The Shadow Scholar

We wrote a while back on ‘The Shadow Scholar’, a piece by academic mercenary, Ed Dante (a pseudonym) detailing his career as a ghost writer for hire:

I’ve gotten pretty good at interpreting this kind of correspondence. The client had attached a document from her professor with details about the paper. She needed the first section in a week. Seventy-five pages.

I told her no problem.

It truly was no problem. In the past year, I’ve written roughly 5,000 pages of scholarly literature, most on very tight deadlines. But you won’t find my name on a single paper…

I’ve written toward a master’s degree in cognitive psychology, a Ph.D. in sociology, and a handful of postgraduate credits in international diplomacy. I’ve worked on bachelor’s degrees in hospitality, business administration, and accounting. I’ve written for courses in history, cinema, labor relations, pharmacology, theology, sports management, maritime security, airline services, sustainability, municipal budgeting, marketing, philosophy, ethics, Eastern religion, postmodern architecture, anthropology, literature, and public administration. I’ve attended three dozen online universities. I’ve completed 12 graduate theses of 50 pages or more. All for someone else.

You’ve never heard of me, but there’s a good chance that you’ve read some of my work.

This article in Big Think finds interest in Dante’s admission that he’s been able to write on such a wide range of topics without ever setting foot in a library:

I haven’t been to a library once since I started doing this job. Amazon is quite generous about free samples. If I can find a single page from a particular text, I can cobble that into a report, deducing what I don’t know from customer reviews and publisher blurbs. Google Scholar is a great source for material, providing the abstract of nearly any journal article. And of course, there’s Wikipedia, which is often my first stop when dealing with unfamiliar subjects. Naturally one must verify such material elsewhere, but I’ve taken hundreds of crash courses this way.”

The ease by which Dante is able to access large chunks of information and write a passable essay or thesis raises the question of how much of what students write is actually their own.  As Dante argues, accessing a few major sites is all he needs to write a convincing essay – an essay that presumably is able to fool professors, advisers, and committees.  As the Big Think articles makes clear, such easy access to a wide and deep trough of materials means a shift in the way students research and access information.  Research – a process that traditionally involved becoming intimately familiar with the material in question – no longer need involve long nights in the library or months of reading on a specific topic.  Now, just a well executed search is enough to cobble together the bits and pieces necessary to present a well-written and coherent academic paper.  That changes the nature of research altogether.  And while it becomes faster, more convenient, and certainly more efficient, it also makes it less protracted, less involved, less painstaking.  That efficiency comes with a price.  The student-writer is apt to be, well, less of a writer and more of an aggregator, less attuned to the nuances of their chosen topic, less of an expert.

The Shadow Scholar has supposedly induced much hand-wringing among scholarly types and confirmed what many in academia have long-suspected: that many of their students – those students that as Dante points out, are barely able to form a coherent verbal sentence yet turn in a well-written, cogent piece of academic work – are routinely cheating, are passing off a lot of work that is not their own.  Technology has tried to keep up.  There are a menu of programs that promise to detect plagiarism.  But it’s doubtful those programs can keep up with the massive amount of new information that is constantly being added to the web.  As the Big Think articles makes clear, this may mean a return to alternative forms of assessment – like group projects or oral exams.  That’s too bad.  Examining a student’s writing as a window into what they know and have internalized has always been a useful way of assessing knowledge.  That assessment means less when writing is a more of a social process and has little to do with what an individual student has learned.