By Chris Richardson and Joe Frisen
On the second floor of a drab concrete building in North York, caught between shabby gray carpet and dirty white walls, a bookshelf bears the evidence of widespread academic dishonesty.
The bookshelf holds close to 50 pages of textbooks and course materials, each wrapped with an elastic band and a piece of paper. They belong to students who have commissioned essays, term-papers and book reports from Essay Experts, a company that claims to have been helping students “improve their grades an essay at a time” since 1996.
Marcelo Vilanez, the company’s owner and founder, insists he provides a model writing service that helps students write their own papers. He even asks clients to sign a document that stipulates they must not hand in the essays they buy from him.
But Laura, Essay Experts’ office administrator, told an undercover reporter this is not always the case.
“We tell [people] that the custom paper that we actually write is just an example guide,” she said. “The majority of students, yes, they do hand it in.”
Vilanez, the only essay provider willing to speak to the Eyeopener, has built his business over the last several years. He advertises around all the major universities, even putting Essay Expert ads in the student agendas at some schools. The service, also known as “The Paper Experts” in the United States, offers custom essays written by highly educated university graduates for as little as $28 per page. The price increases up to $48 for deliveries within 24 hours.
Laura, 21, works for Essay Experts full-time, taking calls from clients and sending their requests to the six expert employees who tailor the essay for each student. She sees about 30 clients every week.
“The majority of students are from York,” said Laura.
Two clients are in their graduating year and have been coming to Essay Experts for quite some time.
The Eyeopener decided to purchase a short essay for a first-year politics class to see what students are getting. For $92.30 we received a top-quality, three-page politics paper. The process was simple enough: you place a call or e-mail to Essay Experts, drop off your textbook or source for the assignment, and then pay the fee. Every major credit card is accepted as well as debit, cash, or Western Union.
The paper was done in a week.
The three Ryerson politics professors who examined the essay were impressed. Only one, Mike Burke, read the paper without knowing it had been bought.
“It’s nicely balanced. I think you did this very well,” Burke said. “You’ve given equal weight to each argument and I think you point out the most interesting points.”
Wayne Petrozzi teaches the class in which the essay was originally assigned. He doubts whether he would have been fooled.
“It’s just too well written,” said Petrozzi. “The likelihood of a 17-year-old coming out of an Ontario school could write about social corporatism in Europe is not high.”
Professor Neil Thomlinson submitted the paper to Turnitin.com, Ryerson’s electronic anti-plagiarism service. The Web site, which searches millions of other texts and previously-submitted essays for textual similarities, found nothing suspicious.
As far as Essay Experts is concerned, Turnitin.com is rendered useless because the essays it provides are all original works.
“You would have to give it an A if you couldn’t prove anything. It’s a very good paper,” said Thomlinson. “If it made you suspicious enough you could keep it and wait for the final exam, and then you would compare the two.”
Thomlinson acknowledges that Turnitin.com is not infallible, but he says the longer it exists the better it gets.
“Ordinary, honest students should think that Turnitin.com is a wonderful invention in my view,” he said.
Petrozzi has caught several cheaters in his classes, and says most don’t contest the charges when they are accused of serious plagiarism. Three years ago Petrozzi’s suspicions were alerted and he called a suspected plagiarist into his office to discuss his essay.
“He wasn’t teary or anything. He was very defensive and aggressive, saying ‘Oh, I know all of this.’ Well, if you know all of this, you won’t mind telling me about it then. He insisted it was his but at the same time wasn’t able to articulate any of it.”
Petrozzi was also part of one of the biggest essay-buying busts in Canadian history. In 1989, before Petrozzi came to Ryerson, he caught two of his students submitting work bought from an essay service. It formed part of a 13-month RCMP investigation which resulted in a raid on an essay writing company called Custom Essay. Toronto police also seized the company’s list of clients, relying on all three Toronto universities to lay academic charges.
Students were given academic penalties ranging from a failing grade to expulsion.
Petrozzi said plagiarism, in various forms, is something he comes across every time he marks student assignments.
“Have students submitted work that the university considers plagiarism? Yes, every year,” said Petrozzi.
In a normal year, Petrozzi said eight to 12 per cent of students would receive a note on their papers asking them to meet with him because of concerns about academic dishonesty.
“The overwhelming majority is not willful cheating,” he said. “It’s stupid. Most of them just don’t know how to [write an academic paper].”
But Petrozzi estimates that 12 to 15 per cent of those who receive a note of summons, approximately two in a class of 150, are guilty of serious offences such as buying essays from professional writing services.
To gauge the extent of student interest in professional writing services, the Eyeopener created a fake company called “A-Plus Essay Editing.” We posted 25 letter-sized advertisements on bulletin boards in Jorgenson Hall with an e-mail address attached.
In four business days we received four separate inquiries. Two asked about buying a completed paper, and one student offered us $100 to produce a three-page psychology paper. Two inquired about professional editing.
Professional editing is still permitted at Ryerson, but the matter was brought to Academic Council last month and it may not be long before professional editing is formally banned.
Essay writing and editing services are a worry for any university according to Dianne Schulman, secretary of Academic Council.
“We hate them,” said Schulman. “They certainly fly in the face of every academic integrity notion that we might have at the university. People are supposed to be doing their own work.”
Professors, however, argue there are barriers in place which hinder their ability to catch cheats, including class sizes and marking loads that force them to use marking assistants.
“If I were a student I would be going absolutely ballistic and how [marking] is done,” said Thomlinson. “Fifty, 60, 70 per cent of students’ work is being evaluated by someone they never see.”
Petrozzi does all his own marking, even with a class of 150, but he is in the minority.
“I guess I’m arrogant enough to think that my students learn more with me marking their work than by having someone else do it,” he said.
Petrozzi said the best way to catch the plagiarists is to listen to them. That’s why he forces students to discuss their papers in his seminar.
“Just listen to them speak,” he said. “If you’re noticing participles out of shape, and that’s very common, and other things like that, you’d better keep that in mind before you start writing like you wrote the text.”
Ultimately, it was the essay’s elevated writing style that persuaded many of the professors to say they would have flagged it as a bought essay.
“I know what they’re doing. It’s a business,” said Petrozzi. “What struck me about this is I don’t think they did a good job.”
Petrozzi criticized the essay service for its improbably precise prose and said their clients might not be happy with such a perceptible flaw.
“They’re not going to be in business too long,” he said.
Vilanez, who began his business as a typing service, said he has been in touch with various universities, but none of them have ever asked him to shut down his company.
“Why would [universities] ask me to stop? It’s a legitimate service,” he said. “Am I doing anything illegal?”
Legally, Essay Experts are in the clear. But if they are helping students submit work that is not their own they are in a difficult moral position.”
“In terms of legislating morality, or what people should be, it’s kind of hard for me to put myself in that position,” said Vilanez. “Why would I be spending my time doing the universities’ work?”
Vilanez said his company has always been a legitimate enterprise and its dealings are above board.
Vilanez even counts professors among his clients. But he will accept no responsibility for students who submit work written by his employees.
“This is the example I like to give: if you go and buy Drano from a supermarket and you drink that stuff, it’s going to hurt you,” said Vilanez. “Is it the company’s responsibility?”