Are all research papers for sale companies a scam? (I want to work for one, not buy from one).
June 7, 2010 1:15 PM   Subscribe

I'm a PhD candidate who just got hired to (ghost)write academic essays for a company. The pay is fine, and I've been emailing with a real person. Their website also seems legit, and they explicitly told me that this is legal. Could it still be a scam?

In the you're-hired email, there's a list of FAQ that explains what they do, what I would do, and what and how they would pay me. The first FAQ is also "Is this legal?," and their answer is Yes -- they've been doing this for 10 years and they provide model essays for students.

I did some rudimentary googling and found the same company has also published articles on illegal, plagiarism-encouraging, Pakistani-based websites. The company I'd be working for has three large North American offices. They also have a website, and I have the phone number and email of the guy who originally responded to my inquiry.

And yet. I'm still afraid this is a scam. Anybody know about the strange academic ghostwriting industry? It doesn't really seem too good to be true -- it pays well, but it's a lot of work (as much work as I want, anyway, which is great). Any help or advice is greatly appreciated.

Oh, there's also a contract I have to sign, which they're supposed to send soon. In their words, it basically states that any content I send them becomes their property. Which, you know, that's cool.

If necessary I'll go ahead and name them, but I thought I'd try not to the first go-round.
posted by earlofrochester to Work & Money (24 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
It might be legal but it doesn't sound moral to encourage cheating, least of all from an academic
posted by A189Nut at 1:16 PM on June 7, 2010 [3 favorites]

Well, you're basically writing papers for students who will be submitting them as their own work, more or less. (Otherwise they wouldn't pay for them, certainly not enough to justify hiring you.) Lots of people along the whole chain will convince themselves that it's legal and even ethical and even not plagiarism. People will disagree about all three. Well, probably not the last one.

I remember this topic coming up for the past and I found this deleted AskMe and corresponding Metatalk thread. There was an interesting piece on the industry around the same time, and a corresponding Mefi thread. That should give you plenty to chew on.
posted by PercussivePaul at 1:30 PM on June 7, 2010 [3 favorites]

These sites are legal because unfortunately plagiarism isn't illegal. It's your call whether to do it or not, but you'll be part of an industry that's making tons of money undermining legitimate academic work and encouraging students to replace learning with money. Sorry if I sound pissed off, it's nothing personal. I just finished my (legitimate) PhD last year, and it really bums me out to see the potential of higher learning being, well, whored.
I'm not sure why these websites make me so angry, because frankly I'm not a huge fan of academia; it's not like I think it's an ivory tower full of purity and goodness, because it certainly isn't.
Something about the utterly blatant and shameless way that these people sell dishonesty makes me want to poke them in the eye. They're helping lazy, wealthy students to undermine their own educations, and that's a damn shame.
posted by crazylegs at 1:31 PM on June 7, 2010 [3 favorites]

What does scam mean to you in this context? Unless you live under a rock, you know that "model essays for students" means you write students' essays for them and they turn them in as their own work. So, yes, academically, this is a scam. Is it illegal? Probably not, but IANAL or even an American.
posted by ssg at 1:31 PM on June 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Well, they say that they don't encourage cheating -- that essays like mine would be published alongside writing tutorials as examples essays. Much in the same way standarized test guides have example essays for the writing section.

Also, did I mention it pays well? Academia does not.
posted by earlofrochester at 1:32 PM on June 7, 2010

Check out their name on the Better Business Bureau's website (if you need a good laugh, or want to be horrified, gawk at the page on cons and scams; it's an eye-opener...).
Personally, though, I'd hold out for a real job, or make my own. Certainly technical writing jobs are available-you know, writing instruction manuals or tech manuals and the like?
posted by girdyerloins at 1:35 PM on June 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

You will be kicked out of your program if you are found doing this. Unemployment pays even worse than academia. They are legal, but unethical. If these are just examples, why are you "ghost" writing them? Why not stick your name on them and put them on your CV as publications like you would if you were writing model essays for a book on writing? I think we all know why.

Furthermore, I would say that if you value academic honest so little that you would consider doing this, academia may not be the place for you anyway.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 1:36 PM on June 7, 2010 [9 favorites]

Well, they say that they don't encourage cheating -- that essays like mine would be published alongside writing tutorials as examples essays. Much in the same way standarized test guides have example essays for the writing section.

This is the scam, right here. They're feeding you a line, and you're scamming yourself into believing, that students will buy these essays just to see how it's done, but won't cross the line into plagiarism. The pay should tip you off to that.
posted by OmieWise at 1:38 PM on June 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

The fact that writing 'model essays' pays better than academia would seem to answer your question about whether this is a scam.
posted by lukemeister at 1:40 PM on June 7, 2010

Are you and they in the US? If so, did they ask you to submit a W-9? Reputable companies who handle lots of freelancers require a W-9 form for IRS notification. Not asking for one is a pretty good sign that they're scammy, though I'm sure scammy businesses ask for these forms to seem less scammy.

As for the legitamacy of the work itself, I offer only an opinion: it's dishonest and unethical. I've no idea whether or not it's illegal.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 1:42 PM on June 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

The reason this pays well is at least in part because it's unethical. Money is a good way to get even academics to part with their morals.

If you want ok-paying work from home, you might consider becoming a standardized test grader.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 1:44 PM on June 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

They're just model essays, see? Let me know if you ever find a college student who has ever bought an essay to use as a "model."

Their stated intentions are worthless since, after all, talk is cheap. Suffice it to say that there is no "strange academic ghostwriting community," there is only a "conventional essay-selling business." And frankly, you're likely being underpaid. If any of this wound up actually being kosher with your university program, you should be getting paid the lion's share of any essay revenues.
posted by rhizome at 1:45 PM on June 7, 2010

IANAL and you don't say where you are located, so I can't comment on the legality. However, this goes against the basic ethical guidelines of academia. The students who will pay outrageous amounts for these papers will submit them as their own work with little to no modification. This web site has a good introduction to the topic.
posted by nestor_makhno at 1:52 PM on June 7, 2010

Thanks for all the input. I suppose I was living under a rock, because I honestly didn't know that these services existed until I stumbled upon a job posting for 'academic freelance work' (like most people, it never occurred to me to hand in work that wasn't mine, so in my capacity as a student this stuff just wasn't on my map). I won't argue for the moral integrity of this sort of thing, since it's pretty hard not to wholeheartedly agree with what you all are saying here. I also won't be doing it, since, well, I just can't. One thing I'm not naive about is academia -- like crazylegs, I know all too well that it's got its fair share of gaping flaws. This would seem to be one of them, however, and I won't contribute to it.

Back to the shitty job search drawing board. (See, there's another flaw -- if my stipend continued through the summer months, I would still be totally unaware of this whole racket).
posted by earlofrochester at 1:54 PM on June 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

"they say that they don't encourage cheating -- that essays like mine would be published alongside writing tutorials as examples essays. "

They're lying. A friend of mine is a manager for a site like this. They write essays for students, full-stop. They offer "editing," "help with outlines," "example essays," etc., to make it sound like it's legitimate, but what they're doing is writing essays to spec for students.

It's legal, but it isn't ethical. If a student gets caught using it, they will be expelled. Students pay a lot of money -- a LOT of money -- to get a graduate-student-written essay specific to the essay question they have to answer. I don't know what happens if current students get caught writing for it, probably expulsion. In a few cases students are buying these essays to submit with applications that require an affidavit; I suppose that could get everyone involved in trouble for fraud, but it seems unlikely since only the student is swearing it's his or her own work.

If you don't have a problem with selling essays to students bound by honor codes to do their own work, and breaking your own school's honor code in the process, there's certainly no legal issue, and they will most likely pay you quite well. But you will be selling essays on spec to students and helping them cheat.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 1:56 PM on June 7, 2010

I did this work when I was in my early 20s between my MA and PhD programs. It was represented to me as research work for businesses who didn't have anyone on staff to do it, and as essays that - as you say - would be used as samples for people to emulate. It paid a lot better than anything else I could find in my sleepy college town, and when I talked to the guy who was supposedly the company owner, we had great intellectual conversations about foreign policy and the like. I was so broke I was nearly homeless, and I had been lucky enough to go to schools where paper mills simply weren't part of the experience.

The first few assignments may actually have been legit business research; they resembled the research I had done in a previous career. It was close enough that I defended the company to friends who thought I was working for a paper mill, and told the company owner how much I enjoyed that kind of work. Then the assignments got a little simpler: a case study about Old Navy, which was Gap's "new idea" at the time; a report on changes in immigration quotas over time; something about buyer behavior focused on college-age students. Stuff that, even in my obdurate belief that this was legitimate work, felt more like junior-level assignments in major classes than the sort of research a business would need.

The burning bush for me was the paper on The Color Purple. I was told that I was being transitioned into writing example papers for seniors doing their undergraduate theses, because my writing was SO good and SO clear that I would be an excellent model. I submitted the paper and waited for the check, but instead I got an angry email saying that I had written it too intelligently and the Japanese ESL student for whom it was intended would be accused of cheating, so I'd better rewrite it "stupider" or I wouldn't get paid and wouldn't be hired again. I was stunned - what did he mean, Japanese ESL student? Someone was going to turn in my work? But that was cheating, and academic dishonesty, and fraud! I could be endangering my academic career!

When he called to find out where his paper was - the due date was the next day - I asked why he'd lied to me. He said that he didn't have to lie to English majors; we were so grateful for an opportunity to work as writers that he just had to grease the skids a little. I said that I was worried about what this would do to my future; he said that he had my name and address, and that if I ever tried to report his company, he'd contact my faculty and tell them I'd written undergraduate papers-for-hire. I said I thought the whole thing was dirty and sad; he told me to grow up and realize that most people were in school for the degree, not the learning. Then he hung up, and I never heard from him again. I am posting this with a sockpuppet account because 15 years later, I am still deeply ashamed that (a) I did work that was intellectually and academically dishonest, and (b) that I fell for compliments about my work and the supposed purpose of the essays I was writing. I should have known. The only good thing that came of it is that, in my later professorial career, I found that I was a lot better at spotting plagiarized and purchased work than my colleagues.

I'm sorry this is so long, but earlofrochester, this is how it works. The modus operandi is intellectual seduction, until you are enmeshed in a process that is both lucrative and secretive. You will be thrown out of your program if this is discovered. You will worry - not often, but enough - that someone at a hiring institution will find out. You will wonder what you would do if a student turned in a paper you wrote, and when it happens, as it did to me, you may not be able to decide whether you're angrier at the student or at yourself.
posted by sphallolalia at 2:01 PM on June 7, 2010 [55 favorites]

Thanks for all the input. I suppose I was living under a rock, because I honestly didn't know that these services existed until I stumbled upon a job posting for 'academic freelance work' (like most people, it never occurred to me to hand in work that wasn't mine, so in my capacity as a student this stuff just wasn't on my map).

Also, if you are signing up for an online job and the FAQ includes an "Is this legal?" question, you should probably find another job. Companies that are operating in a completely above-board manner do not need to spend time convincing you that they are on the level despite your gut instincts, but in most scams gaining your confidence (so they can con you) is a big part of it. Most "online jobs" you'll find are scams of some sort, and something seemingly innocuous like re-mailing packages might leave you on the hook for trafficking stolen goods.
posted by burnmp3s at 2:04 PM on June 7, 2010

@sphallolalia Thanks a lot. I'd already made up my mind not to do this, but, well, this cautionary tale is much appreciated. I too am almost that broke, and I am so sick of being poor that I'm officially desperate for a job. Not that desperate though.

Now, another question if you all please: Before I had posted here, I had emailed the guy back saying 'thanks for the hire, feel free to email or call me with the further details, etc.' I'm now going to email him and say 'DON'T email or call me, ever,' and that'll be that. I don't have to worry about anyone finding out about this, right? Or like if they did, the record now clearly states that I did no work for them -- I never signed the contract, never submitted anything, but I did tentatively say, like, 'Cool! Call me.' Nothing binding though. So I'm good?*

*BTW, I realize if I am good -- which I think I am -- I totally owe it to this board. So thanks X a million.
posted by earlofrochester at 2:18 PM on June 7, 2010

You're good. Scams happen. You didn't do anything wrong, you caught yourself before that!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:30 PM on June 7, 2010

If you need to apply to another academic program in the future or something, and you're worried enough about how it would look if this were discovered, you may want to tell them ahead of time about it. "I feel the need to inform you that, at one point in the past, I was officially hired at a company that I came to suspect was a paper mill. I did no work for them, and I refused to take the position as soon as I understood what they were asking me to do." That just clears the air, if you're worried.

But, personally, I think it's a pretty slim chance this'll ever come back to bite you.
posted by meese at 2:45 PM on June 7, 2010

I would imagine you're fine. You won't have done any work, and if people fine out (which they shouldn't) you can legitimately point them hear and say "I was naive, and once I realised what the deal was I backed away as quickly as possible".

I signed up for something similar. They still send me emails, which are filtered straight into my trash (thanks, Gmail!).
posted by djgh at 3:13 PM on June 7, 2010

A friend once worked for a site like this. He stopped when someone pursuing a child psych degree (or something similar) needed a paper faked. The paper was on some sort of psych experiment conduct on a kid; the essay writing company actually went so far as to take an employee's kid and run the experiments on him/her.

Now imagine that this person with the faked experiments and fake paper is out there doing something with one of YOUR kids...
posted by Sticherbeast at 3:54 PM on June 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you're looking to make some money through writing, look into online writing sites like Constant Contant or Demand Studios. It's not the most fabulous gig in the world but it is legit, which is a lot. I'm actually making a living through Demand Studios at the moment, and although it isn't what I had envisioned my PhD being used for, I do find myself using my research skills for this writing. At least more than for a job as a carpenter's assistant, which is the job that online writing enabled me to quit. Isn't academia GREAT!?

Anyway, good luck earlofrochester. I admire your integrity, and your willingness to endure poverty rather than work a scam for dirty money. It's more than many would do, which is why the world is so full of filthy and depressing scams. May your good karma come back to you and find you in a cushy tenure track job in a few years.
posted by crazylegs at 1:54 PM on June 8, 2010 [2 favorites]

Am I alone in thinking that the only people who are ethically wrong in this situation are the buyers of the product?

It seems like about the same moral level as criminal defense attorneys, attempting to help their clients toe the line between legal and illegal. Now, if you know 100% for sure that your client killed someone and you attempt to defend someone, you might be ethically conflicted. If you aren't comfortable with that situation I guess you might not want to stay there. However if they get off, I'd consider that more a failure of either the police department, the applicable laws, or the prosecution than the fact that you mounted a stellar defense. While the actual defendent may have done something wrong, the lawyer in this situation is just doing their job and is above reproach. Some lawyers obviously are slimier and more unctuous than others, but plenty are pretty honest.

This company employs you to do work. You get an assignment, and you legitimately do the work requested, and are paid money. So far so good. Someone buys this work from the company, and pays the company money. They are buying a service. So far so good.

The only time it becomes ethically reprehensible is when the buyer of your service attempts to pass the work off as their own. They may have been intending to do it all along and that was the only reason they bought the service was explicitly for the purposes of turning it in on their own, but up until the point they attempt to represent the work of others as their own, paying someone else to research something seems pretty legit to me.

It seems to me like the ethical transgression occurs well after your transaction is concluded.
posted by spatula at 3:19 PM on June 8, 2010

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