“Cheating is an epidemic in higher education. I should know. I spent a decade spreading the disease. In 2009, I was earning more than $60,000 a year cranking out papers for students. I was an academic ghostwriter, a professional cheat, a research mercenary with a bad case of spiritual burnout.”
“My life was an endless assembly line of essays, exams, theses, and even dissertations. I was quick. I was resourceful. I was prolific.”
That’s the opening to Dave Tomar’s The Complete Guide To Contract Cheating In Higher Education , which soon will almost certainly become recognized as the definitive book on contract cheating, the practice where college students hire others to write their academic assignments for them.
For nearly a decade Tomar worked as a highly successful ghost writer, hired by students to write their essays, term papers, capstone projects, Master’s theses and – yes – even their doctoral dissertations.
In 2010, Tomar blew the whistle on himself and, under the pseudonym Ed Dante, admitted in an explosive, highly cited article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that he was a well-compensated ghostwriter, “an educational outlaw” working at an online company churning out the papers that had been requested by cheating students. During his heyday, Tomar was writing upward of 20 different assignments a day.
These revelations earned him the title of the “Shadow Scholar,” a name that the media latched onto enthusiastically. Along with his new fame, Tomar met widespread skepticism, criticism, and enmity from college administrators and faculty, many of whom simply refused to believe that their students cheated or that they would be unable to detect the few who did.
Now, in his new book, Tomar blows the whistle on the entire contract cheating industry in a highly engaging, often perversely amusing, account of online cheating-for-hire. He’s the outlaw gone straight. In fact, in recent years, Tomar has consulted with cheating detection companies like Turnitin, acting something like the reformed card counter who’s hired by casinos to warn them how they’re being sharked by professional gamblers.
Part confessional, part expose, part how-it’s done manual, this book is a must-read for anyone who wants to learn the ins-and-outs of ghostwriting, the magnitude of the industry, the reasons why students cheat, what cheating reveals about the shortcomings in higher education, and how the problem should be understood and best addressed.
It’s an interesting progression for Tomar, who admits that when he was working as a ghostwriter, he was acting out his rebelliousness and hostility toward his own negative, unsatisfying experiences in college. “For a good portion of my ghostwriting career, I had a personal axe to grind against higher education, and I used that axe to sharpen my pen.”
“I never felt guilty about it back then,” he told me in a recent phone interview. “I never was secretive about what I did for a living, and people typically were intrigued rather than repelled when they learned I was a ghostwriter. As a way to repay my large student loans, defrauding universities felt ok to me at the time.”
But over the years, Tomar said his attitudes began to change, beginning with his self-outing in the Chronicle. “I came to the realization that I expected more from myself. There was an emptiness to what I was doing, and I decided I could not continue to do it forever, even if the pay was good and even if I learned a lot of interesting information along the way.”
Stunned by the widespread attention and extreme reactions the Chronicle article provoked, Tomar, who is currently the managing editor of Academic Influence, ultimately decided to write his new book as a reference guide for educators, offering “everything I know” about contract cheating. He says he wants it to promote an understanding of cheating from a practical, constructive perspective so that it can be successfully confronted and ultimately reduced.
Tomar believes the number one reason students choose to cheat is out of a sense of “academic desperation,” a feeling that they are in over their heads, ill-prepared to succeed at the academic tasks they’ve been assigned.
Among the characteristics he found most often in his clientele, Tomar points to poor mastery of the English language, inadequate understanding of the subject matter, feeling overburdened by workload, mental health problems, academic indifference, procrastination, laziness, and parental, social, or internal pressure to succeed.
Those individual problems are compounded by higher education practices such as colleges’ failure to train students how to write effectively, written assignments that are dull and repetitive, a lack of sufficient support and services for students who are struggling, overburdened graders, disengaged professors, and the soaring costs of higher education which only ups the ante for students feeling they must pass their courses – whether through honest study or illicit schemes.
Tomar believes that solving the epidemic of cheating in higher education requires that we think of it less as an ethical lapse and more as an educational problem, an illicit transaction driven by many interrelated factors.
“Combating the impact of contract cheating services requires that we think of such services less as ethical transgressors and more as economic actors. Understanding why these services succeed, and why they are a threat to higher education, requires us to honestly reflect on the connection between structural failures, skyrocketing costs and student attitudes at the academy.”
Tomar offers a number of suggestions for preventing contract cheating, organized under what he calls the 4 D’s: Design, Deterrence, Detection, Diagnosis. While he suggests several techniques under each heading, his overall emphasis is consistently on reducing student cheating by relying on good education practices aimed at helping students develop the academic skills they need and that many know they lack.
As examples, he recommends stronger composition instruction in middle school and high school; more in-class writing in college; greater use of a multi-draft writing process in courses; stronger, more caring relationships between students and instructors; more personalized course content; expanded use of ungraded assignments; and bolstered student support services, particularly for those with mental health problems or language barriers.
Grounded in a genuine concern about the pressures college students face, a frank recognition of higher education’s contribution to the problem, and a thoughtful perspective on college teaching, this eye-opener of a book grabs your attention and never lets go.
It’s a great read for anyone who cares about the problem of cheating. But it’s a must read for those who might still be inclined to deny how widespread and serious college cheating has become.