Magazine article The Washington Monthly

Memoirs of an Academic Fraudster: Inside the Shadowy Business of Ghostwriting College Students' Papers

Magazine article The Washington Monthly

Memoirs of an Academic Fraudster: Inside the Shadowy Business of Ghostwriting College Students' Papers

Article excerpt

The Shadow Scholar: How I Made a Living Helping College Kids Cheat

by Dave Tomar

Bloomsbury, 272 pp.


Academic paper mills--the companies that write papers for students--don't really advertise. One doesn't see their services in the backs of magazines or populating the margins of Web pages. If such companies market at all, it's frequently done using spam text, with links, in the comments section of Web sites read by college students. On one such site recently, for example, "SolisSharon26" posted the following item:

   Young people who are studying in the universities feel necessity
   for professional writing online because usually they do not have
   enough time so that deal with there assignments by themselves.
   Browse the site and you will find the firm which crew is accessible
   24/7 to order essay.

I'm not sure I'd trust people who write like this with my credit card number, much less to take care of my Intro to American Government term paper. But there are more professional ads like this all over the Internet, where a cheating student can follow the link provided, send a fee, and in a few hours or days receive a paper. It's pretty easy to picture the stressed-out or lazy students who buy this stuff. It's harder to imagine the kind of people who make their living producing it.

This world became a little less shadowy when, on November z2, 20zo, the Chronicle of Higher Education ran an article, "The Shadow Scholar," in which a writer using the pseudonym Ed Dante wrote that he'd been turning out American college students' essays for the last decade. Dante had written some 5,000 papers. "I work at a company that generates tens of thousands of dollars a month creating essays based on ... instructions provided by cheating students. On any day, I am working on upward of 20 assignments. You've never heard of me," he explained, "but there's a good chance that you've read some of my work." At least if you are a professor.

A few readers thought Ed Dante was made up. One blogger wrote that the Chronicle piece, which became the publication's most-read article, seemed to have been written by someone "skilled in the art of literary hoaxes." In fact, he was very much a real person. Meet Dave Tomar, freelance journalist, Rutgers graduate, and Phillies fan.

Tomar used the Chronicle article as the basis for his new book, The Shadow Scholar: How I Made a Living Helping College Kids Cheat, the story of his life as an academic fraudster. Tomar wrote every day, and he wrote about anything. He wrote about the policies of the Jackson administration. He wrote lesson plans for gym teachers. He produced papers on cancer cell structure and how to develop appropriate study skills in elementary school children. He even wrote love poems and once helped someone edit her profile on Match. com. He'd do these pieces one right after another, routinely churning out five or six papers a day.

What could have been a depressing tale becomes, in Tomar's hands, a funny and charming read. He writes of one Thanksgiving spent with a girlfriend's family: through out the meal, his girlfriend's father berated him for helping people cheat; the next week, the girl's mother called Tomar to ask him to write a paper for a friend's daughter. Then there was the time he wrote an entire doctoral dissertation, 160 pages, for a psychology program. The graduate student gave him $4,000 and one page of instructions. It was, says Tomar, "like buying a used car on the specifications that it had four wheels and was blue."

At a time when his friends were moving into condos and going to conferences and working at jobs with cubicles and 401(k) plans, Tomar was living a very different life:

   On a romantic getaway, I sneak in a last-minute assignment while
   the lady gets dressed for dinner. When I ride the bus, I type
   furiously while apologizing to those around me for my flying
   elbows. … 
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