One Jane Eyre to go! When a professor goes in search of the mythical free-term papers which she suspects her students are turning in, she finds both more and less than she bargained for.
By Victoria Olsen
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November 13, 1998 | As soon as the first assignment is due for a course, the illusion of classroom camaraderie crashes to the ground. One day you are all hanging out talking about Thomas Carlyle, and the next day otherwise poised and articulate young people are stammering out requests for extensions. They stop meeting your eyes in class, and they start getting sick. By the time that happened in the Victorian literature class I taught at Stanford University this past spring, I had granted extensions to a third of the class. I surrendered, and let the whole class have an extra weekend. After all, I wanted them to like me as much as they wanted me to like them.
It is not fun to watch stressed-out teenagers try to wriggle out of working. But I was a student recently enough to know that it is better to watch one than to be one. Take many such students, add a full-time course load, part-time jobs, the absolute necessity of drinking, sleeping and screwing at every opportunity, and you have a ready-made market for term paper mills, those businesses that either commission or stockpile term papers for students to recycle. These days there are thousands of term papers instantly available to download from the Web (Erin Carlson maintains a list of free term paper sites ). Could any of my students have handed in such phony baloney? Would I have caught it? Curious, I set out to find a paper that matched one assignment for my course: an eight-pager interpreting Jane’s artwork in Charlotte Bront’s novel “Jane Eyre.” The result? As one site disarmingly acknowledged, “beggers can’t be chosers.”
Needless to say, term paper Web sites all include disclaimers insisting that their papers are available “for research purposes only” and they are not intended to be handed in as a student’s own work. Despite names like Evil House of Cheat and SchoolSucks, these sites do not condone plagiarism.
Oh no. Never. The double talk is impressive, since the reality is usually one click away. If you “aggree” [sic] to the disclaimer on ReportzNet , you will find instructions on how to search the essay database, download a paper and “hand it in to your teacher the next day.” Many of the sites go so far as to insist they are providing a public service in the name of educational reform. SchoolSucks’ Kenny Sahr, among others, argues that his site prevents lazy teachers from recycling the same old paper topics, though why it is preferable for students to recycle the same old papers is unclear. They assert that students can use the papers as models, but students truly seeking model essays would do better asking their teachers for one that more closely reflects what is expected of them.
So, what do you get for your trouble? Not much. A few sites, like Cyber Essays or Essay.org, work smoothly, but most are badly organized and chock-full of redundant or dead-end links. You can spend as much time navigating them as you would have spent writing your own paper. Searching their databases often results in unalphabetized, uninformative lists that tell you little about each paper. Worse, they are filled with typos, to put it charitably. Indeed, a less charitable person might think that these Web entrepreneurs and ardent school reformers have yet to master the basics of English grammar and syntax. Papers on “The Illiad,” “Hamlet as a Revenged Tragedy” and “Death: A Common Element in Poetry” (I am not making these up!) do not reassure.
Besides, my search for term papers on “Jane Eyre” yielded nothing that anyone could have used for my course assignment on Charlotte Bront’s novel. SchoolSucks produced only the unpromising “Nature in ‘Jane Eyre’ by Emily Bront.” Evil House of Cheat produced about 12 essays with annoying titles like “p118.txt,” though once you get to the papers themselves they helpfully note the level of the course it was assigned for and the original teacher’s comments. The most popular paper topic for “Jane Eyre” was definitely Jane-as-feminist, and one of these college-level papers from Evil House of Cheat was well-focused and properly documented, but another high-school paper inauspiciously opened by comparing Jane Eyre to a caterpillar who would soon become a butterfly. Cyber Essays yielded another paper on nature in “Jane Eyre” (the second-place topic) that included one plausible paragraph interpreting Jane’s landscape paintings, but that would not an eight-page paper make. In short, I can now rest assured that any dedicated plagiarizer in my class would have had to shell out from $64 to $500 for a custom-written paper.
When SchoolSucks debuted in 1996 it provoked widespread debate in the media and the academy about the ethics of paper mill Web sites, but these free sites ultimately seem too pathetic to be much of a threat to universities. Ironically, the larger threat of plagiarized papers may come from the universities themselves: Online courses often require that students post their work on the Web, so more and more student papers will be available free to the savvy surfer. Already a simple Alta Vista search on “Jane Eyre” results in thousands of links, including some to Professor George Landow’s Victorian Web, a growing Brown University site devoted to the literature and culture of Victorian England that boasts more than 100 informative essays on “Jane Eyre.” And when students post research papers on their own personal Web pages like Harvard student Dorian Berger’s oft-cited paper archive, the search engines will find them, and their unscrupulous peers will steal them.
The very nature of these controversies over student plagiarism may change as certain notions of authorship and what constitutes intellectual property continue to evolve. Some radical writing teachers are using the Internet to question the notion of individual authorship. They argue that intellectual property and copyright are relatively recent phenomena, which encourage the mistaken assumption that writing is “authored” by one hand and mind. By making it difficult to trace the origins of a text or idea, the Internet reminds us that writing is a collaborative process. If these ideas gain ground, crediting someone with “ownership” of intellectual property may begin to seem absurd, and plagiarism may become obsolete — through its sheer acceptance.
Until then, however, online term-paper sites will continue to serve a growing population of desperate students. And teachers like me will have to keep one eye cocked for pilfered prose on poor dear Jane Eyre.
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About the writer – Victoria Olsen is a freelance writer and affiliated scholar at the Institute for Research on Women and Gender at Stanford University. She is co-editor, with Christina Boufis, of “On the Market: Surviving the Academic Job Market.”