Wednesday, July 07, 2004

The spread of university "paper mills"

Demonstrating capitalism’s ingenuity at creating new market niches, an apparently-profitable line of trade has sprung up in ghost-writing uni student essays. These "paper mills" have an important distinction from the buy-your-essay-here! websites of a few years ago – the customised element of the current product makes it search-string-based plagiarism detection-proof.

As an academic currently living on $230/week, I wonder at who actually does the grunt work at the paper mills. Personally, I would rather die in ditch than participate in what I see as a noxious fraud, but probably not all displaced academics would be as choosy or foolish [take your pick] as me.

OTOH, it is possible that the essay-production work is a case of the blind ghost-writing for the blind – the barely- or un-qualified writing for those who hardly have grounds of consumer redress if their expensively-bought essay is not of merchantable quality; i.e. fails. One paper mill can’t even spell its own product:

The centre promises to provide "a custom assignment ... catered exactly to a particular students [sic] wants and needs".

Somewhat perversely, there is an additional reason for paper mills recruiting only marginally-able ghost-writers – to fool manual plagiarism detection, i.e. the marker smelling a rat.

Having just taught in two subjects with very high numbers of international, NESB students, I was amused to read this 2000 conference paper by a well-meaning Australian National University academic skills adviser, who says:

But whatever confusion exists, it is compounded when the student learns to successfully mask his/her actual linguistic proficiency with covering/coping strategies, and the academic marker and the academic skills adviser unwittingly contribute to and become complicit in that masking.

I don’t know, and don’t really care about academic skills advisers – as I see it, these are part of the post-Dawkins university managerial class; put there solely to fiddle while Rome burns, or Beijing plagiarises, at any rate. Which is probably too harsh on conference paper-giver Annie Bartlett, but ANU’s problem with of international NESB student plagiarism is probably one of the (proportionately) smallest in the land, from what I understand of its student make-up.

Nonetheless, at least one did non-English literate student did apparently slip through the cracks, and into ANU. About one of this student’s essays, which turned out to have been translated from Chinese texts, academic skills adviser Bartlett writes:

I was very uneasy because my initial analysis was so wrong , because the student was confident and because the student’s practice had not been picked up by the marker. Further, I was uneasy because, judging by her needs both in terms of linguistic and academic proficiency, the decision to admit her to the university was unethical.

That the student’s "practice" [i.e. plagiarism] had not been picked up by the marker sounds incredibly unlikely to me. As a marker, I often encounter complete discord of writing “voice” – where, for grammatical and other reasons, it is plainly impossible that the essay was written by one person. I’m not stupid. And what do/did I do about it? Nothing, of course – I’m not stupid.

If this makes me “complicit”, in Annie Bartlett’s words, then so be it. From where I sit, Annie, your (relatively) cushy job makes you much more part of the problem than I am. And while I admire your frankness, above, that the root cause of the problem you describe is the “unethical” decision to have admitted that particular student to the university, shouldn’t/couldn’t you be shouting this fact from the rooftops a bit more?

Finally, speaking of universities and ethics, the weirdest thing of all about the paper mills is the institutional (one uni, anyway) complicity with them (one “mill”, anyway).

First, some background. A couple of weeks ago, the SMH ran an expose on the mills and some of their operators. One operator named, Mark Thackray, has some kind of visible form in the business, as co-author of How to Succeed at College or University, originally published in 1979. Which makes Thackray almost certainly a baby boomer – he could be older, but the rank opportunism behind his career trajectory suggest not.

In the 25 years between writing How to Succeed at College or University and then putting it into no-nonsense, money-upfront practise (how very noughties of him!), Thackray even managed a near-seamless midway segue. How to Succeed at College or University had a very timely – the Dawkins “reforms” were just commencing – revised edition in 1989. The ground rules had just been fundamentally altered – henceforth, uni graduates could expect to earn less, not more, than the average worker over their lifetime*, and with the additional new privilege of paying for it, as well. Not that this fact was widely-understood at the time, which was fortunate for Thackray – his cheery little chapbook (which is, incidentally, rubbished by Annie Bartlett in her conference paper) thus would have only needed minimal rewriting to give students good counsel in the brave new post-Dawkins world.

If Thackray’s book remains to this day in a 1979, sort-of-revised 1989, time-warp, the man himself has clearly moved on. Not just as in operating a paper mill – this is not, as I’ve already noted, a business where skilled staff are necessarily at a premium. Rather, Thackray’s 50-something moment of career consolidation has come mainly through (and if you’ll forgive the jargon here) forging a public-private partnership. Yes, his paper mill is run – apparently – with and under the full auspices of the University of Wollongong. Which sounds incredible, and indeed the SMH pointedly doubted such a fact in their article a couple of weeks ago. Today though, came a grovelling apology to Thackray, acknowledging his formal ties with the University of Wollongong.

Now, being an academic skills adviser at the University of Wollongong – that must be an interesting job; either very cushy, or verr-ry lucrative is my suspicion.

* The Oz’s story here contains some contradictory figures:

Between 1995 and 2001 bachelor degree graduates earning power compared to average earnings fell from 105.4 per cent to 93.9 per cent for women and from 96.8 per cent to 91.9 per cent for men.

Over a 42-year working life, earnings for people without a degree on an average salary was $1.8 million. For graduates, once HECS debts and other costs were taken into account, it was $2.2 million over 38 years, a difference of $374,883.

The percentage figures presumably refer to graduate starting salaries (if any). As far as the lifetime earnings figures goes, the graduate (still) appears to have a slender margin. However, once you factor in the increase in a typical Sydney/Melbourne house price over the time a recent graduate was at university, this margin evaporates, making the conclusion inescapable – going to university will cost a (recent) graduate more over their lifetime than it earns them.

Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?