Google Takes Aim at Online Term Paper Peddlers

Internet giant will ban ads for companies that peddle term papers.

May 24, 2007 — -- Some call it cheating, some call it helpful instruction and others consider it plagiarism. Whatever it is called, it's big business.

Procrastinating students now have an easy solution to that time-consuming life-defining essay. No longer is it just getting that smart kid down the hall to write your term paper. A desperate Google search or two and any student with a few dollars can find a wide choice of companies that advertise and sell custom term papers.

Here's a pitch from one such service, TermPaperMasters: "Remember: You already spend thousands of dollars on your education, why not invest just a little more in securing a good grade on your next paper." These services include disclaimers, of course, and encourage students to learn from and add to the works of the real, but anonymous, authors.

The Internet has not only enabled these smart kids down the hall to sell thousands of essays, dissertations and term papers. It has also provided a potent selling tool -- Internet ads. One quick Google search of "essay service" and you are bombarded with ads from several companies, "completely unplagiarised … only $9.95 per page!" The Google search engine is good at picking up irony too. Right next to an article on "Detecting Plagiarism in Term Papers" is a Google ad, "Need a Term Paper Fast?"

Essay service companies will soon join an exclusive club that includes drug dealers, prostitutes and diploma mills. Google will start blocking the ads in a couple of weeks. The company said it's just a matter of meeting a new advertising policy. "We are a vendor, selling a product," said Google's Debra Adair. "We are focused on improving the customer's experience."

Paola DiNapoli, of PromptPapers, said the Google policy will "cause us great harm." Some companies get up to 80 percent of their business from the Google ads.

According to Robert O'Neil, director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, it's not just about money. "We are entering a new era," he said. O'Neil believes it's just a matter of time before there is a court challenge to big, dominant Internet companies that restrict advertisements from companies that are not violating the law.

But O'Neil isn't confident this is the right case for a court challenge. It's hard to defend what some consider cheating. "It's too ambiguous," he said. Right now Google has the right to do whatever it wants. "Private companies can restrict free speech until some government agency intervenes," he added.

"Somebody will take their money", said John Barrie, founder and CEO of iThenticate, a technology firm that detects recycled research papers. "It's like whack-a-mole, they'll pop up on Yahoo or MSN," he said.

Although he thinks the Google policy is "a long time coming," he doesn't believe it solves the problem of academic plagiarism. "We are a digital solution to a digital problem." iThenticate has a database of 40 million papers and it's growing by the millions every month. Its clients include academic institutions from all over the world. They submit millions of papers to the iThenticate system. "Students who use these papers have to think of two things," Barrie said. "One: Is that paper in the system? and Two: Will it ever be submitted."

iThenticate catches students using the work of essay services every day. According to Barrie, his company is a bigger threat to the "cheat sites" than a ban on Google ads. Said Barrie, "We are going to crush them like a bug."

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