THE BLOG
01/08/2014 01:28 pm ET Updated Mar 10, 2014

Ghost in the Machine? How To Spot a Ghostwritten Paper

cheating at school

The following account is drawn from the author's decade of experience working as a professional ghostwriter for college and graduate students and is based on a presentation recently delivered at the request of leading plagiarism-detection and prevention company, Turnitin.

Getting old is weird. I haven't set foot in a school in years. And since I stopped writing papers for students, I feel completely out of touch with what the kids are into these days. The other night, I was sitting around the table with my poker buddies and one of them was like, "Do you guys know what twerking is?"

I had a vague, Miley Cyrus-informed understanding of the dry-humping dance-floor phenomenon, but I admit I hadn't taken the time to look it up in the Urban Dictionary so I couldn't volunteer a definitive answer.

One guy knew though. His wife is an elementary school teacher. She explained it to him.

Point is, I'm not an expert on what's cool with the pubescent cognoscenti. Still, thanks to my former line of work and a bevy of survey results, I am hip to one trend that's as cool now as it was in my time. Probably even cooler.

Cheating in school is as popular as it's ever been. Cheating would be prom king if it could rent a tux and drink wine coolers.

According to Stanford University's Academic Cheating Fact Sheet, whereas only 20 percent of college students admitted to having cheated in high school in the 1940s, annual surveys of varying origin find that, today, between 75 and 98 percent admit to having cheated.

In case you harbor any illusions about it, that means it's not just the dumb kids. According to The Harvard Crimson, a survey of this year's incoming freshmen revealed that 42 percent had cheated on high school homework before arriving at the Ivy League institution. This does not bode well for a venerable university bent on recuperating its reputation from last year's... unpleasantness.

Maybe cheaters are overcome by linguistic deficiencies. Maybe they're accustomed to using the backdoor to get things done. Maybe, as one recent study suggests, some students actually get a sense of personal gratification from gaming the system.

Whatever the reason, some students will cheat no matter what you do. Some of those will use online ghostwriting services. And when they do, you -- the professor, adjunct, grading T.A., whatever -- you will read a paper written by somebody that has never been in your classroom.

Just knowing this might piss you off. But to quote G.I. Joe, "knowing is half the battle."

In light of this, I'm going to do my best to give you tips for picking out a ghostwritten paper in a stack of honest-to-goodness student work.

None of these tips is a smoking gun. If the ghostwriter is doing his job well, a paper, by itself, may not raise too many alarms. It is the combination of student and paper together that probably won't add up. Your instincts must come first. That said, once you've red-flagged a suspicious paper, the tips here might help you to confirm or set aside your suspicions.

Sources
Ghostwriters and actual students use sources differently. Let's start with Scholarly Journal Articles. Ghostwriters don't always have access to the same databases that students do. This means that full articles may not be readily available, but their abstracts almost always are. When I was ghostwriting, I tended to draw my direct quotes from required journal articles by using the abstract and the abstract only.

A similar rule applies to books. Ghostwriters don't go to the library. If a specific text is required, the first stop is Amazon or Google Books, where one can find a generous but limited range of excerpts. For the creative ghostwriter, these samples are usually enough to write a whole paper.

Does your student's suspicious assignment just happen to pull quotes only from an abstract or only from the parts of a text available on Amazon or Google? This may be more than a coincidence.

Style
A productive ghostwriter will be an avid recycler and I'm not talking about the environment here. I must have written more than 100 papers on childhood obesity. It's a hot-button issue. So any time the subject would come up, I'd stitch together a more-or-less coherent essay from relevant bits and pieces of old work. This approach would allow me to circumvent many of the best plagiarism detection programs out there. But to the naked eye, the paper may feel like a Frankenstein's Monster of randomly assembled limbs and appendages. If it reads like a bunch of spare parts jammed together in loose response to an assignment prompt, it may be exactly that.

Another stylistic hallmark to look out for is a preponderance of writerly flab. This is a consequence of the fact that ghostwriters are counting words first and foremost. Most are more interested in filling a page than in answering a question with total accuracy. Of course, it's important to do both, but I was never above eating up space on a page with extraneous phrases like "with respect to," "insofar as the text illustrates," or "to that end." I've even been known to throw in the occasional "heretofore unaddressed in the context of this discussion."

Look for fluffy verbosity like this. It may be a sign that somebody was getting paid (rather than graded) per word.

Content
As you read through a completed assignment, do you notice a voluntary broadening of the research subject? You know exactly what concepts and ideas are breached in class or in the course texts. A student who volunteers a much broader and more expansive discussion on the subject than that which is provided in course materials is probably not doing this for the love of knowledge. What may look like extra effort might simply be an outsider's perspective. At the risk of sounding cynical, if extra effort is uncharacteristic of the student in question, it would be wise to scrutinize work that goes above and beyond.

Just as a ghostwritten assignment will stand out for what's there, it should also distinguish itself by what's not there. Your class has its own lingo, key terminology and overarching culture. This should be reflected in your students' work. Reward your students for using content from classroom discussions to support written assignments. No matter what a ghostwriter learns about a given subject, he or she won't be able to replicate the voice of one who has shared in this learning experience.

Reading the Signs
Of course, any one of these signs could just as easily be evidence of an honest but crappy student who is disengaged from the course material, doesn't show up to class and hasn't taken any notes. A ghostwritten paper may have a lot in common with a paper written by a less-than-stellar student.

Also, if so motivated, a ghostwriter could readily work around many of these telltale signs to produce a fairly undetectable paper. But most ghostwriters trade perfection for expedience, leaving behind many of these indicators in their wake.

Ultimately, the only real solution is to know your students well and, consequently, to have some sense of their basic linguistic and writing capabilities. The truth is, if you engage your students directly, encourage active classroom discussion and make an effort to know their individual strengths and weaknesses, these tips should help you to pinpoint differences between the voice of the person in front of you and that on the printed page.