Thoughts on the Shadow Scholar

In the Chronicle of Higher Education, there is a troubling piece written by a fellow who writes and sells papers for/to students. Which got me to thinking: shouldn’t text analysis be able to solve this?

Here’s my thinking: I’m willing to bet every author produces unique combinations of words and phrases – a concept that Amazon for instance uses to improve its search functions (“statistically improbable phrases“).  As the ‘ghost writer’ points out, most of the emails he gets from students are nearly illegible or otherwise atrocious. So – what if at the start of a school year, you sat all of your students down to handwrite a couple thousand words, any topic.  Writing by hand is important, so that you get that student’s actual genuine writing. Scan it all in. Perform text analysis on it. Obtain a ‘signature’ for that student’s style. Then, when students submit their papers, analyze them again and compare the signatures.  Where the signatures don’t match within a certain range, bring the student in to talk about their work. Chances are if they didn’t write it, they probably haven’t read it either…. Repeat each year to account for developing skill and ability.

Perhaps I’m naive, and text analysis isn’t at that level yet (but I’m willing to bet it could be…). If the problem is a student submits someone else’s work as his own, then maybe if we had a clear signal of his own true work, all this latent computer power sitting around could be brought into the equation…?

Just a thought.


6 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Shadow Scholar

  1. My thoughts go in a very different direction – to me, the whole existence of this ghostwriting industry is just a sign of failure to make the learning enterprise work. My school is revamping its plagiarism procedures (now called “Integrity Systems”), not in the direction you propose, but also in a direction that doesn’t seem to me like it will positively address the problem of getting students to LEARN something in school. My thoughts on all that here:
    (I teach online courses for Univ. of Oklahoma that are writing courses and yes, I face plagiarism problems – but totally unrelated to the paper mill industry)

  2. Hi Laura,
    Thanks for the comment. I just read your post, and I agree wholeheartedly with what you’re saying.

    “I contend that it is because of a lack of preparatory skills which are essential to success. People wonder why college students drop out at such alarming rates. I would contend the same thing again: lack of preparatory skills which are essential to success.”


    When I taught and worked in the online for-profit education world, my department (faculty training) often tried to push for the development of more, free, prep skills courses for the very reasons you suggest (not to much avail, alas!)

    Where I am now, our Educational Development Center here offers a course in university teaching, which I’m currently taking. We’ve spent quite a lot of time on the topic of ‘what things do we do that set the stage for failure?’. As higher education institutions, we spend lots of time focussing on the sanctions and punishments to be meted out for plagiarism, cheating… but we spend little time on addressing the core issues which more often than not boil down to time management and poor decision making.

    What I proposed in the post I think – if there were any viability to it – would require an overhaul of how we organize things too. Smaller scales. More one-to-few interactions. I once taught a third year class where the assignments were all assessed orally. Hard to hire a paper mill if you’re giving a live presentation under questioning. So maybe it’s the assessment method we need to change.

    In essence, what is it we do as teachers that create the conditions for cheating? Not a popular stance to take I’ll admit, but if we’re truthful with ourselves, we have to look at the system we’ve created (and the strains we put it under, administrators and faculty both) and rethink things…

  3. I agree absolutely! One of my favorite things about teaching online is that it compelled me to re-examine all my starting assumptions, including some assumptions I probably would not have thought about if I were teaching in the classroom. Going online forced me to rebuild my courses from scratch, and that was actually a very good thing!

    BTW I am a regular reader of your blog and enjoy it very much! I don’t work on the same kinds of things that you do, but I enjoy reading about your digital adventures. It was fun to have an excuse to leave a comment here today! :-)

  4. Shawn,

    Not to be too cynical, but at least some of the students who use these services (and certainly those who use them systematically) and likely to figure out ways to game this system (for example, by dropping the class!).

    The real issue, to my mind, is that our system of higher education is such that students have become wholly alienated from its basic practical and ethical foundations. Students do not feel that they need to acquire certain skills to succeed in their jobs or violate basic ethical standards to demonstrate core competencies that would traditionally include a reflective, ethical component.

    It’s easy to blame the student or the shadow industry here, but really the fault lies with us as faculty. We have created a system that a certain percentage of students feel comfortable gaming. The personal ethical stakes, professional stakes, and pedagogical stakes are low enough to promote this kind of behavior.

    That being said, my assumption is that these practices reflect a fairly small percentage of our students… So maybe we aren’t doing such a bad job as we think.


  5. Hi,

    You don’t need handwriting. Everybody has certain patterns of word choice that identify them (even if they are consciously trying to conceal their style). A couple of thousand words, typed into a computer while someone watches to make sure of the identity of the person doing the typing, should be enough for a machine learning algorithm to be able to say whether or not a future text was produced by the same person. I have colleagues at the National Research Council who know all about this area of research (e.g., the very brilliant NRC researcher Peter Turney). If you’re interested in learning more, get in touch with me.

    Roland Kuhn (husband of Susan Haight).

    PS: this kind of research has led, for instance, to a program written by an Israeli researcher that can tell with about 90% accuracy whether a random text – e.g., an article on organic chemistry – was written by a man or a woman. Apparently men and women have slight, unconscious, differing biases in the frequencies with which they use common function words (pronouns, connectives, etc.) Obviously, picking out writings by an individual if you already have a reasonable amount of text written by him is an easier problem.

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