in 2010 forging papers for a living, provides a disturbing account of how students can purchase papers satisfying academic requirements written by others.
Ruth, who had been an English major and seems to have been an unsuccessful academic, provides some startling information about the scale of this forgery enterprise. He estimates that nearly two million fraudulent essays are turned in each semester in American colleges, from undergraduate papers even to dissertations. And he adds that this is a growing business, suggesting that all of us have probably dealt, unknowingly, with forged work. He also adds another amazing insight about the length of time it takes to produce these fraudulent papers, stating that good forgers “can take a topic that they have only passing interest in, create a thesis, research, analyze, synthesize, and produce an order in under four hours” (p. 139).
Why are we duped by these papers? Our normal ways of detecting plagiarism, such as using TurnItIn, aren’t suitable for identifying such work. The papers Ruth describes are not plagiarized but original works, just works not done by the students in question. “Most academic forgery papers contain no overt plagiarism beyond the fact that the paper is fraudulently turned in by the customer” (p. 65). And our conventional means of detecting papers not written by the students in question are far too limited: “Existing methods of looking for forgeries can’t detect original scholarly works of fraud, and more detailed investigations take much too much time for the overworked college faculty” (p. 100). Checkmate.
This is a tough book to read. Ruth often suggests how the nature of American higher education has created conditions that led to the growth of faked papers and the businesses creating them, as if this justifies what is happening now. He is also unrepentant about his own involvement in this forgery of papers. Personally, I feel a little guilty about buying the book and contributing to the author’s royalties. Nevertheless, any faculty member concerned with fairly evaluating student work would be advised to take a look at it. I am not sure what I can do to deal with this growing problem, but I am convinced that any students who turn in papers written by others are cheating themselves, imperiling their future careers, and jeopardizing others. The ethical issues raised by the businesses that have grown to supply papers to students ought to be the focus of how we approach this aspect of the academy; ironically, the attention to ethical matters by this author relate to the measures taken by the companies to provide quality products.