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Essay Writing Services Uncovered

Essays from essay writing services often contain extensive material cribbed from online sources as well as material from banks of standard essays that have been recycled many times over. Students who purchase so-called custom-written essays may not be getting as original work as they think. Because of the size and reach of Turnitin's databases, Turnitin is likely to flag content in so-called custom essays as unoriginal.

In a blog posting by Dan Ariely (professor at Duke University and the author of "The Honest Truth About Dishonesty" and "Predictably Irrational") entitled "Plagiarism and essay mills," he explains the results of an experiment in which he purchased custom essays to check out their quality. After receiving the absurdly poor quality essays produced by these services, he concludes, "...the day is not here where students can submit papers from essay mills and get good grades for them. Moreover, we concluded that if students did try to buy a paper from an essay mill, just like us, they would feel that they have wasted their money and won’t try it again."

Furthermore, Ariely says, the likelihood that such essays contain plagiarism is high, stating, "We submitted the four essays to WriteCheck.com, a website that inspects papers for plagiarism and found that two of the papers were 35-39% copied from existing works."

WriteCheck is a service of iParadigms, the creators of Turnitin. WriteCheck is a service that, for a nominal fee, allows students to independently check their own papers for improper citations before turning them in for a class. It was developed with extensive input from educators who want students to be able take responsibility for checking their own work. WriteCheck compares submissions to the same database as Turnitin but does not add the papers to the Turnitin database and does not provide the specific source of the matched text, so students can't simply append their essays with quotes and false citations.

We also learn a few hard truths from these snippets: that ''A Farewell to Arms,'' which is called ''Hemingway's first book,'' is ''much more than a love story'' (this is a ''high school level'' paper, but still); that Newland Archer's fundamental problem in ''The Age of Innocence'' is his lack of ''tools'' to deal with Countess Olenska; and, reassuringly, that the crucial theme in ''Invisible Man'' is ''the subject of race and racial relations.'' Just think, your children might be spending their drinking money on this stuff.

I bought a prewritten paper on ''The Great Gatsby.'' Dr. T. J. Eckleburg, ash heaps, stupid rich people -- what could go wrong? I also ordered a custom paper, on what I innovatively titled ''The American Dream and 'The Great Gatsby,' '' to see if there was any difference between the two types of book reports.

Surprise: the prewritten paper, on the idea of the hero in ''Gatsby'' (''What is a hero?'' it begins, and later: ''Muscles do not make a hero''), coming in at a reasonable $35, was terrible. The sentences run on, as in this clunker: ''Moreover, the fortune that Gatsby did amount was gained through criminal activities as he had experienced the finer things in life and wished to have a better social position, again he knew that this could only be gained through the status of wealth, in this way Gatsby sought to win the heart of the woman he had fallen in love with, Daisy.'' Faux-elegant words like ''whilst'' butt up against the jarringly conversational: ''Then Nick the narrator discovers who he is bang goes his secret.'' Bang! The paper becomes increasingly sloppy, mimicking the writing patterns of a tired and confused freshman. Maybe this is the point.

Another surprise: the custom-written paper, delivered in three days for $180, a tenth of a community college's annual tuition or the weekend allowance of a wealthy Ivy Leaguer, was a decent piece of work. One passage that probably few undergraduates could dream up even on a good day, after a couple of writing workshops, reads: ''Those who go from rags to riches don't find nirvana or some special land where they are immediately happy, content and removed from earthly worries. They, like Gatsby, find that the reality is that the world is still ugly . . . and that money and power just allow one to ignore those dichotomies a little bit easier.''

Occasionally, the paper even strives for the poetic: ''Idealizing that which has little substance is like saying that once you draw a perfect circle, all of life's secrets will be discovered therein -- the circle is still hollow, no matter how perfectly round and beautiful it is.'' It's a little much, but this paper goes way beyond the green light at the end of the dock.

And compared with the standard paper -- whose dizzy take on the American Dream goes like this: ''Gatsby is the archetypal hero figure, yet he has tasted the bitter ashes of poverty, but then there were so many poor during the turn of the century that he is not alone in that and so like many others of his age he wished never again to be poor'' -- the custom paper is worth coughing up more dough. A's don't come easily, after all.

But wait. So if you're a cheap cheat, your paper will be shoddy, but believable. If you're willing to dig deep for the custom-written papers, you might raise eyebrows. What a bind. Considering that it takes three to four hours to read ''The Great Gatsby'' and perhaps a night to write a short paper, what's actually more amazing is that students would risk their integrity, their education, their unlimited access to sexual experimentation -- all for freeing up 10 measly hours of their already limitless college time.

FINE, I'll admit I was impressed by how efficiently the paper happily popped up in my e-mail in-box. The process is alluring in its simplicity, and more so in its anonymity, except that, in my case, Brenda from the Paper Experts called to tell me, in keeping with the irresponsible-undergraduate theme, that my credit card was maxed out. That unsettling human contact in the midst of my cyber-cheating was creepy and gave me pause. Even had I been a desperate, craven student, Brenda might have been enough for me to call the whole thing off.

And although these sites may proliferate, thanks to the hungry Web marketplace, they won't go completely unchecked. Colleges can sign up for plagiarism-detector Web sites like Turnitin.com, which allows professors to submit papers for an originality check (incidentally, newspaper and magazine editors might be interested in checking out its publishing arm -- iThenticate.com). But can those search engines detect custom-written papers, like my $180, A-plus ''Gatsby'' paper, assuming it's an original? No, not this book report, anyway. It passed with flying colors. Now that it's part of Turnitin's database, however -- and supposing that even the hard workers at the Paper Experts get lazy once in a while -- pity the 19-year-old who goes shopping online for some quick help with the American Dream.

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