Are Algorithmically-Generated Term Papers the Next Big Challenge to Academic Integrity?

Feb 12, 2020

This is the third of a three-part series on the “cheating economy.” For more, read part one, and part two. And listen to a live discussion we hosted on the topic as well.


There’s a new application of AI in education, and educators aren’t going to like it.

A growing number of companies now let students outsource their homework to a bot—or, more specifically, an algorithm that writes term papers for them based on chosen keywords.

For instance, after subscribing to a service called EssaySoft, you can tell its essay generator to write a paper on, say, “symbolism in the great Gatsby” (or whatever you need for class). Then you enter how many words you want the final paper to be, select other specs from drop-down menus (set research depth to “low” if you want the machine to return an answer as fast as possible), and click “Generate Essay.”

"Within five years these essay generators will be good enough that [students who want to cheat] won’t have to hire people anymore. They can just have the essay generator do it.”
—Tricia Bertram Gallant, director of the Academic Integrity Office at the University of California San Diego

The resulting paper begins: “Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts. The Green Light Situated at the end of Daisy’s East Egg dock and barely visible from Gatsby’s West Egg lawn, the green light represents Gatsby’s hopes and dreams for the future.”

That’s not A+ work by any means, but it might pass. And the service boasts that its results are “plagiarism free,” meaning they won’t be flagged by plagiarism-detection services. Oh, and if you don’t like it, just click “re-generate” and get a new bot-written essay.

The technology gives new resonance to that old “infinite monkey theorem,” which holds that a roomful of monkeys and typewriters, if given enough time, would eventually compose the works of Shakespeare. Except that educators aren’t laughing.

“The internet and machine learning is going to totally shake up what education is and how we validate when students have knowledge that we can verify,” argues Tricia Bertram Gallant, director of the Academic Integrity Office at the University of California San Diego.

She says that EssaySoft and other AI-based paper writers she has seen spit out results that wouldn’t fool many professors today.

“Right now it’s bad—often it’s nonsensical,” she says. “A student was supposed to write about ‘big data,’ and the [essay generator] called it ‘enormous information.’ Or it changed the name Frank to the word ‘candid.’”

And some companies may be outputting low-quality papers on purpose in an effort to upsell the students to a human essay writer, she adds.

But as the technology improves, such bots may soon churn out passable work, with zero effort by the students who use them. “Within five years,” she predicts, “these essay generators will be good enough that they won’t have to hire people anymore. They can just have the essay generator do it.”

Welcome to the next frontier in cheating.

A World of Spin

A few years ago, Chris Sadler was working as a lecturer at Middlesex University, in Britain, when he noticed some strange phrases popping up in student work.

For instance, one paper mentioned “tarry fore in the conflict,” and another included the puzzling phrase “sinister buttocks,” according to a report in Times Higher Education. It turns out, students were taking papers they found online and employing a thesaurus (badly) to create fresh prose that would pass through plagiarism-detection software used by many colleges. Sadler suspects that the original papers for the above examples said “stay ahead of the competition” and “left behind.”

Sadler coined the term “Rogeting” to describe the practice, in reference to the “Roget’s Thesaurus.”

Actually, the students may not have been doing the Rogeting by hand. Many websites offer free “article spinners” that rephrase existing text at the click of a button. The practice apparently originated in marketing, used by companies trying to game search engine results by stretching the number of web pages on their sites by making pages of similar (but not identical) content.

Students also use other free tools to try to turn term papers they find online into something they can submit as their own work. For instance, some students take paragraphs from found papers (or ones purchased from sites that sell them), put them into Google Translate and translate them into German, then take the result and translate them back into English. That’s according to Valerie Schreiner, a chief product officer at Turnitin, a company that sells plagiarism-detection software.

“In the end you usually end up with a horrible paper,” she says. But it could be good enough to get a passing grade. Experts say that the students who are most likely to turn to these kinds of methods are those who are ill prepared for the class or who do not speak the language fluently, rather than students who are merely lazy.

It’s worth noting that some companies are building automatic-essay grading software to save professors time. And so if professors are going to be grading with robots, maybe it follows that students will ask robots to create their work.

It calls to mind the scene in the 1985 film “Real Genius,” where the professor doesn’t show up for class but leaves a reel-to-reel recorder at the front of the classroom playing a recording of his lecture. The students don’t show up either, but leave tape recorders on their desks in record mode.

The '80s film "Real Genius" predicted a time when professors and students all used machines to do their work.

Even though she thinks these AI paper-generators are on their way, some experts say they shouldn’t be the focus of efforts to stop cheating by students.

“More importantly, higher educational institutions need to raise the importance of integrity, role model it, and promote it on their campuses—at every level,” argues Amanda McKenzie, director of quality assurance for academic programs at the University of Waterloo, in Canada. “This is the only way we can build up a culture of integrity that would help eradicate academic misconduct.”


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