The market for term papers

The Chronicle has just published a first person account by ‘Ed Dante’, someone who writes term papers for a living: It is well worth a look. I don’t support the practice, but it exists.

Three things crossed my mind after reading the article. Firstly, there must surely be a market failure happening here. Otherwise, Ed Dante should be earning more than the $66,000 per year that he claims is his income. This is especially given the amount of work he described doing and the potential value of his work to his clients. I suspect it is because he is aiming at highly customized pieces, so students may be reluctant to refer their friends and classmates to him as potential customers, just in case they end up with suspiciously similar essays.

Secondly, it confirms for me that libraries are in trouble. Apparently he relied mainly upon Google Scholar and Wikipedia but has never once been to a library since starting his job. Are you thinking what I’m thinking? If I were a Librarian, this present a good business opportunity as library resources could be complementary. In fact, scrolling through the comments, I saw one by “p_s_nym” that said “I do the same thing… I work for an internet company (while doing my day job as a librarian! Unfettered access to library materials is a great boon, and I can kill two birds with one stone).”

Thirdly (and yes, as an educator I am a bit concerned), it seems the solution here is one that already exists and is the age old one: exams. Term papers are fine to some extent, but this is what you get if you put too much weight on them. If the term paper contributes only a fraction of the students’ overall grades, it reduces the incentive to cheat. Besides, one can correlate the student’s exam performance with their term paper, and to some extent this acts as a way to smoke out the cheaters: it is hard to imagine that the girl who wrote that email (“did u get the sorce I send?”) would be able to write complete, coherent sentences in an examination under controlled conditions. So, looking for divergence in the scores as well as the writing styles between the exam and the term paper would be a useful thing to do.

Are there better solutions out there? Maybe I’ll set that as a term paper question for my students and see what their paper writers come up with.