TURNITIN: You’ve said in the past, “I’ve completed entire semesters, academic years, or courses of study for individual students across periods as long as two and three years.” How many of these return customers did you have? And how many essays in total did you write for students?
DAVID TOMAR: My best estimate is that I wrote [in total] about 4,000 papers of widely variant length. [As for return customers]: too many to count. Suffice it to say that, for some students, the first paper is a gateway drug. Once you start submitting papers in somebody else’s voice—and with somebody else’s writing ability—it can be hard to go back to your own work without triggering a few red flags.
TURNITIN: Have you run across any of your ex-customers in real life? What has been the reaction of educators to your narrative?
TOMAR: Not that I know of. Most of my work was done online, and often across great geographical distances.
As for educators, I’ve gotten the full mix of reactions from shock, anger, and skepticism to bemusement, curiosity, and, in rare cases, awareness. These days, so many years removed from the job, I find that most educators are appreciative that I’m willing to share what I know. It’s pretty rare that anybody calls me a scumbag anymore, at least to my face.
TURNITIN: While writing The Shadow Scholar, did you come across any personal epiphanies?
TOMAR: I approached The Shadow Scholar as both an expose on the state of education and as a personal memoir. Any time you reflect on your own life in that kind of detail—sometimes ugly detail—you are bound to learn a few new things about yourself.
For me, it was the realization that I had an obligation to be something better. I could make a semantic argument about how higher education was a sham, how my college ripped me off, how I didn’t really feel a lot of guilt defrauding an unfair system. And as a contract cheater, I’d written a million philosophy and political science science papers, so I had the rhetorical means to make these arguments.
But I couldn’t argue that I was doing something good, valuable, or worthy of respect. I couldn’t argue that I was making the most of my life, or that I was using my abilities to help people who deserved it. I couldn’t argue that I was living up to my potential.
You can make a lot of semantic arguments about large systemic failures. Turns out, it’s a lot harder to turn the discussion inward. But The Shadow Scholar allowed me to do that, and it allowed me to move on to a better place.
TURNITIN: Have any of your former clients been caught?
TOMAR: Caught? Not necessarily. Ensnared by services like Turnitin? Most definitely. I’ll admit that I might have occasionally recycled a passage of my own work. I mean, I wrote like, 100 papers on King Lear, y’know? Sometimes, you’ve already said it the way you intend to say it, so you might borrow a few of your own sentences from an old paper. That kind of thing is generally against the rules in contract cheating, but it happens.
When it did happen, a student might come back to us and complain (rightfully so) that the essay was dinged for a bunch of copied passages on Turnitin.
Of course, as you know, this doesn’t necessarily amount to being caught. It’s just one strand of evidence. Often, students are given the benefit of the doubt that these limited instances of copied material are mere citation errors. They may even get the chance to fix it, which means we, at the essay mill, would also get a chance to fix it. We would do so free of charge.
TURNITIN: What would your response be to someone complaining about their grade?
TOMAR: Standard legal refrain: Our writing is intended only as a “study guide” or “sample essay.” This is not to be submitted for a grade or claimed as your own work. We at (INSERT SHADY ESSAY MILL NAME) are not responsible for any grades incurred or other consequences resulting from submission of said study guides as your own work…
In such cases, we could also point our customers to a link on our company website outlining these terms in dense and official-sounding legalese. This is the default position for most “legitimate” essay mills.
TURNITIN: For what university students did you often write?
TOMAR: I can’t say for certain because this information was not a standard detail for each essay order. It wasn’t necessary to tell us what university you attended. Sometimes though, the information was self-evident through course materials, syllabi and, in some instances, because I would literally be provided with a student’s username and password so that I could access digital library materials, chat boards, or lesson modules.
TURNITIN: What were the most frequent types of essays?
TOMAR: Impossible to say. They ran the gamut—position papers, research essays, legal briefs, college application essays, weekly class discussion responses, graduate dissertations. Every day was a grab-bag of assignment types. I’d usually do between 2 and 4 papers a day, depending on length and general workload, and they could be in any format, and on any topic.
TURNITIN: Do you have empathy for students who participate in contract cheating?
TOMAR: Sometimes. There were those who clearly lacked the necessarily linguistic skills to write, whether it was because English wasn’t their first language or because they simply hadn’t been given adequate instruction in high school. And yet, my customers were in college, even grad school.
Without getting into the ethics, I can tell you that many of my customers were simply in way over their heads. You could feel the desperation, even fear. Mostly, you could sense that they really believed they had no other options beyond failing out and losing whatever they’d invested in their education to that point.
TURNITIN: What advice do you have for teachers dealing with contract cheating?
TOMAR: Get to know your students. I know that’s not exactly a revelation, but anonymity is what allows:
- Desperate students to go unnoticed;
- Discrepancies in writing style to be overlooked; and
- Students to feel disconnected enough from you as an educator to deceive you without remorse.
If you build relationships with your students, you should be able to identify those that are in over their heads, and show them that they have other options. You can identify discrepancies between a student’s writing and other dimensions of their performance. You can create a strong personal relationship that makes it a lot harder for a student to look you in the eye and claim credit for somebody else’s work.
TURNITIN: What do you think the practice of contract cheating says about the culture of higher education institutions and the value of an education?
TOMAR: Cash Rules Everything Around Me. That was my attitude in college, and it was the attitude that allowed me to work as a contract cheater for a decade.
When I graduated from college and started to repay my loans, I was left with a sense that I’d been hoodwinked; that this big, expensive piece of paper was not necessarily worth what I’d spent; that I was just one more schmo in a big sea of undergraduate degree holders with a lot of debt and entry-level career prospects.
I could also see the stratification of our higher education system more clearly than ever. Higher education costs a fortune, and the more you have to spend, the better your prospects. Once you’ve piled up the expenses of tuition, housing, books, and logo-bearing merchandise, what’s a few hundred, or even a few thousand dollars more for papers from an essay mill?
Contract cheating is a symptom of a pay-to-play system, a higher education landscape so bloated with overpriced degree programs and student debts that paying for papers is just another pragmatic educational expense.
We want to thank Dave Tomar for being so forthcoming about his work as an essay mill writer. We also thank him for using his past knowledge to enforce academic integrity today.
Want to address contract cheating at your institution? Learn more about Authorship Investigate.