“Hello! I need you big help!”
“Add conjunctions to make the essay smoothy.”
“The paper he sent me is nothing, I can't show it to my teacher. My deadline is tomorrow until 1l pm. I hope you will fix it. Or i am lost.”
Dave Tomar received these desperate and shockingly illiterate email requests during the 10 years he wrote term papers for students for money. Now a freelance writer in Philadelphia, Tomar first offered an inside glimpse into the shady world of term paper mills in 2010 with an exposé under a pseudonym in The Chronicle of Higher Education. It became one of the most widely read and commented-upon articles in the history of The Chronicle, founded in 1966.
In his 2012 book, The Shadow Scholar, Tomar says he began writing term papers for other students when he was a Rutgers University undergraduate. A fellow student offered him money to complete an assignment. Tomar's reputation soon spread across campus.
When he graduated in the spring of 2002 with aspirations to become a writer, Tomar was saddled with student debt and discovered he could earn more by turning out term papers than doing anything else. He made more than $50,000 in his best-earning year.
Tomar's highest-grossing paper — 160 pages on international financial reporting standards — bore a price tag of $4,000, split between him and the term paper company, he says. More than an amusing peek into a shadow world, Tomar's book is an indictment of the current state of education — including his own at Rutgers. “For $25,000 or $30,000 a year, I was increasingly angry about what I was getting for the money,” he says, casting Rutgers as an impersonal institution that seemed more interested in collecting his tuition and parking money than teaching him anything or preparing him for the job market.
In his 2012 book, The Shadow Scholar, Dave Tomar says he spent 10 years writing term papers for students, at one point making over $50,000 in a year. He says he entered the shady world of term-paper writing to help pay for his undergraduate education at Rutgers University. (Emad Hasan)
The highest proportion of Tomar's clients came from for-profit colleges that, he contends, used aggressive telemarketing to recruit students with virtually no academic credentials. But a surprising number were graduate students, and some came from Ivy League colleges.
“It's alarming that some of these deficient students are in a post-graduate program and seem to have gotten there without any of the critical skills they should have by the time they get out of high school,” he says. For good students and bad, Tomar puts his clients’ motivation down to “the shared pressure of going to school to get grades and degrees rather than learning.”
No one knows how many websites or companies sell term papers to students, but guesses are they run at least in the hundreds. A Google search for “custom term papers” yields millions of results, but many sites are spinoffs of the same company.
At PaperMasters.com, which promises “all our papers are custom written by professional writers,” prices range from $22.95 per page for a college paper to $32.95 for the “rush” rate on a graduate-level paper. Other companies’ websites offering cheaper rates are often replete with grammatical errors.
In most states, including Pennsylvania where Tomar worked, it is illegal to sell term papers that will be turned in as student work. But, Tomar says, “I was never too worried about legal consequences,” because most of the companies that employed him attached a disclaimer to the completed paper identifying it as a “study guide,” to be used in completing the student's own work. The disclaimer helped companies “posture like lecture-note companies,” which offer lecture notes or sample essays online for free, Tomar says.
A recent study by Turnitin — a plagiarism-detection software company based in Oakland, Calif. — found that oppapers.com, now known as StudyMode.com and offering 890,000 “model” papers, is the second most frequent source of verbatim text matches used by college students after Wikipedia.
Prices range from $29.95 monthly to $89.95 for a six-month subscription to access StudyMode's “premium” essays, which account for at least 70–80 percent of the essays on the site, according to a “support guru” who answered the company's California phone number. People who submit at least one paper to the site can get free access, but only to 6,000 essays, according to StudyMode. “We also buy other people's databases,” the support person said.
The StudyMode.com website cautions, “Turning in an essay or research paper that isn't your own will get you in serious trouble at your college. Use our free essays for ideas and get a head start on your projects and coursework.” But the finding by Turnitin, whose software detects identical texts in a student paper, suggests students are using the site for more than ideas. StudyMode.com did not respond to a request for comments on the Turnitin findings.
A well-written custom paper that doesn't plagiarize from other sources can escape detection by Turnitin, which matches a student's writing to its database of published sources and other term papers. Once turned in to a teacher who scans all papers with the software, it becomes part of the more than 250 million student papers in Turnitin's data base.
To discourage this kind of cheating, Jeff Karon, visiting instructor in the English department at the University of South Florida, instructs his students to download a free paper from a term paper mill and critique it. “By analyzing these ‘free essays’ before the class, students learn firsthand that the papers available over the Internet often are far inferior to what they could produce on their own,” Karon writes. If, on the other hand, the paper seems “too good,” his students often remark that no professor would believe it came from a student.
The thousands of scholarly assignments Tomar wrote covered a huge range of subjects, including papers toward a master's degree in cognitive psychology and a Ph.D. in sociology, and, most ironically, essays on business ethics.
“If anyone asks if I have regrets doing this job,” Tomar points to the dozens of subjects he researched. “How could you regret the learning I managed to get?” — learning, he says, that he didn't get in college.
— Sarah Glazer