Episode 015: Garret Merriam


The Score

September 8, 2023

In recent years, it seems that the radio dial on ethics is moving up and down the spectrum. Ethical behavior, intentional or not, is at the root of cheating. This episode of The Score explores how our guest, Garret Merriam (@SisyphusRedemed), an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Sacramento State University in California, responded to widespread cheating on a final exam in his Introduction to Ethics course.

Please contact us if you would like the full transcript. 

Show Notes

High points of the conversation follow. Note: Removal of filler words and minor edits have been made for clarity.

Kathryn Baron (01:33): Would you tell us what happened in your Intro to Ethics class?

Garret Merriam (01:42): I came to suspect that some students in my class might’ve been cheating on my final by Googling the answers on the final. I teach a course that’s fully online, has almost a hundred students, and with that much material, that many students going on, it simply isn’t possible for me to create novel finals every semester, as much as I would like to do that. I reuse large portions, though never the entire thing, of my final. And so, I found that by Googling the questions on my final, you could come up with a student who had uploaded a copy of the final with many of the correct answers to the questions.

I made the request of the website, called Quizlet, that they take it down, and I was very pleasantly surprised that they did so promptly and quickly. I was under the impression, I was assuming that they weren’t going to respond, but they did. I was very grateful for that, very professional of them on their side of things.

And then after that, a part of me, perhaps somewhat of a devious part, I suppose, decided to run a little experiment. Part of my research is in experimental philosophy, and I like running experiments, and so I decided to see what would happen if I uploaded a copy of my final with the right questions but the wrong answers.

Garret Merriam (03:01):…After the final was complete, I ran a statistical analysis and found out that approximately 40 of the 96 students cheated on the final.

Garret Merriam (3:35): And this understandably created a bit of havoc both for me, for my students, for my department, and a number of people who became a part of this conversation going forwards.

Kathryn Baron (03:47): When you learned that a student had put the test up on Quizlet, how did you know that the students in your current class had copied it?

Garret Merriam (03:54): What initially led me to be suspicious was a mistake that I had made earlier in the semester. Every week, I upload a reading and a reading quiz, and the idea is they do the reading, and they take the reading quiz just to make sure to put a little pressure on them to incentivize them to actually do the reading. And one week I neglected to upload the reading, but did upload the reading quiz, and then a few hours later I realized my mistake and I went, and I uploaded the reading. But when doing so, I noticed that some of the students had already taken the reading quiz and had gotten a perfect score on it.

Garret Merriam (04:37):….That was hardly proof of anything, but it was enough to make me suspicious. It was enough to make me concerned that something would’ve been going on. So, I Googled those quiz questions, and sure enough, I found the copy of them on Quizlet.

Kathryn Baron (05:49): I read that you contacted the students suspected of cheating. How did that go?

Garret Merriam (6:04):…I put together sort of a blank form letter in which I contacted them and said that I have reason to believe that they had cheated on the final and a few more details without tipping my hand completely. And I sent that out to all of the suspected students.

And somewhere in the ballpark of about two thirds of them got back to me right away and confessed and said that yes, they had cheated, they were apologetic, some of them made excuses, others just asked for understanding and forgiveness, and about one third of them denied it.

And then about half of that third then turned around within 24 hours and even before I got back to them and said, “Okay, you know what? I actually, no, I changed my mind. I’m going to confess.” So, all of this very much reassured my confidence that my method was working here. And of the remainders, some of them, as far as I know to this day, still insist on their innocence. I’d handed things over to the administration at my university.

Kathryn Baron (07:59): Do you have any input into what action the university takes?

Garret Merriam (08:03): I get to determine the penalty as far as my class is concerned. All of the students who did this at the very least got an F on the final.

Kathryn Baron (10:33): I have heard of instances where some professors think, “Well, that would never happen in my class,” and I’m wondering if you received any feedback like that, sort of implying that you must have done something not quite right as a teacher for students to cheat.

Garret Merriam (10:49): It’s certainly tempting to think, and obviously there is some truth to that. The room for this kind of thing is going to vary depending on a lot of details about a particular instructor’s class. To take the most obvious example, if you’re not reusing material like I was, then you’re not going to be encountering this particular problem.

While none of my colleagues gave that particular response, if there’s anyone out there listening, I can certainly imagine that that might be a justified response. However, at the same time, there can be a kind of certain amount of arrogance and maybe laziness that might come along with that too, to think that the problem is something specific about the individual instructor, in this case me, rather than something that is a little bit more systemic.

Again, I want to give credit to professors and other instructors who have found ways to effectively discourage cheating, but I would also say you shouldn’t rest on your laurels and recognize that it is, I think, a best practice to double-check your methods and your sources and to find out in any way you can, whether or not there actually is academic dishonesty going on. You should not simply assume that you are one of the fairly small percentage of instructors who has managed to stamp out academic dishonesty in their ranks completely.

Garret Merriam (12:13): The irony of cheating on an ethics final is something that was not lost on me, and I tried to impose that recognition on all the students who I communicated with as well.

Kathryn Baron (12:21): You did reach out to other colleagues and peers around the country on the online philosophy journal called the Daily Nous, that’s spelled N-O-U-S, which I read is ancient Greek for intellect or understanding. What feedback were you looking for and did you get it?

Garret Merriam (12:38): It actually started on Twitter. I have a fairly modest Twitter presence, but a lot of fellow philosophers follow me, and I follow them. And so I post about the experience and Twitter being Twitter, everything was condensed and a lot of detail was washed out, so I think a lot of people didn’t possibly fully understand exactly what I did and what my reaction to it was. So, someone with a larger following retweeted it with criticism and a lot of people started to jump on and accused me of engaging in dishonesty myself. The most common criticism is a kind of entrapment, that I encouraged or enabled students to cheat and then punished them for doing so.

Garret Merriam (14:07): I wanted to try to filter the audience down to people who at least had some experience with the kind of thing I was talking about.

…It became a very, very populous discussion, which I was fascinated to participate in, and the results were somewhat mixed. I think a lot of the people, once they got the full picture, recognized that I hadn’t engaged in anything majorly morally problematic, and in particular the charge of entrapment was ill-placed. At the same time, several people did criticize, and I think quite fairly, some of the particular ways I went about it, acknowledging that there was things that I could have done better. And I took a lot of that to heart and plan on trying to incorporate some of those criticisms and some of those pieces of advice going forward…

Kathryn Baron (15:06): I’m curious about what parts of the plan do you think were flawed and what did you decide to do differently going forward? And I guess this could be a time to bring in that you actually did try this again with a summer school class. What was different?

Garret Merriam (15:41): For starters, one thing which I did not realize when I reached out to these students and accused them of cheating was that for many of these students, websites like Quizlet are not thought of as forms of academic dishonesty, but just tools that students can use on the internet to study. Several of my students’ claims, and I have no reason not to believe them, that they were just looking for study guides.

Garret Merriam (16:48): To preempt that, I made a change to the syllabus, the academic dishonesty section of the syllabus, and I had a small, recorded lecture on academic honesty, and I made it explicit that the use of websites like Quizlet were not acceptable for the purposes of this class. There may be, and I think there probably are, legitimate uses for websites like that, but I told my students that especially when it comes to the final, all that they need is the material that I hand them and any notes that they have taken over the course of the semester. And that if they start looking online, they risk the possibility of coming across material which qualifies as academically dishonest.

I also, in addition to that, put two new questions at the start of the final. The very first one was whether or not using websites like Quizlet qualified as academic dishonesty and what should happen to students who cheat on their ethics final.

Garret Merriam (18:00):  I deployed this new material for my summer session, which had a total of 29 students. Every single student got those first two questions on the final right, so they were paying enough attention to follow through on that. But in spite of this, I still had three students who cheated, three students who looked up the Quizlet and found it. So that’s an improvement on some metrics. I fell from about 40% down to about 10%, so that’s encouraging. At the same time, again, I reached out to these three students, and I genuinely tried to understand, I did everything I could to impress upon them that using these resources qualified as academic dishonesty. I tried to get their buy-in to say they wouldn’t do this. And in spite of that, three students still did.

Kathryn Baron (23:30): Do you feel that cheating is getting the attention of the wider higher ed community that it deserves? Are there discussions underway in universities, professional associations, and accrediting agencies to identify steps that colleges and universities can take?

Garret Merriam (23:47): Obviously, the 900-pound elephant in the room for academic honesty is large language models like ChatGPT. That has been getting a tremendous amount of attention, and I think rightfully so. I have my students write essays, and I’ve been concerned about that. There are tools and countermeasures to try to check for that, but they’re far from perfectly reliable. It just so happened that this particular instance is not one that had anything to do with artificial intelligence. This was just standard Google and academic websites like Quizlet. I do think that there should be more discussion about websites like that, in no small part just so professors could be more informed about it. Again, I had the assumption, which is no doubt true for some of these websites, that like you said, that it’s a purely for-profit, that they will pay students with credits or something like that for turning in and sharing information.

Garret Merriam (25:27 )…Students are very, very internet savvy. And while I consider myself reasonably internet savvy myself, I know a lot of my colleagues are a little bit older than I am, and even the younger ones aren’t always as online and as plugged in, and even those who are, aren’t always aware of all the possible resources out there that students can use to cheat. So, a broader conversation amongst academia and amongst professional teachers, again, if for no other reason than to draw awareness to these resources, I think is something that is important.

Episode 014: Pete Van Dyke


The Score

July 24, 2023

In this episode, we’re expanding the purview to the integrity of industry certification exams. To discuss this, our guest is Pete Van Dyke, the Certification Security Program Manager at Amazon Web Services, the office responsible for minimizing cheating among people taking professional certification exams. He has been working test security for about 15 years. Before that, he was in law enforcement in Chicago.

Please contact us if you would like the full transcript. 

Show Notes

High points of the conversation follow.

Kathryn Baron (01:57): Would you describe what you and your office do?

Pete Van Dyke (02:00): We divide our time among three different activities. One is looking at people that steal our exam content and post that online or charge money for that online. Those are known as brain dump websites. You’ll probably hear me talk about that a couple more times today. The second thing that we do is we look at what are known as proxy testers. So, individuals or organizations that take exams for candidates charge them a fee for that, and then through remote control of the computer screens take an exam for them. And then the third thing that our team works on are individuals who misbehave during their exams. So, whether that’s accessing a cell phone or hidden notes or having a third-party present… 

Kathryn Baron (07:16): If I’m taking one of these exams, what can I expect before I’m cleared to actually begin the test?

Pete Van Dyke (07:22): Well, we present our exams in two different formats. One is at an in-person test center. So, we have literally thousands of in-person test centers all across the globe. If you were to take an in-person exam, you would schedule that. You would go in and there’s a live proctor who would observe you as you take your exam but once COVID hit, the second modality for us, which is online proctored exams became very popular. And an online proctor exam, you don’t have to go to a test center. You can take that right in the confines of your own home, and you don’t have to interact with people live. What happens for online proctoring is that there is an online proctor located somewhere else in the world who is observing up to 16 or 18 people taking in an exam at one time, and they make sure that they’re not misbehaving.

So, if you were to take an online proctored exam, there’s an entire formal check-in process. So, we verify that the government issue ID is the same person as the person taking the test. You don’t want someone who looks like me taking the test under the name of someone who looks like you, Kathryn. There’s a very detailed room scan by video to make sure that there aren’t any learning materials, that there aren’t any secondary computers or electronic devices, any note-taking materials, pens, paper et cetera in the area.

And then there’s also a systems check. So, the test delivery provider looks at that and sees what kind of programs are running in the background to make sure that there’s nothing that would allow a candidate to record the testing experience and then steal content from the actual exam.

Kathryn Baron (09:07): So, what have people done to try to trick the security measures? Are there any anecdotes that stand out for you?

Pete Van Dyke (09:15): It’s really limited only by creativity. So, for online proctored exams, because you don’t have a human being in the same room, people attempt to cheat that system in lots of different ways. They may try to record the session, either audio record or video record. They may surreptitiously have notes and access notes during the exam. It’s not unusual for someone to try and have a third person, a third-party individual in the room with them to help with the exam and indicate which questions have which answers. And we’ve seen evidence in the past of people using things like recording devices built into eyeglass frames or even using earbud type communicators so that someone can communicate with them what the correct answer is for items.

Perhaps one of the more interesting things that we’ve had is when someone takes an exam with a proxy tester, the proxy tester loads software on their machine that allows them to remote control, take control of the desktop as they’re using it. So, during that hour or hour-and-a-half that they’re taking the exam, the candidate pretends to be taking the exam while someone thousands of miles away is actually taking the exam for them.

One of the funnier instances that we’ve had of exam misbehavior, we had a candidate that actually fell asleep during his exam. His head was leaned over, and he was snoring very loudly for about a 10-to-15-minute period. Yet, his exam continued to move forward because the exam proxy tester didn’t realize that the candidate was sleeping, and he was just moving forward as had been planned.

Kathryn Baron (10:59): What are some of the less obvious red flags that the proctor will look for?

Pete Van Dyke (11:20): So, when you take this exam, you can see the webcam capture as it’s running to make sure that your face is completely visible, and your shoulders are visible. But if you were to place that just slightly outside, if you continuously look, say down into the right or down into the left, that would be an indicator that there might be something there that that candidate is using to cheat on the exam. Leaning partially off-screen would be the same type of violation or exiting the exam completely.

We don’t allow for breaks on our exam, even bathroom breaks. So obviously getting up and leaving for a minute or two and then coming back is a sign that there’s at least the very strong possibility that the candidate was accessing information that they weren’t allowed to have during the exam.

Kathryn Baron (13:53): Have security measures increased in recent years due to an increase in the products that enable cheating and the increase in online exams due to COVID?

Pete Van Dyke (14:53): As the pandemic continued, about a year-and-a-half, two years into it, we saw about 85% to 90% of our exams being taken via online proctoring and only 10% being taken in test centers. So that created a whole new environment for us. Obviously, if you don’t have someone standing in front of you, it’s easier to misbehave, it’s easier to try and hide things, and it’s easier to have another person in the room that’s hidden from camera view. So, we had to adapt to all of that. And the proxy testers are very, very sophisticated.

Kathryn Baron (15:40): Well, how organized are they, the proxy and all the other companies? Is it difficult to find them and maybe put them out of business or anything like that?

Pete Van Dyke (15:50): Well, the challenge for us, we’re a US-based company and a lot of the brain dump websites and a lot of the proxy testing organizations operate in countries outside of the United States. So, it then becomes very lengthy, very expensive and very difficult to pursue any type of legal action against these individuals in countries that may not even support that type of a lawsuit. So, it’s very challenging.

The proxy tester networks themselves work a lot like a multi-level marketing campaign. They advertise all over the web. So, if you’re on Facebook and a Facebook group about certification exams, it’s not unusual to see multiple posts a day with people offering to take exams for you. We’ve seen this on LinkedIn. We’ve seen it all over the place, even on Etsy, believe it or not, and eBay.

You have one level of their organization that is recruiting potential customers. You have another level that works with them and negotiates pricing and details, and then you have a very sophisticated technical side of their organization that actually makes the proxy test happen by taking over candidates’ computer screen and taking an exam for them. Industry-wide, we estimate that this is a multi-$100 million-a-year business. It’s not unusual for a proxy tester to charge as much as $1,200 above and beyond the cost of an exam for someone to have an exam taken for them.

Kathryn Baron (17:19): You were talking about stealing the test questions earlier, and how do people do that? Is it that the people who are the proxies, they can take a screenshot of things because they’re not quite on the exam legitimately? Or how would that work?

Pete Van Dyke (17:36): Historically, prior to COVID and prior to the explosion of online proctored exams, there were really two ways that brain dump websites harvested exam content. One was to literally snag candidates that just finished taking an exam and say, “What do you remember from the exam? What are the questions that you remembered?” Another way was to work with a test center that was in cahoots with the proxy testing. So, the test center would allow someone to take photographs or to record a session where they took an exam and then sell that content to a brain dump website that would then publish it or sell it to others for a fee.

Kathryn Baron (19:07): What are some of the potential consequences to us, to the people who use different services in terms of our safety or the legitimacy of something that a person who cheated on an exam to get a job is responsible for?

Pete Van Dyke (19:32): Let’s imagine you come to me. I’m a proxy tester, and you want me to pass a Google certification exam for you. I charge you $500 plus the $300 it costs to take the test. I make arrangements and the first step of that is you have to give me control of your computer. I load software that surreptitiously allows me to control your machine during the exam. Through that process, I can load anything I want. It’s possible to load malware or spyware, all sorts of tracking information. So, within the industry, we’ve seen evidence of this happening, of people that thought they were just going to find a way around taking a certification exam that ended up having banking information and personal information like social security numbers and all of that stripped from their machines, et cetera.

And then if that were to happen to you, who do you report that to and who do you complain about? “Oh, well, yes. I was cheating on this exam, and I worked with this person who was from some country thousands of miles away, and I gave him complete access to my machine so that he could pass an exam for me. But in the process, he also stole some of my banking information.” I don’t see that part of the process happening very frequently.

Kathryn Baron (20:50): What would be the potential impact in terms of maybe public safety, that type of thing?

Pete Van Dyke (20:56): In the IT field, it’s not quite the risk, but we also see these types of behaviors and people finding ways around taking the exam for things like nursing and doctor certification. So, if you were to imagine someone going through a two year or a four-year nursing program, they get to the point where they’re going to take a certification exam that certifies them as a nurse, and rather than demonstrating fairly that they have the knowledge and expertise necessary to be certified, they pay somebody else to take their exam. It’s pretty frightening to imagine that, because now that person can go ahead and get hired and the area that they were weakest on, maybe the ones that someone’s life depends on down the line.

Kathryn Baron (21:44): What about in the sector that you test for?

Pete Van Dyke (21:47): There are many areas of the world, many regions of the globe where a certification itself is enough to get a job, and if someone is able to land a job because of a false certification, whatever it is that they work on could be affected.

Kathryn Baron (23:59): What is it that keeps you in this job that you find most interesting about it?

Pete Van Dyke (24:13): It takes about nine to 12 months to fully develop a brand-new certification exam. Hundreds of people are involved. There are subject matter experts at all different levels that are responsible for determining what that certification exam should look like, what kind of questions should be contained that evaluate each and every one of those questions to make sure that they’re fair, that they’re valid, and they’re legally defensible.

So, tens of thousands of dollars, hundreds of hours are put into these exams, and then we discovered that people are stealing this content sometimes just a few weeks after it’s been published.

Episode 013: Dr. Roy Swift


The Score

June 2, 2023

This episode of The Score features Dr. Roy Swift, the Executive Director of Workcred, an affiliate of the American National Standards Institute. He also served as executive director of the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy. This appointment followed a 28-year career in the U.S. Army Medical Department, where in his last position, he was chief of the Army Medical Specialist Corps in the Army Surgeon General’s Office with policy responsibility for Army occupational therapists, physical therapists, dietitians, and physician assistants throughout the world. Host Kathryn Baron (@TchersPet) and Dr. Swift discuss the need for both the academic and business communities to work together to develop credentialed people who are successful both academically and in the workplace.

Please contact us if you would like the full transcript. 

Show Notes

High points of the conversation follow.

Kathryn Baron (7:22): I’m wondering then if that disconnect is perhaps part of what leads to academic integrity problems in college and the frustration that you mentioned students often have?

Dr. Roy Swift (07:34): I do think K-12 is the foundational component to success in post-secondary education, in academia and Higher Ed. I believe it is crucial to individuals being able to make the right choices. There are several issues in regards to the system and preparing success in the post-secondary system. One is helping people understand how to learn to be able to identify resources, to build self-confidence in people. There is our need to move to more of a competency-based approach in Higher Ed, that’s transparent and can signal to the work world or the government or whoever that what the person not only knows, but what the person can do. The current transcript is not helpful in this regard. And the reluctance of faculty to move to competency outcomes versus general course descriptions is problematic.

I feel the issue is that the competency approach does put more pressure on the faculty to produce what they say they are producing because it is more transparent, and the assessment tools have to be more precise. The other disconnect is the lack of employability skills. The college is not teaching the behaviors that are expected in the workplace. Something as simple as coming to class on time, participating in class and being an active learner and working in teams often are forgotten.

Kathryn Baron (10:36): You mentioned a paper in an earlier conversation we had that you co-led on the integration of credentials, and I’m wondering if you can just tell us what were the primary takeaways from that and were you at all surprised by anything that you found when you were doing that work?

Dr. Roy Swift (10:54): Yes. Recently, I participated with the Higher Learning Commission, which is one of the national accreditors of universities and colleges. And because they are very interested in looking at the whole issue of credentials and how credentials may be integrated into a higher education system, industry credentials in this regard. The title of the paper was Institutional Accreditation at the Crossroads Drivers for Change, and it had four main themes. One was at the landscape and pressures on Higher Ed, employers and accrediting bodies are going to be increasingly to produce a product that is able to function at higher levels probably because of all the technology that is going on today will have to produce a very different kind of individual. Most people think technology will run people out of jobs, but it really looks like that what is going to happen is that it’s going to force and put pressure on producing people with higher level of knowledge in the ideas of robotics and artificial intelligence.

Dr. Roy Swift (13:36): ….there are over 8,000 industry certifications right now. And every week they develop more and more industry certifications, and it is one in which they can be complimentary.

But unless we understand, like I said at the beginning, the credentialing system and how they may interface and complement one another, we are going to develop competing systems. Which may not be the best way of thinking about these various because each credential tends to have a lot of strengths. And so, we should use the strengths of each credential to be able to see how they can be integrated. Our particular group, Workcred, is looking about the embedding of certifications into degree pathways. We think the two can complement one another because certification is about competency assessment.

Dr. Roy Swift (17:14): So, people who are trying to design Higher Education need to take a more systems thinking about what is the work world telling them? What is the government telling them? What do students desire? What’s the environment that we should be doing? And so, we take it from the, let’s just say the national system to the state systems, to the academic systems, to the subsystems of provost, deans, faculty, students, and understanding how those layers exist. Unfortunately, too often the K-12 system, which we talked about as being the foundation, is not producing individuals that have the psychological ego strength to face many of the issues that students are facing. And that threat, I think, does cause students to do things that may be unethical, such as cheating.

Dr. Roy Swift (26:12): Well, I think the first step is building more precise learning outcomes, competencies, whatever word that people feel comfortable in using, because I think that many times, I hear students talk about the unknown, oh, I don’t know what he’s going to ask. I don’t know what the expectations are. Competency gives more structure to the student as to what the expectations are in this regard. Competency-based assessment is really a more straightforward method of evaluating whether a skill has been achieved. And the students feel more secure when they know what it is that is expected of them, expected in the course, and expected on the assessment.

Kathryn Baron (30:50): ….What are your thoughts on what can be done in the training and workforce development industry to minimize cheating or even to, I don’t know, curb the impetus to cheat itself?

Dr. Roy Swift (31:04): Well, I do think it’s important to go back to transparency, relevance, and competency. I would say those are three main elements that has to be looked at. I would go back to my thoughts about competency-based education. When it’s about competency, and you can repeat the assessment until you’ve achieved the level of competency. There’s less reason to cheat. Let’s say, okay, I failed. I’ll go back and relearn. That’s a skill that’s taught in the military. I used to teach at the Academy of Health Sciences. It’s called something different now in the army. But one of the things that always happens in the military is that teach, test, reteach, retest. And generally, students are given several times to be able to achieve it because the military believes it’s about competency.

It might take them two or three times that one person can do it on the first time, but it doesn’t mean that the person who took three times isn’t just as good with that competency. So, I think we have to take that sort of an attitude in Higher Ed, instead of this, wow, we’re going to fail you, and that’s it. There’s no other chance in this ring. And it sets up a more feeling of freedom to fail. And don’t we tell people we learn by our failures?

Episode 012: Dave Tomar


The Score

February 15, 2023

On this episode of The Score, we look at cheating from a different angle than we have before. Our guest is Dave Tomar (@dtomar) is an expert on cheating in higher education. From 2001 to 2010, Dave worked for a decade as an academic ghostwriter before bringing widespread attention to the thriving cheating industry with his viral 2010 article, “The Shadow Scholar.” He was a contract cheater. He wrote thousands of college essays, reports, and even master’s degree thesis. After a decade of putting words into other people’s work, Dave Tomar put the cheating life behind him. He’s since written two books about his experiences. His latest book, The Complete Guide to Contract Cheating in Higher Education, a comprehensive source on contract cheating in higher education released in June 2022. He is currently managing editor and senior content developer at Academic Influence.

Please contact us if you would like the full transcript.

Show Notes

High points of the conversation follow.

Dave Tomar (05:26): Well, I saw quickly that this type of service was popular with my classmates. But I had no idea how large the demand was, and when you start working for these companies, suddenly it’s not simply that you’re getting paid to write, it’s that you have more writing work than you can handle, which was a unique and exciting position for me to be in, honestly.

Dave Tomar (07:58): Yeah, it was a bit of a barter system as well on the college campuses. But no, the real difference was that while I was charging between $10 and $20 a page, both independently and while working for online companies, the online companies were charging twice that. I would get half of it, but that was the model for profitability. As an independent contractor, I would get half, they would get half, so I was essentially learning that I could have been charging twice as much on campus. However, it was worth splitting the proceeds because the work was so plentiful.

Kathryn Baron (09:19): About what did you earn a year?

Dave Tomar (09:21): I probably started when I went full-time earning just a little over $30,000, which so you know, was a raise from my legitimate job. By the end, bear in mind, inflation now applies, but this was 2010, I think I earned about $66,000 in my peak year.

Kathryn Baron (10:00): Do you have any sense of how many independent contractors like yourself there are working for these companies?

Dave Tomar (10:07): Certainly thousands. Every company that I’ve worked for has a different size pool. Some of them, you could tell was a couple of dozen, but others were sort of these broad online syndicates where when you get a sense of the surface level of this industry, there are big faces looking out to customers, but there maybe 20 of them affiliated with the same writing pool. The back door that I worked in for one company was a name that you would never see in public, but they pulled in assignments from a couple of dozen different outlets that are pretty well-known, and so that was a pool of hundreds. Now, when you get to the real essay mills, which are some of the lower-grade ones that might be operating overseas with even fewer rules, they could be working with stables of thousands.

Dave Tomar (11:11): The smaller companies would actually reach out to you with individual assignments. They’d say, “You interested in this one? You interested in this one?”, which is a bit of a clunky model, but I certainly have worked that way. The best companies that I have worked for use an automated system. You go onto a page like cheat.com and you order your assignment, and it automatically shows up on a board that I and hundreds of other writers have access to. As soon as it shows up, it tells me when it’s due, what it’s about, what the college level/graduate level is, and how much I’m going to get paid to do it, and you click the right button, and it goes into your box and you are responsible for it. From there, have it done by the deadline.

Dave Tomar (16:19): Now, this one’s really important, and I have to pull attention to the fact that when I read the typos and the grammatical errors in there, I don’t do so to mock this student, I do so to point out that this is a master’s-level student, and this is how their written communication appears. You can’t help but look at that email and say, “This person really lacks the academic qualifications to write the assignment that they’re outsourcing.” It’s an important point that I like to make a lot, which is that this desperation. This is not to dismiss the ethical implications of this conversation, but from a practical standpoint, this guy could not write this assignment, and that’s just a fact.

Dave Tomar (18:58): The rule is this, and this is an important thing to note about these paper-writing companies as well, revisions are important, repeat business is important, satisfied customers are important.

Dave Tomar (20:09): I worked with students through a full course, a full semester, three years of a program, you name it. If you’re working with a student on a thesis, or a dissertation, I know professors always say, “Well, how is that even possible? We’re constantly meeting, and they have to defend this and there’s feedback.” Well, it’s good-paying money because you are basically the student’s just a liaison between you and the professor at that point. Professor gives some feedback, the student brings it to you, and I say, “Okay, well, I got to work on my thesis a little.” That was how that process worked, so repeat business was important. Writer requests were very common. Not only that, but once you start buying assignments and submitting them in somebody’s voice, a savvier student knows not to raise red flags, so sticking with the same writer is usually a good idea.

Dave Tomar (21:24): Yeah. Well, it helps for students that go to school like the one that I did because Rutgers University was so large, and in so many contexts, so impersonal that it was maybe nobody’s looking. I witnessed it enough with my customers at Rutgers that it was a very, very easy thing to get away with when you’re dealing with graders and TAs and the professors teaching the course, but you never have once interacted with this person. That’s a very commonplace thing in a larger school. Now, I’m not saying that is the scenario always, but just as an example of how easy that might actually be to get away with.

Kathryn Baron (22:08): Well, this is a huge business, and I have to say, I was flabbergasted at how many of these companies exist. You list in one of the books, I think The Complete Guide to Contract Cheating, at the end, you have a list of about 470 cheating companies. You make a note that this is just a partial list. They operate like any other business. I looked up one company on the list at random and it made no attempt to obscure what it’s selling.

Kathryn Baron (22:59): Yeah, and I thought, “How do these companies avoid detection when the way they’re just so obvious and blatant with their advertising?”

Dave Tomar (23:12): Well, first of all, you can’t avoid detection because that’s poor marketing. It’s really, visibility is actually extremely important.

…Number two, and most importantly, this is the thing I do my best to impress upon educators at every single turn. It is very, very common and understandable to think of this as this sort of black market for papers.

Dave Tomar (24:16): Sure, it’s a shady business, but it’s not like drug dealing where these people are lurking in the shadows. It is an out-in-the-open business. It operates like an out-in-the-open business.

Dave Tomar (25:20): These are real companies, and they operate real companies and if we think of them as these shady black market/drug-dealing type of companies, then we undermine their danger. I paid taxes when I did this job, they paid taxes. It was very normalized, workaday sort of life with customer service, and everything else. While there are certainly shady companies out there, I think that’s probably true of every industry, those are not the ones that are going to survive in the long run. The companies that I worked for 20 years ago are still there and there is a reason.

Kathryn Baron (35:30): Did you ever hear back on what grades you earned?

Dave Tomar (35:35): No, not really. It’s funny. I know I read an email where the customer requested that they needed to have a certain grade. However, it was our official policy that we didn’t guarantee grades. As a matter of fact, to get back to the legal language, we made it very clear that these were study guides and that they were by no means meant to be submitted in a classroom, and so if you did that, then the consequences were really on you, and if you told me you didn’t like the grade you got, then you have violated the conditions of our agreement.

Kathryn Baron (36:13): Oh, gosh. Well, yeah, that’s kind of like Chegg saying, “This is just to help you understand how to answer the question.”

Dave Tomar (36:19): A hundred percent like. That’s exactly what it is.

Dave Tomar (37:40): As we led with, anytime anybody would ask what I did, I’d say, “Well,” very frankly, “I help students cheat for a living.” And people were just filled with questions about that. It took me a while to connect the dots that “Wow, people don’t realize this goes on.” It is very much out in the open. I was always very much out in the open. The companies are very readily Googleable. It was news to me to find out that people in education specifically were just not aware.

Episode 011: Dr. Sonny Ramaswamy


The Score

November 19, 2022

On this episode of The Score, we’re speaking with Dr. Sonny Ramaswamy, president of the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, NWCCU. The Commission is one of seven institutional higher education accrediting organizations recognized by the US Department of Education. Their mission is to ensure that colleges and universities meet standard levels of quality set by the US Department of Education and each state.

Please contact us if you would like the full transcript.

Show Notes

High points of the conversation follow.

Dr. Sonny Ramaswamy (15:44): But they’re going to have to vouch that that information is, the veracity of this person that is submitting that information. We want to make sure that it’s not just somebody that’s got some ax to grind or is ticked off with that particular thing. So, all of that including, if there’s any instances of cheating on campus, that is also submitted to us. And then if comes to our office, we go ahead and make that available to that group of evaluators as well. Remember, it’s not a one and done, we have a seven year cycle, we get these annual reports, we may get complaints or input coming any time of the year. When that comes, we actually follow up. We will investigate. My staff will go and investigate.

Dr. Sonny Ramaswamy (16:36): At any time, you could have complaints coming to us, or anonymous letters come to us, or whatever else, I mean, particularly if it’s some issues related to integrity and cheating and things like that. We’re going to go ahead and follow up on those.

Dr. Sonny Ramaswamy (18:54): When it comes to cheating, a lot of these things are dealt with locally. Now, if it’s just a one-off, let’s say if it was just one student, I felt sorry for that particular student, he or she got caught or whatever happened, and that they deal with it, there’s a grievance process. There’s all this efforts that really there’s no egregiousness on the part of the institution that they’re dealt with. Then they go on to do whatever it is based on the findings.

Dr. Sonny Ramaswamy (19:23): But if it’s a huge number of students, like happened at some institutions that you and I know of, if that comes up, then it floats up to us at that level that, “Oh, wait a second. There’s something else going on.”

Dr. Sonny Ramaswamy (24:20): Because, again, we can’t use hearsay and lack of evidence. You got to submit all of the evidence. If you’re accusing somebody of demonstrating zero or poor academic integrity, then you better have some very significant evidence for that. So, we ask you to go and submit that, it’ll come through our portal. And one of our staff members, we have assigned staff members to each institution, and they look at it. Then, we convene, including our general counsel and myself, we have a conversation. We look at all the evidence that’s been submitted.

Kathryn Baron (25:06): So, as an accreditor, I think you have a unique perspective on the impact of cheating or on the integrity of a college or university. I’m wondering, when you’re looking at this part of the student success, the fundamental part of that, do you gather information, even if it’s not a giant big incident like Harvard and the hundred students who cheated, but just over the seven years, there’s a number of them that have been accrued. Do you gather that information to say, “Okay, we didn’t have this one giant situation, but we see here that,” I don’t know, “500 students have been sent to this academic integrity commission, because they were accused of cheating.”

Dr. Sonny Ramaswamy (26:02): Again, I’ve been here as the president of the Northwest Commission now for a bit over four years, coming on almost five years. In that time, I’ve not seen that information. We do require institutions, that’s sort of happening on our 163 campuses. Now, we will… Not in the hundreds you’re talking about. Maybe the occasional one-off here and there.

Dr. Sonny Ramaswamy (27:20): In terms of cheating, where there’s a wholesale cheating of tens and hundreds of them. I’ve not seen any evidence of that in the last four plus years that I’ve been here. In fact, if I were to go back and, of course, I’ve spoken with my colleagues, so what’s the situation going back eight, 10 years ago? And asking my colleagues that have been here for that length of time, and they have not seen it … has there been any prevalence of cheating on a particular campus? I’ve not come across any.

Kathryn Baron (28:16): I guess, there are two ways of looking at those numbers. One are, when a student has been caught or is suspected of this and sent to through a formal process, or the student does it and nobody finds out. The reason I’m asking is because, on The Score, we’ve spoken to different researchers and their data is based on student surveys. In those, we’ve had 50% to 60% of students admitting that they cheated at least once. Most of this is probably not in any dataset, because it’s just them responding anonymously on a survey. I’m wondering then, you haven’t seen this as a big problem in terms of the official data, but do you think it’s as large as that? Do you have a sense of whether 50% to 60% of students have cheated at least once?

Dr. Sonny Ramaswamy (29:21): Yeah. Well, I mean, first of all, you got to look at the nature of the question that is asked and how it’s framed and all that.

Dr. Sonny Ramaswamy (29:28): If it’s an open-ended question, it’s anonymous and things like that, did you cheat? “Yeah. You know what, it was a closed-book exam, I opened the book or whatever. I’m fessing up.” Versus what happened at Harvard and other places. We’ve had at medical schools and dental schools and things like that, some very significant level of cheating. Also, you and I talked a little bit about this previously, some of those have not been borne out to be true anyways. Okay?

Dr. Sonny Ramaswamy (29:58): So, the bottom line is, I’m not seeing those particular studies that you’re referring to. Is it possible? Anything is possible. I mean, we’re talking about human nature. I mean, given those studies that have been done by Stanford and other institutions, where they would go ahead and drop a dollar bill or a hundred dollar bill or whatever, you know how many of us don’t just pick it up and stick it in our pockets and walk away. I mean, how many of us are going to just actually take and say, “Hey, sir, did you lose this? I just found this.” Yeah, many of us do it. Of course, we were taught that, right from wrong, and things like that.

Dr. Sonny Ramaswamy (30:31): This is like, I’m sure it’s happened to you. I go to a grocery store and I’m handed extra change or whatever. I give it back. That’s what I was taught to do. But some of us don’t and some of us do. Going back to this question of cheating, is the cheating a concerted effort to where a whole bunch of students hacked in to, let’s say, a database of questions or changed the grades? Which has all happened. I mean, we’ve seen, what do you call, instances of this. In fact, the Educational Testing Service, which does the tests of English and the foreign language or the GRE folks, that do GRE exams and all that.

Dr. Sonny Ramaswamy (31:59): If 50% of the students are cheating, they’re doing little bitty things. But what you’re getting at is this, the death by a thousand cuts, if you have this sort of thing that’s going on, what does that say to student education? I mean, do we really want, as the joke goes, do we really want a person that cheated in a medical school to do surgery on your heart? I mean, these are the kinds of things that we need to consider as well. Then cheating is inappropriate or incorrect in any context, small or large, there is no such thing as a small cheat versus a large cheat, cheat is cheat. Yeah, that’s what I’d say.

Dr. Sonny Ramaswamy (33:04): That’s true not just of medical schools, and dental schools, and veterinary schools, and in the broadly writ health sciences, et cetera. But you see that sort of a post graduation credentialing taking place, i.e., you pass an exam, board exam, whether you’re an attorney, or a psychologist, or whatever, if you want to go onto practice or you apply that in practice, if you’ve cheated throughout your college career, you’re going to get busted, because you don’t have the knowledge base. That’s a built-in part of the checks and balances that we’ve got.

Dr. Sonny Ramaswamy (33:41): But somebody that cheats on an English exam, copied, plagiarized or whatever else that happened. And we see that, you and I talk a little bit about this, too. We’ve got technology available today where we can see if the student has plagiarized or not. Also, we’ve got these mills, particularly in English speaking countries across the world, that will sell you an essay on whatever topic you want for 50 bucks or 10 bucks or whatever. You get all these kinds of things. Institutions, the faculty members are already tied up doing a lot of things and now they got to check whether this has been copied, or plagiarized, or somebody else wrote it and things like that. This is all part of this context that we’ve got.

Dr. Sonny Ramaswamy (35:06): I mean, we all have our ethics statements and our institutions have, they post that on the wall of each room and the professor comes in and reads that out loud, saying, “You will adhere to these principles of being ethical and professional,” and things like that. By the time you come into college, as you know, it’s way too late, it should be happening at home. It should be happening… If you have a home, a lot of students don’t have homes, that, too. But it should be happening in K through 12. It should be happening in kindergarten. And first, and second, in elementary school, that’s where we learned these things about the good and the bad and the ugly that we’ve got of cheating or whatever else that we’ve got. I think, by the time you get to college, these things are already set.