Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Catalan on "Shadow Scholars"

If you haven't noticed, Jonathan Catalan has been churning out a ton of material at mises.org lately. I usually like reading him because I think he makes a lot of very good points, but even when I don't agree with what he writes is well reasoned.

His most recent piece, though, is one I simply cannot endorse but is intriguing enough that I thought it was worth sharing to get reactions. Jonathan has a side business writing term papers for other students. He's mentioned it before, and I've kept my thoughts to myself for the most part - I have strong views but I don't want to be a proselytizer. But since he's putting it out there in such a straightforward way in this venue it seems more appropriate to respond.

I adamantly disagree with him on at least four fronts:

1. First and foremost selling or buying term papers is very unethical in my mind, although Jonathan argues that it is not. The person buying these term papers is lying and cheating. I'm not sure what more needs to be said about it. People who sell term papers profit from lying and cheating. Nobody that's unwilling to produce their own work (or work with others in an appropriate way - i.e. with all contributing) should be at a university that expects them to.

2. Jonathan is wrong about curricular decisions. He writes: "Curricula, more often than not, are decided by boards and administrative groups who simply dictate what is to be taught. So the skills that someone may acquire as a university student are determined, not actually by the individual, but instead by someone else, who has absolutely no idea about the goals and objectives of that individual." For one thing, the people making these curricular decisions are usually educators. But even if they weren't, Jonathan is wrong to suggest that the goals and objectives of the individual aren't taken into account. Students make educational decisions based on course offerings. It made a big difference in my application decisions at all levels of education. Students also demand a degree that will be of recognized quality in that field, and to do that universities rely on experts in that field to design curricula. If universities aren't meeting student demand, application rates will go down. This is how choice works.

3. Jonathan is also wrong about the interaction between university education and the labor market. He writes: "They saw a correlation between higher productivity and an increasing degree of human capital. What they failed to come to terms with is the causality of the relationship. Higher human capital does not create more productive jobs. You can train as many engineers as you want, but if you train 1,000 engineers for 500 positions, then you will have a surplus of engineers, and that surplus will have to do something else for a living." People respond to incentives and their own subjective preferences when choosing fields, and labor markets have proved to be incredibly efficient. People choose to get engineering degrees when there is a demand for engineers (or people with engineering skills). I should know, I've spent the last year working through the major research of the last 75 years or so on labor supply in the engineering labor market, I've been pouring over 30 years of data on it, and I'm drafting a chapter for an NBER volume on it. The consistent conclusion has been: markets work. Students make investments that benefit them and that are in demand in the market. It's not like you show up to a university and are ordered by an administrator to be an engineering major, after all.

4. There is value to a liberal education and if you don't agree, don't pursue a liberal education. Jonathan ridicules the idea that people really need to write term papers. In many careers people don't have to of course. Even at my job as a researcher, the kind of writing I do is often nothing like what you do in school, and it's not even the activity I spend most of my time doing. But Jonathan ignores the pedagogical purpose term papers. It's not because people write these papers in the real world - it's a method for forcing students to read and learn material, process and synthesize it, and articulate their ability to understand and apply what they've learned. It's a matter of critical thinking skills and being an articulate person. That does have value in most jobs. A lot of people would benefit from just going to technical schools. One problem with the American educational system is that it's bifurcated: we have lots of people that drop out and don't go to college and lots that go to four year institutions, because we have failing secondary schools and a culture of liberal education. We could benefit from a culture of technical and vocational education too. But as of right now, that's in weak demand. Given what's in demand, though, there's nothing illegitimate about writing papers.

And if you don't want to write papers at a school where you are expected to write your own papers you shouldn't pay someone to do it and then lie about it: you should simply refrain from attending.


  1. Universities have been subject to a couple of things over the past four or five decades (there may be more - but these are what come immediately to mind):

    (1) course inflation;

    (2) unchecked growth on the ability to get into college;

    (3) increasing subsidization of university education;

    (4) increased outlays on all manner of enticements for students to attend (you see similar for professors and administrators as well);

    (5) increased outlays on capital improvements (including all manner of buildings and other like facilities).

    In light of that it should surprise no one that you have black and grey markets in the "goods" (term papers, etc.) which universities accept in exchange for the "goods" that they offer (grades, diplomas, etc.). You get what you incentivize in other words, and in this case we create lots and lots of incentives for shadow scholars.

  2. "I'm not sure what more needs to be said about it. People who sell term papers profit from lying and cheating."

    But... but.. there's a MARKET for it! Doesn't that mean it MUST be OK?

  3. Writing term papers for other people is certainly fraudulent behavior.

    Whether fraud is criminal or immoral is, as I wrote on the article's comments, another story.

  4. Gene,

    Since that is the case it is worth considering. Indeed, though two wrongs don't make a right, given the level of B.S. associated with universities generally (think here of college sports and the role of unpaid college athletes in those sports) it isn't something that troubles me a lot.

  5. I have cheated and plagiarized. I am not alone in this common practice. I'll consider academic honesty when formal education becomes more than just signalling and all around tedious hoop jumping.

    "And if you don't want to write papers at a school where you are expected to write your own papers you shouldn't pay someone to do it and then lie about it: you should simply refrain from attending."

    It isn't really that simple when you have to take mandatory courses that are completely irrelevant to the degree you are pursuing. But if it will make Daniel Kuehn, the shining inspiration of my life that keeps me going everyday, sleep peacefully at night, then I must drop out of university for the sin of academic dishonesty.

  6. Getting upset over unpaid college athletes is an odd reaction for someone who (I'm guessing) is opposed to the minimum wage.

    I haven't looked into this in detail, but I always think the discussion is strange - presumably they get a ton of compensation through scholarships, right? This isn't to say I'm opposed to compensating college athletes - it sounds like a great idea.

  7. Daniel,

    It isn't an odd reaction at all. It depends on what thinks the NCAA is exactly. Is it how the holding in NCAA v. Tarkanian (1988) described the NCAA? Or is it something else entirely?


  8. You're going to have to walk me through this one Gary - I read several paragraphs and don't see how the decision relates.

    Regardless of the nature of the NCAA, if you think that wages below the minimum wage are not an injustice I fail to see why you would get concerned about not paying college athletes. Presumably the privelege of playing, the prospect of future compensatino, and whatever scholarships come with it are the price that the market will bear. What's wrong with that?

    Again - I think paying them would be great. But I don't see the problem with the fact that that's not going on.

  9. Daniel,

    Well, if the NCAA is a quasi-governmental body then that is a bit different from the marketplace determining a wage rate. Kind of simple really.

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  11. Sorry if there are multiple posts, but I'm having trouble with this blog atm.

    @ Dan:

    I won't comment on #s 2-4, because I mostly agree. And to the extent that I disagree (if at all), it's irrelevant to the ethical concerns that are the subject of your post.

    However , there is nothing inherently fraudulent or unethical about merely WRITING a paper for someone. In fact, the writer is providing exactly the service he has advertised to his customer. What the customer then does with the paper is another question.

    i.e., what is truly unethical in this picture is for a student to misrepresent a paper written by someone else (purchased or not) as his own work. However, it's possible that a term paper might be purchased for another purpose. Why would anyone buy a paper if they don't intend to plagiarize? For the same purpose that teachers often distribute free A+ papers to their students: to provide an example of how it should be done.

    I find this analogous to torrents and the like. The service itself is legal and ethical because it can be (and in fact is) used for perfectly legitimate purposes, even if empirically most people wind up using it for pirating. (This assumes the ethical validity of IP, of course, which is another issue entirely).

    @Mattheus von Guttenberg:

    I just read your comment on the original article on mises. You claim that "By ghostwriting, you commit breach of contract with your own school. By accepting ghostwritten work as your own, you break contract with your school. Both sides are fraudulent."

    Your argument assumes that (1) the writer is in school; and (2) the writer has consented to a "contract" with his school that imposes the obligation not to ghostwrite.

    Also, it's important not to conflate fraud with breach of contract. Mere breach of contract does not necessarily implicate ethics and is most certainly not "criminal."

    A better argument would be to dispense with the legal terminology altogether and simply state that the author has violated the honor code. (Again, this assumes that the author is in school and has accepted such a code). This would probably make ghostwriting unethical (but still nowhere near "criminal") if the author knows (or reasonably believes) that his customers will use the product to plagiarize.


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