Plagiarism and Essay Mills
Sometimes as I decide what kind of papers to assign to my students, I can’t help but think about their potential to use essay mills.
Essay mills are companies whose sole purpose is to generate essays for high school and college students (in exchange for a fee, of course). Sure, essay mills claim that the papers are meant just to help the students write their own original papers, but with names such as echeat.com, it’s pretty clear what their real purpose is.
Professors in general are very worried about essay mills and their impact on learning, but not knowing exactly what essay mills are or the quality of their output, it is hard to know how worried we should be. So together with Aline Grüneisen, I decided to check it out. We ordered a typical college term paper from four different essay mills, and as the topic of the paper we chose… (surprise!) Cheating.
Here is the description of the task that we gave the four essay mills:
“When and why do people cheat? Consider the social circumstances involved in dishonesty, and provide a thoughtful response to the topic of cheating. Address various forms of cheating (personal, at work, etc.) and how each of these can be rationalized by a social culture of cheating.”
We requested a term paper for a university level social psychology class, 12 pages long, using 15 sources (cited and referenced in a bibliography), APA style, to be completed in the next 2 weeks, which we felt was a pretty basic and conventional request. The essay mills charged us in advance, between $150 to $216 per paper.
Two weeks later, what we received what would best be described as gibberish. A few of the papers attempt to mimic APA style, but none achieve it without glaring errors. Citations were sloppy, and the reference lists abominable – including outdated and unknown sources, many of which were online news stories, editorial posts or blogs, and some that were simply broken links. In terms of the quality of the writing itself, the authors of all four papers seemed to have a very tenuous grasp of the English language, or even how to format an essay. Paragraphs jumped bluntly from one topic to another, and often fell into the form of a list, counting off various forms of cheating or providing a long stream of examples that were never explained or connected to the “thesis” of the paper. Here are some excerpts from the four papers:
“Cheating by healers. Healing is different. There is harmless healing, when healers-cheaters and wizards offer omens, lapels, damage to withdraw, the husband-wife back and stuff. We read in the newspaper and just smile. But these days fewer people believe in wizards.”
“If the large allowance of study undertook on scholar betraying is any suggestion of academia and professors’ powerful yearn to decrease scholar betraying, it appeared expected these mind-set would component into the creation of their school room guidelines.”
“By trusting blindfold only in stable love, loyalty, responsibility and honesty the partners assimilate with the credulous and naïve persons of the past.“
“Women have a much greater necessity to feel special.”
“The future generation must learn for historical mistakes and develop the sense of pride and responsibility for its actions.”
At this point we were rather relieved, figuring that 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.
But the story does not end here. 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. We decided to take action with the two largely plagiarized papers, and contacted the essay mills requesting our money back. Despite the solid proof that we provided, the companies insisted that they did not plagiarize. One company even tried to threaten us by saying that they will get in touch with the dean at Duke to alert them to the fact that we submitted work that is not ours (just imagine being a student who had used the paper for a class!).
The bottom line? I think that the technological revolution has not yet solved students’ problems. They still have no other option but to actually work on their papers (or maybe cheat the old fashioned way and copy from friends). But I do worry about the existence of essay mills and the signal that they send to our students. As for our refund, we are still waiting…
Looming Integrity Crisis
Apparently, Britons are becoming less honest. At least according to a study conducted at the University of Essex, where several thousand respondents filled out an online survey that repeated questions from a study on citizenship and behavior conducted ten years earlier. According to researcher Paul Whiteley, the purpose of the study was to try to gain an idea of the level of dishonesty in British society, and moreover, what’s considered acceptable and whether that has altered over time.
In the survey, participants were asked to rate various behaviors—such as littering, drunk driving, or having an affair—on a scale from 1 (always justified) to 4 (never justified). What researchers found was that people’s tolerance of certain dishonest behaviors have changed, and almost entirely for the worse. For instance, in 2000, 70% of respondents said having an affair could never be justified, a number that dropped to around 50% of respondents in 2011. And two out of three people said they could justify lying in their own interest. In fact, there was only one behavior that people condemned more in 2011 than in 2000. Perhaps not surprisingly, given that governments the world over have tightened their belts since 2000, that one behavior was falsely claiming benefits.
With this apparent relaxing of moral standards, one might wonder if this is the case across the board. Researchers observed that while women were slightly more honest than men, the most appreciable differences were found among different age groups. Young people were significantly more tolerant of dishonest behavior than older people—for instance, only around 30% of people under age 25 thought lying on a job application was never justifiable as opposed to 55% of people over 65. Neither income level nor education affected levels of honesty.
This is bad news, but the worst part is that over time, if no one counteracts the spread of dishonesty, it is likely to continue. Because we generally look to our peers for cues on what kinds of behaviors are acceptable, if lying on job applications seems to be par for the course, it will increase in frequency. So does this mean that England will be governed by degenerates in a few decades? I guess we’ll see.
Lying Liars Who Believe Those Lies
What do Williams Gehris, America’s most decorated war hero, and Walter Williams, the last Civil War veteran to pass away, have in common?
Both were frauds. They spun tales of military heroism, duped the public, and then – whoops – someone discovered that they hadn’t actually achieved the purported feats. Gehris professed to have racked up 54 decorations, when in reality he had just one. And Williams claimed to have fought in the Civil War, but records prove he couldn’t have because he was only five years old at the time.
I came across these and other military fish tales in the article “Fake War Stories Exposed,” in which Anne Morse covers frauds from all walks of life (journalists, actors, politicians, clergymen) who had all kinds of motives (money, glory, self-aggrandizement). That so many “veterans” could pull the wool over our eyes is remarkable, but what’s even more striking is that many of them seem to have convinced even themselves.
Take for example our decorated war hero from above, Williams Gehris. When a reporter confronted him about his lies, Gehris responded that “there are people who don’t believe 6 million Jews were killed, either.”
Or how about former military chaplain and purported Vietnam veteran Gary Probst? Morse writes that when Probst was confronted about his lies, he claimed that he “lied for the Lord.” Which was to say, his (false) heroics garnered him the trust and admiration of his flock, which ultimately was a good thing.
And then there’s my personal favorite, former Connecticut state representative (and yet another Vietnam faker) Robert Sorensen, who came up with this exquisite response to the disclosure: “For the first time ever, the American public had before them a war in their living rooms… Every single person in this United States fought in that war in Vietnam. We all felt the anguish that those people felt. So in a sense I was there.” Right.
It’s possible, of course, that these conmen fully realized all along what they were doing and only gave their feeble excuses out of a last-ditch effort to save themselves. But given what we know about the power of the mind to self-deceive – how it can rationalize almost anything and rework all kinds of memories – I suspect that many of these men had actually come to view their fibs as truth.
Maybe Lenin was correct when he said: “A lie told often enough becomes the truth.”
Green Consumption: It’s Not All Positive
There was a time when farmer’s markets, eco products, recycling, and renewable energy were squarely in the tree hugger’s domain. Then, somewhere along the line, green went mainstream, turning environmental awareness into a socially desirable trait and a mark of morality.
But is eco-friendliness always a boon? When University of Toronto researchers Nina Mazar and Chen-Bo Zhong recently looked into this, they found that under certain circumstances, green products can license us to act immorally.
Through a series of experiments, Mazar and Zhong drew the following distinction between two kinds of exposure to green: When it’s a matter of pure priming (i.e., we are reminded of eco products through words or images), our norms of social responsibility are activated and we become more likely to act ethically afterwards. But if we take the next step and actually purchase the green product (thereby aligning our actions with our moral self-image), we give ourselves the go-ahead to then slack off a little and engage in subsequent dishonest behavior.
So in effect, a green purchase licenses us to say “I’ve done my good deed for the day, and now I can think about my own self-interest.” I gave $20 to a charity, I pledged support to NPR, I did my share — that sort of thing. How moral we choose to be at any given moment depends not only on our stable character traits but also on our recent behavior.
This implies that if you have two important environmental decisions to make on a given day, your early decision may impact the later one. If you choose a mug over a paper cup for your morning coffee, you may later decide it’s okay not to recycle if a bin isn’t handy. This choice could even affect your subsequent moral choices in other areas, since the moral licensing effect is not domain-specific. (Participants in the above-mentioned experiment, for example, were more likely to cheat and steal cash after making green purchases).
All this to say that we need to think carefully about the unintended consequences of all the decisions we make. While we may consider the consequences of questionable decisions (speeding or parking illegally for example), we rarely consider the effects of “good” ones.
Disclosure? Not Good Enough.
In compliance with a federal integrity agreement, pharmaceutical giant Pfizer released details of its financial involvement with the medical community.
According to the New York Times, the drug maker disclosed that it paid $20 million in consulting and speaking fees to 4,500 doctors in the second half of 2009. The company also shelled out $15.3 million to U.S. academic medical centers for their clinical trials.
A few other drug makers have disclosed their payments to physicians in the past, but this is the first time a company has disclosed its payments for clinical trials. As such, some may see this as a good deed on Pfizer’s part, a noble step towards eliminating or reducing some of the conflicts of interest in medicine.
Only, disclosure doesn’t seem to help. Several studies have shown that when professionals disclose their conflicts of interest, this only makes the problem worse. This is because two things happen after disclosure: first, those hearing the disclosure don’t entirely know what to make of it — we’re not good at weighing the various factors that influence complex situations — and second, the discloser feels morally liberated and free to act even more in his self-interest.
So, in this case the people who run Pfizer will likely feel even more entitled to disregard the public good, and the public, in turn, will not know what to make of the numbers it released. After all, what do you make of the numbers? It’s hard to figure out from a statement of disclosure just how much influence the conflict of interest had on the discloser, and to what degree we should be wary of them as a result.
The real issue here is that people don’t understand how profound the problem of conflicts of interest really is, and how easy it is to buy people. Doctors on Pfizer’s payroll may think they’re not being influenced by the drug maker — “I can still be objective!” they’ll say — but in reality, it’s very hard for us not to be swayed by money. Even minor amounts of it. Or gifts. Studies have found that doctors who receive free lunches or samples from pharmaceutical reps end up prescribing more of the company’s drugs afterwards.
It’s just a fact of human life: we are compelled to reciprocate favors, and an ingrained inability to disregard what’s in our financial interest. As author Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”
Teachers, Cheating, and Incentives
In recent years there seems to have been a surge in academic dishonesty in high schools. No doubt this can be explained in part by 1) increased vigilance and reporting, 2) greater pressure on students to succeed, and 3) the communicable nature of dishonest behavior (when people see others do something, whether it’s enhancement of a resume or parking illegally, they’re more likely to do the same). But, I also think that a fourth, and significant, cause in this worrisome trend has to do with the way we measure and reward teachers.
To think about the effects of these measurements, let’s first think about corporate America, where measurement of performance has a much longer history. Recently I met with one of the CEOs I most respect, and he told me a story about when he himself mismanaged the incentives for his employees, by over-measurement. A few years earlier he had tried to create a specific performance evaluation matrix for each of his top employees, and he asked them to focus on optimizing that particular measure; for some it was selection of algorithms, for others it was return on investment for advertising, and so on. He also changed their compensation structure so that 10 percent of their bonus depended on their performance relative to that measure.
What he quickly found was that his top employees did not focus 10 percent of their time and efforts on maximizing that measure, they gave almost all of their attention to it. This was not such good news, because they began to do anything that would improve their performance on that measure even by a tiny bit—even if they caused problems with other employees’ work in the process. Ultimately they were consumed with maximizing what they knew they would be measured on, regardless of the fact that this was only part of their overall responsibility. This kind of behavior falls in line with the phrase “you are what you measure,” which is the idea that once we measure something, we make it salient and motivational. In these situations people start over-focusing on the measurable thing and neglect other aspects of their job or life.
So how does this story of mis-measurements in corporate America relate to teaching? I suspect that any teachers reading this see the parallels. The mission of teaching, and its evaluation, is incredibly intricate and complex. In addition to being able to read, write, and do some math and science, we want students to be knowledgeable, broad-minded, creative, lifelong learners, etc etc etc. On top of that, we can all readily agree that education is a long-term process that sometimes takes many years to come to fruition. With all of the complexity and difficulty of figuring out what makes good teaching, it is also incredibly difficult to accurately and comprehensively evaluate how well teachers are doing.
Now, imagine that in this very complex system we introduce a measurement of just one, relatively simple, criteria: the success of their students on standardized tests. And say, on top of that, we make this particular measurement the focal point of evaluation and compensation. Under such conditions we should expect teachers to over-emphasize the activity that is being measured and neglect other aspects of teaching, and we have evidence from the No Child Left Behind program that this has been the case. For example, we find that teachers teach to the test, which improves the results for that test but allows other areas of education and instruction (that is, those areas not represented on the tests) to fall by the wayside.
And how is this related to dishonesty in the school system? I don’t think that teachers are cheating this way (by themselves changing answers, or by allowing students to cheat) simply to increase their salaries. After all, if they were truly performing a cost-benefit analysis, they would probably choose another profession—one where the returns for cheating were much higher. But having this single measure for performance placed so saliently in front of them, and knowing it’s just as important for their school and their students as it is for their own reputation and career, most likely motivates some teachers to look the other way when they have a chance to artificially improve those numbers.
So what do we do? The notion that we take something as broad as education and reduce it to a simple measurement, and then base teacher pay primarily on it, has a lot of negative consequences. And, sadly, I suspect that fudging test scores is relatively minor compared with the damage that this emphasis on tests scores has had on the educational system as a whole.
Interestingly, the outrage over teachers cheating seems to be much greater than the outrage over the damage of mis-measurement in the educational system and over the No Child Left Behind Act more generally. So maybe there is some good news in all of this: Perhaps we now have a reason to rethink our reliance on these inaccurate and distracting measurements, and stop paying teachers for their students’ performance. Maybe it is time to think more carefully about how we want to educate in the first place, and stop worrying so much about tests.
(This post also appeared as part of a leadership roundtable on the right way to approach teacher incentives in the Washington Post. The Washington Post will post more opinions about this topic here. )
Conflicts of Interest in Dentistry
According to an article in SmartMoney, as many as 48% of U.S. dentists have seen their profits plummet thanks to the recession.
In and of itself, this isn’t a particularly remarkable statistic – after all, most of our wallets have taken a hit this past year – but what follows is an interesting discussion: how are dentists coping with this drop in income? Angie C. Marek reports a variety of tactics in her article (including lowered rates, freebies, eliminated IOUs, etc.), most of which benefit the patient – but they don’t all. Some dentists are softening the financial blow by upselling and overtreating patients.
One example came from a woman who, upon switching cities and dentists, was surprised to learn that her hitherto problem-free mouth was suddenly rife with problems: several cavities required coatings and two veneers needed replacement. Or so her dentist told her. However, this turned out to be just another case of overtreatment.
The problem here is conflicts of interests (COIs), which are instances when professionals are pulled in two directions, torn between personal gain and the good of the patient. And the sad news is that when faced with COIs dentists (or physicians) sometimes end up going the self-interested route, and this can have undesirable consequences for the patient.
Conflicts of interest are nothing new, they have been a problem for as long as there have been professions, and they are very pervasive. For instance, there’s the doctor who at accepts consulting fees from a drug company and studies their drug, the one who prescribes the treatment a drug rep pushed on him the week before over a free lunch, and even the doctor who urges a treatment on a patient in part so that he can use his costly new medical equipment.
This isn’t to say that these are dishonorable people who only see dollar signs and say to hell with the patient. Rather, COIs can deeply color the person’s perception, and thereby end up leading even the most upstanding citizens astray, and this happens often.
The long and short of it is, next time you are at the dentist’s office – think about your dentist’s conflicts of interests.
Classroom Ethics 101
On the first day of one of my classes, I asked my undergraduate students whether they had enough self-control to avoid using their computers during class for non-class-related activities. They promised that if they used their laptops, it would only be for course-related activities like taking notes. However, as the semester drew on, I noticed more and more students checking Facebook, surfing the web, and emailing. And I noticed that as these behaviors increased, so did their cheating on weekly quizzes. In a class of 500 students, it was difficult to manage this deterioration. As my students’ attention and respect continued to degrade, I became increasingly frustrated.
Finally, we got to the point in the semester where we covered my research on dishonesty and cheating. After discussing the importance of ethical standards and honor code reminders, two of my students took it upon themselves to run something of an experiment on the rest of the students. They sent an email to everyone in the class from a fabricated (but conceivably real) classmate, and included a link to a website that was supposed to contain the answers to a past year’s final exam. Half the students received this email:
———- Forwarded message ———-
From: Richard Zhang <email@example.com>
Subject: Ariely Final Exam Answers
Thought you might find this useful. See link below.
——————————————-From: Ira Onal<firstname.lastname@example.org>
To: Richard Zhang < >
Good to hear from you again. Yes, I was the TA for Ariely’s class. Here’s a link with the answers from the test when I was TA, and I don’t think he changes the questions/answers every semester. Hope this is helpful and let me know if you have any questions:
Best of luck,
Ira T. Onal
Duke University Trinity School ’09
email@example.com | (410) 627-0299
Richard Zhang < > wrote:
> Hey Ira,
> I hope all is going well. I’m in Ariely’s class and saw your name on the syllabus – are you/were you the TA? I also heard there is an exam in the class, and was wondering if you had any guidance/tips for it. He just has a bunch of short quizzes this year, so should I use those to study from?
Duke University ’12
The other half got the same email but also included the following message:
~ ~ ~
P.S. I don’t know if this is cheating or not, but here’s a section of the University’s Honor Code that might be pertinent. Use your own judgment:
“Obtaining documents that grant an unfair advantage to an individual is not allowed.”
~ ~ ~
Using Google Analytics, the students tracked how many people from each group visited the website. The disparaging news is that without the honor code reminder, about 69% of the class accessed the website with the answers. However, when the message included the reminder about the honor code, 41% accessed the website. As it turns out, students who were reminded of the honor code were significantly less likely to cheat. Now, 41% is still a lot, but it is much less than 69%.
The presence of the honor code, as well as the ambiguity of the moral norm, may have had a role in the students’ behavior. When the question of morality becomes salient, students are forced to decide whether they consider their behavior to be cheating – and presumably most of them decided that it is.
Moreover, a qualitative look at the email responses from students (to the fictitious student who sent them the link to the test answers) showed that while those who did not see the code were generally thankful, those given the honor code were often upset and offended.
The issue of cheating arose again with the approach of finals. I received several emails from students who were concerned about their classmates cheating, so I decided to look into the situation with a post-exam survey. The day after the exam, I asked all the students to report (anonymously) their own cheating and the cheating they suspected of their peers.
The results showed that while the students estimated that ~30-45% of their peers had cheated on the final exam, very few of them admitted that they themselves had cheated. Now, you might be thinking that we should take these self-reports with a grain of salt – after all, even on an anonymous survey, students will most likely underreport their own cheating. But we can also look at the grades on the exam, and because less than 1% of students got a 90% or better (and the average got 70% correct), I am relatively confident that the students’ perception of cheating was much more exaggerated than the actual level (or they could just be very bad at cheating).
While it may seem like good news that fewer of their peers cheat than they suspect, in fact such an overestimation of the real amount of cheating can become an incredibly damaging social norm. The trouble with this kind of inflated perception is that when students think that all of their peers are cheating, they feel that it is socially acceptable to cheat and feel pressured to cheat in order to keep up. In fact, a few students have come to my office complaining that they were penalized because they decided not to cheat — and what was amazing to me was that in being honest, they truly felt that there was some injustice done to them.
The bottom line is that if people perceive that cheating is running rampant, what are the chances that next year’s students will adopt even more lenient moral standards and live up to the perception of cheating among their peers?
An Extreme Take on The Ten Commandments Experiment
We once ran a study on cheating where we asked students to try to recall the Ten Commandments before an exam, and found that this moral reminder deterred them from cheating. Well, a professor at Middle Tennessee State University recently made practical use of the study – but in an extreme way.
Fed up with the low ethical standards among his MBA students, Professor Michael Tang passed out an honor pledge that not only listed the Ten Commandments, but also included a concluding flourish indicating that those who cheated would “be sorry for the rest of [their] life and go to Hell.” In response, several students called the department chair to complain and a good deal of controversy ensued.
But what the news coverage didn’t address (perhaps because no one at the school had) were the merits of this extreme pledge. Might this be an effective way of curbing dishonesty? I think yes, very much so. I also suspect that even those who don’t believe in God would take this pledge seriously.
Still, though I don’t doubt its effectiveness, the question remains whether we want to invoke such stringent punishments (stringent for those who believe, that is) on an MBA exam. Judging from the reactions in this case, I’m guessing that for most people, the answer is “no.” But it also makes me wonder about the people who didn’t want to sign this pledge….
After meeting her through a friend from graduate school, the editor of Harper’s Bazaar invited me to give a talk at the magazine headquarters. It was my first experience presenting at a fashion magazine and I suspect it may have been their first experience hosting an academic speaker. They were very gracious and interested (or at least they appeared to be), and they laughed where I hoped they would and asked thoughtful questions.
As a thank-you gift, they gave me a Prada overnight bag. Now, Apple products are the closest I have ever come to owning anything from a highly recognized brand, so acquiring this bit of couture was an interesting experience for me. As I made my way through JFK, I tried to decide whether I should hold the bag so that the triangular Prada logo was visible to other travelers or if I should keep it facing towards me. I quickly decided to keep the logo facing me, and began thinking about the role of brands in people’s lives.
We usually think of brands as signaling something to others. We drive Priuses to show that we are environmentally conscious or wear Nike to show that we’re athletic. In this case I didn’t want to send a signal to the world, but nevertheless I felt different, as if I were signaling something to myself—telling myself something about me and as a result of carrying the Prada bag.
Maybe this is the attraction of branded underwear. They are basically a private consumption experience, but my guess is that if I put on a pair of Ferrari underwear, even if nobody saw them, they would still make me feel differently somehow (Perhaps more masculine? Wealthier? Faster?).
The thing is, I realized I couldn’t just try to make myself feel better by imagining myself wearing Ferrari underwear. I would have to actually wear them in order to feel differently.
So brands communicate in two directions: they help us tell other people something about ourselves, but they also help us form ideas about who we are.