Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login

Really interesting piece. In my post-college lull, I was once in a major financial bind and ended up doing a brief stint as an academic ghostwriter. I wrote term papers, not admission essays, for a ghostwriting service over a period of about 2 months. The work was easy and the money was good.

I felt pretty guilty doing the work at first, but I quickly realized that most of the assignments were so banal that I don't think the clients missed out on much learning value by outsourcing it. Why are college courses giving "major" assignments that can reasonably be completed in 5-10 hours by a smart person with no training in the field? If a college degree just means you banged out a bunch of garbage essays, as it does for many people based on the assignments I saw contracted out, should we really be outraged that some people are not doing the work themselves?

I would argue that the real scandal is not that some people are paying for help, but that many degree programs demand so little in terms of knowledge and thought that they can be easily gamed in this way. I would like to see fluffy degree programs ended, so that legitimate work in the humanities can continue without anyone wasting time and resources shuffling average Joes through the pipeline to middle class office jobs.

The most surprising discovery for me was that it seemed like after foreign language students the heaviest users of the service were education majors. No joke. I never figured out if the noticeably heavy use by education majors was a selection bias caused by the way the service was advertising itself, a sign of especially low ethics among education majors, or an indication that there might be a higher incidence of lifestyle factors (e.g. going to school while working full time) that made it difficult for them to crank out all the BS assignments required of them.

It's also interesting to me that the author of this piece seems to be an independent contractor whose business increased as she became known. Generally, I would expect ghostwriters to want to keep a low profile which makes it hard to be independent. I certainly didn't want anyone knowing how I was paying the bills when I was in it. And unless you are charging top-end rates, the overhead of marketing yourself and picking up envelopes of cash at Starbucks is probably an inefficient use of time. Both of these factors mean that a lot of people end up working for agencies that do the work of finding clients and managing payments, and also provide double blinding. So the writer never knows the identity of the client, and vice versa. It's a pretty good system overall.




I really appreciate your honesty and the knowledge you shared here, but I fear your rationalizations about why what you did is not unethical are just that - rationalizations. It's wrong to do others work for them and let them represent it as their own, no matter how mundane the subject matter. It lets them receive qualifications that they didn't earn and others who want those qualifications in competition with them, do not receive them. It might just be a mundane 10 hour essay, but that person may not have had the time management skills, writing skills, or will to do it and therefore should not have received the marks that he did. On the other hand, if you didn't do it, somebody else would - but again that's a rationalization!


"It's wrong to do others work for them and let them represent it as their own"

which is what I do in my everyday job. And I am not shadow-writing, I am a consultant...Writing ideas that superiors represent as their own, or clients do. I guess this is capitalism, life or something. And someone not worth it has to be promoted before I do, as in the author's case someone has to be admitted for her to live.


Your ideas and work product are the ideas and work product of the organization, which your superiors represent... different kettle of fish.


I had a friend who got her degree from UC Berkeley, and maybe wrote 5-10% of her work, she had other people (Friends, Lovers, colleagues) write all the others - she was a master of manipulation.

Who is to say that the valuable skill she developed wasn't her delegation and management skills, and that those were far more important in the long term than her ability to wax poetically about Plato's Republic?

The fact that she had to write that 5-10%, and do the occasional in class essay, that she did okay in, suggests that not writing the other 90-95% didn't seem to negatively impact her, "Learning Experience."

What I find particularly humorous, of course, is that all these random people, none of whom had taken any of the course work, or background that she presumably had, and many of them without college degrees, were capable of whipping out a paper with a day or two of research (under her guidance, and with a bit of her editing and supplying of facts) that passed muster at Berkeley.


>> Who is to say that the valuable skill she developed wasn't her delegation and management skills, and that those were far more important in the long term than her ability to wax poetically about Plato's Republic?

Nobody. It's likely a highly useful skill. However she should not have a degree as she didn't do the work.

It's pretty simple.


True. But the question is, if she is able to get the degree easily with skills the degree is not meant to require, is there something wrong with the degree itself? If there was a sysadmin certification you could pass with knowledge of cooking and a little luck then the certification is flawed. Of course there are always ways to game any system, but it shouldn't be quite so easy. If a reasonably intelligent person who is good at writing can do the work required to get a degree given a few weeks and internet access, then the degree probably needs to be reworked.


>> But the question is, if she is able to get the degree easily with skills the degree is not meant to require, is there something wrong with the degree itself?

Nope. While the people running the degree should take reasonable precautions, it's not on them to entirely prevent people abusing the system. They're running a course, not trying to be the police.

>> Of course there are always ways to game any system, but it shouldn't be quite so easy.

Manipulating multiple people into doing 90% of your work for you over several years is not exactly entry-level cheating.

>> If a reasonably intelligent person who is good at writing can do the work required to get a degree given a few weeks and internet access, then the degree probably needs to be reworked.

I would agree. It doesn't sound much like that happened here though.


Management and manipulation are not the same, although the successful management may require some manipulation. Good managers do more then just manipulate a bunch of people into doing managers work. I have seen managers like that and they are useless to organization. They just suck up money and time, although they personally may be doing good. We do not want the schools to produce more people like that.


I went to Georgia Tech, which is considered a difficult school (though I personally believe it is not as tough as Berkeley). The most difficult part was that you had exams and assignments in several subjects at once. Life would have been really easy if we had just one class per semester; most of the individual papers weren't extraordinarily difficult. A couple of days research sounds reasonable for about 50% of the assignments I wrote, but you'd be shocked to see the dip in quality if you can only find 2 hours to spend on it instead.


This is different from any university how?


I think his point is that the "master of manipulation" at Berkeley was able to get satisfactory work from people who didn't even have a college degree only because they didn't have enough to simultaneously work on multiple assignments (and could therefore dedicate a lot of time to one assignment). So the difference between one of them and a good college student is just the throughput, rather than a fundamental difference in the ability to complete the assignment in the first place.

However, I don't agree with that comparison in one respect - you typically have plenty of flexibility in college with regards to when you actually complete the assignment. You get it weeks in advance, allowing you to plan things out meticulously, if you're that sort of person.

And this is true - I remember people from college like this. They didn't have the raw brainpower or intelligence that you might expect of a typical high achieving student, but they made up for it with superior time management skills and perennial self discipline.


How did it turn our for her? Is that strategy working for her after college as well?


Good question. She has a degree from Cal., so that opens doors for her. Last I checked she was VP of marketing for a chain of Valero gas stations in California. Much of her work seems to consist of negotiating large sums of money from various vendors for placing their products/refrigerators at key locations in their stores. It's astonishing what a generic-brand ice-cream vendor will pay a gas station to replace Hagen Daz with their brand of ice-cream.

I've watched her at work, and really, it seems like she's mostly an excel jockey who dresses well, drives a nice vehicle and takes a lot of meetings with vendors.

Honestly - It's not clear to me that she couldn't have done exactly the same thing without her degree - she got a B.S. in Conservation and Resource studies. What she's doing now seems entirely unrelated.


You've pretty much identified her with this description. Did you mean to?


It's a classic sign of sociopathy, so at a guess she's either a CEO or in prison.


Sounds like she will do well in Management to me.


People belong in organisations, have roles in organisations, but also act within organisations and with reference to their organisations. The assertion of representation is not always valid, and I am sure many people get the context of what I am suggesting here. Now, in the admissions process of the example, an organisation (ad-hoc but valid) is also present and the paying applicant represents the financial relationship they built with their shadow writer. Why is the ethical context different when we consider mystic, gargantuan organisations than when we consider rich, clueless teenagers?


> Writing ideas that superiors represent as their own, or clients do.

If they actually do that, it'd be considered unethical. While specific credit isn't always given to the originator of an idea, superiors shouldn't pretend they actually had the idea. In many organizations, explicitly passing off an idea as your own would be a pretty serious offense.


No, it'd be business as usual. It is exactly how things are expected to work in industry. Industry is not academia, and crediting the originator of the idea is not a concern. Especially when it makes you look bad (why couldn't you come up with this? etc.)


I don't know what you mean by "industry." I don't think there are many generalizations that hold true between, say, government contractors and internet startups. Also, many companies have their own cultures - deliberately so.


>It'd be considered unethical

There's a big difference between passing someone's idea off as your own, and allowing someone to pass an idea off as their own.

I guess I'm considered "unethical" around these parts, but I stand firmly in the court that the buyer may have ethical issues, but certainly not the seller.


It's probably fair if those degrees / professions which are based on bullshit essays have a lot of bullshit graduates / good-looking applicants.

(Yes I'm a bit bitter about high school english courses and college admissions processes favouring good bullshitters. I was still accepted to a good engineering school and had good success job hunting by demonstrating my skills in-person, so it ended well for me anyway.)


It's okay to point fingers at unethical behavior. It's not okay to do it that selectively.

As someone reading about this from the other side of the Atlantic, what I'm seeing is an entire system that's corrupt from the top down, with the sort of crazily ridiculous levels of corruption I'm used to reading about in the most dysfunctional of Third World dictatorships. Frankly, unless radical changes are made, I wouldn't be optimistic about how long a society like that can keep coasting along on the momentum of past glory. Ghostwritten essays are the least of the bad behavior generated by the system that creates such terrible incentives.

If you want to call out the unethical behavior of the ghostwriters, fine, but if you want to have a leg to stand on in doing so, do it in the context of also calling out the rotten system that creates their jobs.


> It's wrong to do others work for them and let them represent it as their own

This is an intricate topic. On what grounds do you claim this to be wrong? What is the alternative and why is it so much better?

> It lets them receive qualifications that they didn't earn and others who want those qualifications in competition with them, do not receive them.

You are mistaken here. From what I read in the article it seems these admissions essays have little to do with actually picking out the people most qualified for the positions, but rather the people that can hit the reviewers' emotions the hardest.

This is an inadequate system to begin with. Any fault should be placed on the people in charge of the system rather than the individuals trying to wiggle their way through it.

Frakly, I'm disgusted by how our society treats people sometimes.. "You have to be timid yet idealistic, ambitious yet giving, and reserved yet honest" What is this crap? Why can't we let people be what they are? How is this any better than discrimating based on physical properties?

Why should anyone care about anything more than aplicants being honest, faithful/conscientious and qualified?!

> It might just be a mundane 10 hour essay, but that person may not have had the time management skills, writing skills, or will to do it and therefore should not have received the marks that he did

All qualifications required for the titles earned will (or at least should) be taught to the students during the course of their studies. If they lack the time management skills necessary for the degree, the evaluation of their abilities during the course of the studies should make sure they eventually fail. If the students find ways to offset their limitations, then I fail to see any issue. Don't we all have limitations that we eventually need to find ways around?

If they don't find ways around their limitations, and the system still awards them a degree, the blame still lies on the system.

Humans are fallible individuals, and only so much can be done about that. It is processes that should be engineered to perfection, in order to guide the people within them towards making the right choices. Not the other way round.


It's not either/or. They could both be in the wrong here:

- It's wrong to help others pass off someone else's work as their own.

- It's wrong to promote a field or degree program that's so shallow that this kind of thing even works.


Security is up to the grantor of the certification. It really can't be any other way. Asking students to be ethical is worthwhile, but it's sort of like the pull-out method of contraception - just not very effective.


You are mistaking security and ethics. Yes, it is up to the university to make sure that people aren't cheating. No, that it no way makes it ethical to cheat.


>Security is up to the grantor of the certification.

I'm not exactly sure what you're replying to. I didn't say anything about security - I simply was making the point that participation in this effort is largely unethical.


I see, I was confused about your point. I jumped to the conclusion that you were arguing a qualification implied an ethical standard.


What is your ethical opinion on paid tutors?


> Why are college courses giving "major" assignments that can reasonably be completed in 5-10 hours by a smart person with no training in the field?

Because that's precisely the point of a liberal arts or humanities education: to make you able to look at a new field with a modicum of critical thinking & intelligence.

Within the humanities, it is largely irrelevant post-grad what field you actually studied since actually working in that field (usually the only humanities jobs are in academia) means post-grad study. Instead, that field provides a framework for you to learn how to acquire, analyze, and summarize knowledge.

Hence, it's absolutely expected that any educated adult should have no problem writing in an unrelated humanities field, because they've already gone through the system.

This of course doesn't mean a random person can easily write such an essay (hence the demand for ghostwriting services). Many of my high school peers would've flunked out of even a basic college course. Hence, despite its apparent tedium, college does provide an important certification/funnel—even for mid-level office jobs, whose chief qualification is reading and synethsizing reports.

I do hope you understand how it's unethical to aid and abet people in cheating their way through college. This does a disservice to them (they likely won't learn the necessary writing/analysis skills for the workplace), to employers (they might be hiring incompetent writers), and to society (by credentialing the wrong people, potentially driving out smarter/more ethical people). It's ethics 101 that claiming someone else's work as your own is wrong.

> the heaviest users of the service were education majors.

I sadly suspect that has something to do with class dynamics. Education is not very prestigious and (based solely on the ads I see in the subway) is one of the fields (together with "business administration," "IT management", etc.) targeted at low-income/low-ability people who probably don't belong in college at all.


> Hence, it's absolutely expected that any educated adult should have no problem writing in an unrelated humanities field, because they've already gone through the system.

It's also part of the reason most reporting on technical fields is so horrible.


> It's also part of the reason most reporting on technical fields is so horrible.

Indeed. Your humanities degree is enough to understand the basics of economics, politics, etc. — but not compilers.

Unfortunately, when technical people do the writing it rarely ends up much better (since most were never taught how to effectively synthesize ideas for a general audience). Hence why I wish more technical programs had larger disciplinary and liberal arts components.


I assume it's not enough to understand the basics of economics or politics either. Everyone I know who is an expert or professional says that mainstream journalism generally makes a mess of their field. As a computer programmer, I know this is true of for things like computer security. I have heard it's true from chemists, astronomers, educators, mathematicians, biologists, and even automobile hobbyists. I generally operate under the assumption that it's true for every field.


> I assume it's not enough to understand the basics of economics or politics either.

I have some background in econ (my college major) and most mainstream reporting is passable—it's not great, but it at least attempts to have some understanding, as opposed to the mainstream approach to technology (it's basically magic).

Econ, politics, etc. are still in the humanities and many journalism majors will have some GenEd requirements to take those courses. Yet there's zero expectation or requirement of basic technical literacy.

Yes, journalism usually lacks depth and experts from all fields will find something to quibble with. But the understanding gap is much worse in STEM fields because they're kept so far apart from the humanities.


> Unfortunately, when technical people do the writing it rarely ends up much better (since most were never taught how to effectively synthesize ideas for a general audience). Hence why I wish more technical programs had larger disciplinary and liberal arts components.

Complete agreement, but there's a paradox here. On the one hand, it would be nice to have journalists able to write for a general audience but also technically knowledgeable enough to avoid most of the common errors journalists make.

On the other is the fact that a student able to absorb technical material sufficient to make him or her a serious journalist, would be strongly motivated to change majors, because of the much higher status and rank of any technical major compared to journalism.

It's why there are so few technically adept college professors -- most who actually understand their subjects have long since jumped ship and are working for Google/Facebook/etc.


> The most surprising discovery for me was that it seemed like after foreign language students the heaviest users of the service were education majors. No joke. I never figured out if the noticeably heavy use by education majors was a selection bias caused by the way the service was advertising itself, a sign of especially low ethics among education majors, or an indication that there might be a higher incidence of lifestyle factors (e.g. going to school while working full time) that made it difficult for them to crank out all the BS assignments required of them.

Not a huge mystery here; check the average GRE scores by major here (2001-2004, but the general effect is well documented): http://www.ncsu.edu/chass/philo/GRE%20Scores%20by%20Intended... . Data provided is average GRE score in Verbal, Quantitative, and writing sample, for 50 majors. Here are #s 41-50 in verbal, along with some reference points:

     1. Philosophy (589)
    25. Business - Bank. and Fin. (476)
    41. Engineering - Industrial  (440)
    42. Business - Administration
    43. Education - other (437)
    44.  Home Economics [?!]
    45. Education - Special (432)
    46. Education - Counseling (428)
    47. Social Work
    48. Education - Administration (427)
    49. Education - Early Childhood (418)
    50. Business - Accounting (415)
Here are the same in Quantitative:

     1. Physics/Astronomy (738)
    25. Education - Secondary (577)
    41. Education - other (531)
    42. Social Sciences - other
    43. Education - Elementary (527)
    44. Education - Administration (523)
    45. Public Administration
    46. Education - Special (502)
    47. Education - Counseling (500)
    48. Home Economics
    49. Education - Early Childhood (495)
    50. Social Work (468)
There are four education majors which don't make the bottom 20% cutoff: Education - Secondary, Education - Higher, "Education - Curr. & Instr.", and "Education - Eval. & Res.". They hold ranks 21, 30, 32, 37 (V) and 25, 34, 35, 39 (Q). So to sum up -- it's a "lifestyle" factor; it's harder for education majors to crank out their assignments because, compared to other students, they're not very smart. What you're seeing is not lesser ethics but greater need.


That's really sad when you think about it. It implies, on average, our minimum viable college students go into education. Not our best and brightest. Who ends up being the majority of the people teaching our children? Probably those same people.


I agree this is sad. On the other hand however one needs to consider how much is really lost this way.

Given the inefficiency/pointlessness of much of the effort involved in compulsory education, I'm not sure better teachers would be able to significantly improve the system. We need a structural change here first, and only then start to look around for brigther people. Otherwise, any bright people that may enter the system, will eventually be frustrated, give up, and in the end achieve results (in the field) that are no better than those of the borderline-acceptable teachers.


> We need a structural change here first, and only then start to look around for brighter people.

If you do things this way, the effectiveness of the current people is likely to suffer (in pretty much any area, not education specifically).


Another way to put it, is the problem is located in the area of "Education - Administration" not front line teachers.


Yup, it's an acknowledge problem (though most politicians avoid coming out an admitting that most teachers aren't very bright). Considering where education falls in the pay spectrum for college graduates (near the bottom), it should be no surprise that our "best and brightest" go in to tech, finance, and consulting—never education.


This. I love working with students (am a TA while doing my grad degree in engineering) and volunteered with elementary and middle school children in the past, but unless you can get close to my engineering salary (at least 100k/year) I'm not going to switch to teaching as a career.


My mother was an elementary school teacher during the depression, with only a "normal school" education, and after the war, and taking time out to raise us kids, she was unable to return to teaching, and ended up as secretary to the director of special education in a suburban school district. She wrote all his letters for him, because he seemed to be unable to compose a coherent paragraph, even though he had an Ed.D.


> I would like to see fluffy degree programs ended, so that legitimate work in the humanities can continue without anyone wasting time...

> ... the heaviest users of the service were education majors..

Aren't you contributing to the fluffy education problem by creating fluffy educators?


First, thanks for bringing this perspective, even if unpopular.

Why are college courses giving "major" assignments that can reasonably be completed in 5-10 hours by a smart person with no training in the field?

Without knowing the assignment, it's because the college students are still growing up. A lot of things that are hard for high school and college students are easy for smart adults. Part of that is because the college students haven't ever done them before and don't know what they can do.

Or maybe the assignments are just crap. That could 100% be true.


It's a pretty broken system overall but that's no excuse for your behavior. Just because a building is dilapidated is no excuse to spray it with graffiti or throw rocks at the windows. Similarly, some folks have the mentality that when developing if the build is already broken it's fine to checkin anything. The reality is that you're just making things worse but you have a convenient cover to hide behind, just like looting during a natural disaster.


Can give you some example topics for the essays? Not having visited college in the US, I find it hard to imagine what these assignments look like.

Here, you are usually expected to write a paper based on multiple recent papers on a current topic.


I'm sure you're aware of this, but the high demand from foreign language students is likely because US colleges often have a foreign language requirement. At my college it was four semesters, which is pretty common.

The effect is that you get a slew of totally unmotivated, clueless students who slow things down for everyone else. Spanish especially, since it's the "easy" foreign language for English speakers, was overloaded with students who had no desire to be there, at least until you made it to the 5th semester and beyond classes.


> I'm sure you're aware of this, but the high demand from foreign language students is likely because US colleges often have a foreign language requirement.

I read that to mean foreign nationals (non-native English speakers), not students studying foreign languages (which rarely have long essays for introductory courses). That people with poor English skills would use ghostwriting services (like the article author's clients) seems pretty intuitive.


Oh, I suppose that could be read either way but given the context you're probably right. Thanks!


>>I would expect ghostwriters to want to keep a low profile

Nope, but you would expect them not to reveal their clients.




Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact

Search: