At age 38, Joel does for a living what students do in their nightmares--he huddles over a computer keyboard in a stuffy little room, pounding out one research paper after another after another.
When the work’s there--and it usually is--Joel writes several papers a week. In the last 10 years, he figures he has produced thousands of “custom” reports, from undergraduate term papers on “marijuana and sexual desire” to a 150-page graduate thesis on amino acids.
A surrogate student for $9 to $18 a page, Joel is a big man on campuses across America--albeit an invisible one: He writes the papers some students turn in as their own.
Most of his work then winds up among the 17,000 or so titles in the catalogue distributed by Research Assistance, the West Los Angeles company that pays him.
A look through a handful of the assignment instructions in Joel’s files suggests that at least a small segment of America’s undergraduate and graduate students order term papers as readily as some people order clothes from Spiegel.
It’s even plausible, Joel agrees, that a few upscale students buy every paper they turn in in the course of their academic careers.
Loses No Sleep Over Issues
Joel, who allowed his professional life to be examined on condition that his last name not be used, doesn’t lose sleep over the ethical issues this raises. But lately he’s been anxious.
On Feb. 16, a Superior Court judge issued a preliminary injunction against a woman who allegedly does on her own at Cal State L.A. something a lot like what Joel does for Research Assistance, which critics call one of the largest “term paper mills” in the country.
Now Joel worries that he too will become a victim of what he sees as the new moral zealotry in America, of “the people who see things in terms of good guys and bad guys, black and white.”
On the other hand, he has seen Research Assistance weather previous hailstorms of professorial pontification and public outcry. And each time, when the clouds clear, there’s a new flock of customers waiting at the company’s doors to purchase what owner Barton Lowe has always said is nothing more than “condensed, concise information.”
Even before the Cal State L.A. case made news, though, outrage over the multitude of small-scale entrepreneurs, and the handful of large companies that research and write papers for students, was building.
There is no way of knowing how many students purchase course work, and no one has done much research on the subject, educators agree. But many colleges and universities across the country have quietly launched a sort of covert counterinsurgency effort to catch student cheaters.
Section 66400 of the California State Education Code prohibits the marketing of research assistance-type services if the vendor “should reasonably have known such term paper, thesis, dissertation, or other written material is to be submitted by any other person for academic credit.”
There is no penalty for violation of the education code, but a court does have the ability to “grant such relief as is necessary to enforce the provisions . . . including the issuance of an injunction.”
But Allen Freedman, the assistant professor of mechanical engineering who triggered the injunction against an alleged term paper writer at Cal State L.A., said he would like to see the law beefed up so that such actions become criminal fraud.
Freedman believes that by producing papers for students, companies and individuals are defrauding the majority of students, who compete against those who buy their way through classes. He also thinks they’re defrauding the university and the society into which poorly educated students will graduate.
And the dishonest students are being cheated, he said.
“Each of these students will graduate and get a first job.” But that’s about as far as they’ll go when it becomes apparent that they can’t communicate well or organize their thoughts, he said.
At USC--from which Research Assistance draws its single largest group of clients, according to a company partner quoted in the Chronicle of Higher Education--leafleters for term paper companies are chased off campus, and the campus paper refuses research company ads, said Valerie Paton, assistant dean and director of office of student conduct there. “We send them cease-and-desist letters.”
Some Easy to Catch
Sometimes student cheaters are easy to nail, said Gary Galles, assistant professor of economics at Pepperdine University, where “roughly a dozen to 20" students have been expelled since he joined the ethics committee in 1983, for submitting papers they didn’t write.
When a professor suspects that a paper may be plagiarized, Pepperdine and other schools send students to try to purchase the catalogue paper it seems to resemble. But term paper companies will not sell a paper to two students from the same school in a given period, Galles contends.
Campuses short-circuit this safeguard by sending a student from another campus to make the purchase. But sleuthing only raises the already expensive process of monitoring plagiarism, Galles said. And as he sees it, those who produce the papers are skillful at overcoming each new obstacle educators throw up.
Lowe, the owner of Research Assistance, said he created the company in 1969 after reading an article about the proliferation of information services. His company is a legitimate information brokerage, he said, and he’s angered that campuses such as USC won’t allow him to advertise.
“It’s not a very free press when student newspapers are coerced . . . not to accept our advertising revenue when they’d like to,” he said. As for educators’ charges that his company purposely thwarts their efforts to detect plagiarism by refusing to sell to the same school twice, he said, “I’m in the business to make money. . . . I will sell everything I have in the catalogue to anyone who wants it as many times as they want it.”
The company will, however, tell a client where a paper has been sold previously, he said.
Research Assistance occupies two large rooms of a second-story building on Idaho Street in West Los Angeles. On a recent morning, phones rang at a steady clip and the office staff fielded orders, cheerfully requesting the name of each client’s school and the client’s credit card number. The company guarantees that orders are kept “absolutely confidential,” and overnight delivery is available.
The catalogue suggests, however, that Southern California clients come in and read the papers before buying, and last week clients came and went, stopping to sit at long tables and read selections from the list of almost 17,000 papers offered at $7 a page.
Someone thinking of a career at Three Mile Island, for instance, might want to pick up 12142, an eight-page paper with 18 footnotes and 10 bibliographic sources, titled “Nuclear Power Hazards--Types, Causes, Dangers.”
Or a budding philosopher might be interested in 13904, “The Ethical Life: Difficulties and Possibilities of Living a Moral Life Style in an Unethical Society.”
More Expensive Papers
But more discerning clients pay $16.50 to $22 a page for custom papers, which are then recycled into the next catalogue. That’s where Joel and reportedly more than 40 other part-time writers come in.
Lowe, who was upset that Joel had talked to a reporter about his work, said that his company provides data to all sorts of clients. For example, a client who was dying of cancer asked him to track every new development in the field of cancer research, he said.
And more and more work is coming from the business community, he added.
“A lot of our clients who use us in the business world might have used us as students. They remember, ‘Hey . . . maybe they can help us in this feasibilty study.’ ”
Lowe acknowledged that many of his clients are students. But he said that they represent “a minuscule” part of the national student population. And while he agreed that it is unfair for a student to turn in, word for word, work that he didn’t produce, he believes his own responsibility about what is done with the information he sells stops at the waiver all buyers initial.
‘No Obligation at All’
“I feel no obligation at all, other than to state that it’s sold for research purposes only,” he said. “If you want to turn this into a police state . . . I’ll become a policing agency.
“Morality is something that is best left to the individual.” If our culture has low morals, it has schools and parents to thank, not information providers whose autonomy is protected by the Constitution, he believes.
A thin man with wire-rimmed glasses and longish hair that’s never seen the inside of a trendy salon, Joel lives on a palm-lined street combed by a sea breeze and frequented by those who’ve acheived the California writer’s dream of convertibles bought with proceeds from foreign film rights.
None of that is visible, however, from his tiny, sunless apartment where he works 2 feet from the mattress on his living room floor, surrounded by American Indian art, file cabinets and bookshelves sagging with hundreds of volumes from Bukowski, Nietzsche and Dr. David Viscott to “Infomation Anxiety,” “The Writers Legal Companion” and E. F. Schumacher’s “Good Work.”
UC Berkeley Graduate
Joel was graduated from UC Berkeley with a Bachelor of Science degree in 1973. His grade point average was about 3.0, he said.
About five years after graduation, Joel was laid off from a job with the City of Los Angeles. Interested in writing, he answered Research Assistance’s help wanted ad in the Los Angeles Times. His first paper was titled: “Sex Life of a Cellular Slime Mold.”
“I never thought in a million years that I’d still be doing this a decade later,” he said.
Gradually Joel has worked his way into more conventional free-lance writing markets, and last year he made trips to French Polynesia and Africa, reviewing and writing about hotels and game lodges for a corporate client.
But steady checks are hard to come by in the competitive jungle of free-lance writing.
To illustrate that point, Joel flops open a big red ledger in which he has jotted down the invoice numbers of the checks received from Research Assistance over the years. The most he made in a week from working for the company is $1,500. Other weeks, there’s no work. But he has always managed to pay his rent.
‘A Paper Factory’
“It’s certainly not a perfect system,” he said. “I feel like a garment worker, a paper factory.”
But Joel has never tried to hide what he does, he said. His refusal to let his last name be used has less to do with shame than with avoiding what he sees as the certainty that he’ll be flooded with calls from students wanting him to research and write term papers and dissertations for them, he said.
Writers at Research Assistance receive their assignments with preprinted yellow cover sheets listing the client’s last name, the name of the research, whether the client has provided any reference materials, the due date, a description of the assignment and specifications for footnotes and a bibliography.
The attached notes are usually handwritten, either by an assistant in the office or by the students themselves. Some of the attached specifications appear to have been written by a student in a classroom, as an instructor dictated the requirements for the assignment.
An old paper, pulled at random from Joel’s files reads: “Dear Jim, As per our conversation, I am sending the request(ed) instruction for the research paper on Air Traffic Controllers. . . . I need 10-page paper on graduate level. If I like the paper in future I will be sending more work. At present I had used other services and was not happy with their work.”
People who work in the office have told Joel that they are encouraged by students who learn from the papers they purchase and wind up researching and writing their own.
Staffers have also told him about demanding students who drop by to say their papers had better be ready when they get back from their spring break in Hawaii or Palm Beach, he said.
“During the oil crisis . . . the son of a rich oil sheik, a student who was living in a $200-a-day apartment, would have a limo drive him to Research Assistance and pick up term papers,” Joel said a staffer told him.
“I have a sense that there are people like that, and others who only do it once in their (academic) careers,” he said.
On rare occasions, Joel will hear back that a paper he wrote earned a student good marks. In equally rare instances, a dissatisfied student will send a paper back to the company with a professor’s critical comments scrawled in the margin, he said.
And once a student got his name and called him up to complain that an instructor had given him a C-plus, saying that the paper Joel had written on an obscure area of immunology was redundant.
“I told him I thought a C-plus was pretty good,” given that the student didn’t have the slightest grasp of the subject matter, Joel said. “But if you’re really concerned,” Joel told the student, “I’ll be happy to go to the dean of your school with you and ask him why you only got a C-plus on this paper I wrote.”
For years, Joel spent a good part of his time poring through the stacks at the UCLA libraries. Now he prefers to tap into computer databases, working late at night when the services are cheapest.
Poking at his keyboard, he demonstrated how he gathers his information, downloading abstracts or whole articles, such as a piece from the New England Journal of Medicine titled: “Modification of Risk Factors for Coronary Heart Disease.”
Research papers now jam three subdirectories he created on his 20-megabyte hard disk--Biology and Medicine, Engineering and Computers, and Social Sciences--and have overflowed into a box of floppy disks.
Now his library work is largely limited to assignments in which a client requires that Xeroxes of the research material be included--and professors say they are doing this more frequently, in hopes of impeding plagiarism.
Joel used to feel guilty about what he does, he said. Then an old college roommate who’d gone on to become a graduate assistant assured Joel that what he does is no different from what grad students do all the time for the professors they work with. “He said, ‘I do the work and they put their names on it,’ ” Joel recalled.
“For me, all these ethical representations become background,” he said. “I’m just doing the work. There’s obviously a demand for it. . . . The universities have become these massive, impersonal institutions and instead of knowing the student and talking to him they just say, write a report on this or that.
“If you had a university where you didn’t measure success in terms of student units processed per semester, you wouldn’t need all this,” he said.
Many educators agree. Cheating isn’t much of a problem when classes are small and professors talk with students face-to-face and track the course of their research and writing skills, said Galles.
In reality, however, it’s often prohibitively expensive, if not impossible, for educators to monitor the progress of their students with much precision, he said. Which does not mean that purchasing papers is justified, he and his colleagues agree.
But Freedman, at Cal State L.A. thinks that “students are often more the victim than the perpetrator,” and that the research companies that take advantage of them should be legally constrained.
That’s passing the buck, Joel believes.
“That Cal State L.A. professor is a Don Quixote, tilting at windmills. I don’t think they can ever close down this kind of business. This is an information age and we’re selling information.”