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The Shadow Scholar

Posted by Josh Rothman  November 23, 2010 11:42 AM

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Each fall college professors dutifully warn their students about the dangers and temptations of plagiarism. Lately, though, worrying about plagiarism has started to feel quaint, even naive: the real cheaters have moved on, and now have their term papers custom-written for them over the Internet.

Who mans the dark, satanic mills of academic ghostwriting? Apparently, disaffected and dissolute nerds like "Ed Dante," who writes pseudonymously in The Chronicle of Higher Education about his role as a "shadow scholar." Dante claims to produce about 5,000 pages of "scholarly literature" each year, earning around $66,000 and working for a company which employs 50 other writers. Business, he says, is booming.

His luridly self-serving article in the Chronicle is like an academic version of Dostoevsky's Notes From Underground: it tells the tragic story of a gifted, mopey dork who turns to a life of crime after his university refuses to let him revise his novel for course credit. Spurned and disillusioned, he ends up turning tricks for "Miller-swilling" jocks. "Imagine you are crumbling under the weight of university-issued parking tickets and self-doubt," Dante explains, "when a frat boy offers you cash to write about Plato." The temptation proves too great, and the fateful choice is made: "Word of my services spread quickly."

In a defensive move that will shock no one, Dante says that he's part of a system that's basically uninterested in whether students learn anything ("as far as I know," he writes, "not one of my customers has ever been caught"). He argues that his ghostwritten papers are simply grist for the degree-mills - the kinds of schools currently under investigation by the federal government for fraud - and laments the "focus on evaluation over education" which he says made his college experience a "tremendous disappointment."

It certainly seems true that, just as the banks fueled the mortgage bubble, so colleges are fueling a degree bubble. Dante's job is made possible by colleges determined to feed America's increasing addiction to credentials and certifications. And other academic ghostwriters agree that, just as foreign demand for a piece of the American housing market fueled the mortgage bubble and led to widespread mortgage fraud, so foreign demand for American degrees is leading to corruption in the way degrees are granted.

Dante's business also thrives because universities are increasingly impersonal. Witness the recent kerfuffle at the University of Central Florida in which a business professor, Richard Quinn, uncovered widespread cheating among his undergraduates. His emotional gotcha! lecture has become a YouTube hit. It's on YouTube in the first place, though, because many students simply watch the lectures from home. (The video begins with a message about how students are "welcome to attend live sessions.") Many of Dante's customers are distance-learners: they give him a username and password so that he can do assignments, take exams, and even participate in online discussions. A similar problem of impersonality afflicts medical research: in as many as 11% of research articles, one of the co-authors is actually a ghostwriter, often working for the pharmaceutical industry.

In the end, of course, the fact that lots of people are cheating doesn't make cheating less bad. Just the opposite is true: the more people cheat, the more worthless everyone's degrees become. When the bubble bursts, everyone suffers together. For their own good, American universities need to toughen their standards, lest they find their degrees downgraded to 'junk' status.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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