The Paroikos Bible Blog exists as a resource to those interested in Biblical studies and Koine Greek. It is hoped that this blog will simultaneously provide food-for-thought to the reader while pointing him or her in the direction of valuable resources, both in print and on the internet, that will further help his or her studies in the Word.

Apr 30, 2015

Academic Ghost Writing and Teacher-Student Interaction

Yesterday, I read for the first time two fascinating articles by a former "academic ghost writer," i.e., the professional guy (or gal) who writes papers for desperate (or lazy) students, for a fee. The two articles, by David Tomar, are "The Shadow Scholar: The Man Who Writes Your Students' Papers Tells His Stories" (on the Chronicle of Higher Education site: click here) and "Detecting and Deterring Ghostwritten Papers: A Guide to Best Practices" (on The Best Schools site: click here). The former article is under a pseudonym of Ed Dante (but both articles are by the same author). Academic ghost-writing, unlike plagiarism, is virtually undetectable since each paper is custom-tailored to an individual student's needs (for a price, of course). Based on his own account, I'm quite prepared to hail Mr. Tomar as the most scholarly guy alive! Who else can boast that they written papers, on various levels (yes, including the doctoral level) on history, philosophy, psychology, sports management, theology, sociology, maritime security, and, ironically enough, ethics?!

The saddest part of his article "The Shadow Scholar" is this statement here:
"I do a lot of work for seminary students. I like seminary students. They seem so blissfully unaware of the inherent contradiction in paying somebody to help them cheat in courses that are largely about walking in the light of God and providing an ethical model for others to follow. I have been commissioned to write many a passionate condemnation of America's moral decay as exemplified by abortion, gay marriage, or the teaching of evolution. All in all, we may presume that clerical authorities see these as a greater threat than the plagiarism committed by the future frocked." 
(by the way, on a related note: ghost-written sermons have been advertised in magazines from the time before the internet, so let's not assume preachers always do their own work, either)

Those of us who teach theology or biblical studies should not be so naive as to assume the temptation isn't there, or that Christians can't fall into that trap (while a grader at Southeastern, I once caught a student blatantly plagiarizing; on a book review assignment, they had basically just cut and pasted text from a blog that was reviewing the same book).

 In his article "Detecting and Deterring," Tomar categorizes his clients into 3 major groups: 1. "English Language Learners" (those whose native tongue is not English and often can find nobody to help them learn), 2. "Composition/research deficient students" (those who, in Tomar's words, represent the " tragically overlooked prevalence of students at the undergraduate and even graduate levels who simply lack the skills or knowledge to produce university-level writing or research"). The 3rd category is simply the "lazy student."

So what's the solution? In his second article, Tomar provides a number of helpful hints for both preventing and spotting such papers. It's the "deterring" part I wish to focus on. I have no wish here to diminish the theological significance nor dismaying irony of a Bible student cheating. Yet part of the problem is most likely a disconnect between teachers and students, including a lack of awareness concerning which students are struggling and how to help them. While we can't necessarily help the third category, the "lazy student," for the first two categories the faculty of a school should have a system in place for detecting and assisting those students most likely to struggle (Southeastern, my doctoral alma mater, has a dedicated "Student Writing Center" staff to assist just that type of student as well as anybody who just needs another person to look over their work). These students can easily be detected early on in college or seminary and directed towards resources that will help them improve. 

Furthermore, a teacher's enthusiasm for his or her subject may very well translate into willingness on the part of the student to actually study. As Tomar notes in "Detecting and Deterring," "I have also generally observed that students are more motivated to cheat in contexts where professors aren’t particularly motivated to teach." Indeed, "When the professor demonstrates passion for the material, this helps to create a moral dilemma about cheating that has more to do with the student/teacher relationship than with the notion of academic integrity. In reality, this relationship weighs heavier on the conscience."

Also, here's a thought (quite the radical one for Christian educators!): perhaps teachers should be willing to go the extra mile with their students, taking extra time to give them some pointers on their papers? (especially in undergrad) I'm not suggesting that teachers do their students' work for them, but our job is, after all to teach (and, biblically-speaking, to mentor). Yeah, spending 30-minutes with a student explaining the difference between a "devotional" commentary and an academic one, or why calling those of other theological persuasions an "idiot" is unacceptable in their paper, may take away some valuable time from writing my next killer article on "Social Scientific Perspectives on the Allegorical Interpretation of St. Ronald of Wendysia," but which activity, ultimately, is going to matter more to the Master?

At the methodological level, I have an idea I might start implementing. Instead of just requiring students to turn in their paper, I may require, from now on, that students turn in their research notes as well (I know, I know, some students, as well as major scholars, prefer to research as they write, so this might not work; differently people are wired to write in different ways).

One more final thought: In the second article, Mr. Tomar states, "When I worked as a ghostwriter, lazy students helped me to make my living but it was the lazy professors that made my life easier. The task of pretending to be a student in somebody’s class is greatly simplified when the professor takes no special steps to differentiate the course, its content, or its assignments from the many millions of other courses that have been taught on the same exact subject from time immemorial." Based on that, I have to conclude that someday, Mr. Tomar's former job may be outsourced to robots. No joke! Already a medical researcher, using a random text generator website, was able to get an article accepted by 17 medical journals! (click here for the story, and thanks to my Dad for sending me the link) Now, all 17 of those journals were "Pay-to-publish" journals that prey on those who are desparate; but that's precisely my point! Some teachers (or grad assistants) may pay as much or less attention to the papers they get than the editors of those "journals" do! Coupled with the superior capacity of computers to research the internet (let's not forget that recently IBM's "Watson" computer beat two champions at Jeopardy), the dawn of "AI Writers" may very well be upon us. Very soon "HAL2016" may be able to generate a B+ paper for next year's freshman . . . (and, personally, I'm looking forward to the first Baptist sermon written by a robot)

Note about peer-review journals

1 comment:

  1. Just a thought from another perspective. If the university is admitting students who are not capable of writing or researching with sufficient proficiency, then maybe they are admitting students who should be turned away. A thinning of the ranks of the students might engender greater seriousness on the part of those who are actually in the classroom.
    That is not to say that the university does not bear a responsibility to train its students, but they ought not be expected to make up for the failure of the student's high school or undergraduate education. A thorough course in research methods ought to be sufficient to at least bring the students to a minimum accepted standard without any remediation necessary.
    Just my two cents.