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More and more students are graduating lacking the ability to write a decent essay. When a teacher gives an assignment, many students smile calmly while others frantically try to jot down an outline and research some articles.

The difference between those students is simply a phone number. Whether it’s an A student looking to make some money, or “Michael Jackson” the graduate, or even a whole organization called the “The Consultants”, the opportunities for students to buy assignments and get away with it lay at their fingertips. The Consultants say that around peak time (midterms and finals) they get around 1,000 assignments a week, from students in several universities.

Plagiarism is defined by the Lebanese American University’s (LAU) handbook “as the use of someone else’s ideas, words, or work, as if it were one’s own, without clearly acknowledging the source of that information.” It is also recognized as a serious offense and is punishable. The handbook states: “The severity of the disciplinary action is determined according to the extent of the plagiaristic act. The disciplinary action could range from resubmitting the work with penalty, to dismissal from the Program.” Dr. Samira Aghacy, Dean of the Arts and Sciences, adds: “Normally we give a zero, plus a warning. After a double warning, the student is out of the university.”

With their entire education on the line, why would students take the chance? Manal, a third year accounting student explains: “I’m not very good in English; I am a math person. So, I would be failing anyway. At least by buying assignments I have a chance of passing.” Walid, a second year marketing major, claims: “My English teachers gave up on me a long time ago. They don’t care if I actually learn, and I will not need to write essays in the future, so why not buy assignments if it allows me to pass?”

The administration and professors at LAU are aware of plagiarism and have policies against it. “There is even a software we have now, called turnitin.com, that allows us to find out if a student has plagiarized their papers,” says Aghacy. Turnitin.com allows professors to find out whether or not students have copied texts that are available on the Internet.

Aghacy claims that she can immediately tell from the writing if it is the student’s work or not. “I think [picking up on this problem] depends on the discretion of the instructor,” she adds. “It is a world-wide problem, and we need to deal with it case by case.”

Dr. Raed Mohsen, the LAU Dean of Students, agrees that there are methods to detect plagiarism. “Students are required to hand in an abstract and an outline before handing in the actual assignment and if the student is weak in the preliminary stages and finishes fast with better results, the instructor would doubt and then test the student on his paper,” explains Mohsen.

But how will an instructor know if a student has paid someone to write an essay from scratch based on their style and level of writing?

“I have not written a single essay since I have been in LAU,” testifies Majd, a third year business student. “The English teachers are very submissive,” he adds. “I get some points off for not handing in the abstract and outline, but they can’t tell that it’s not my writing, because they have never seen my writing,” he laughs.

The Consultants claim that buying assignments is not plagiarism. “It is nobody’s business who helps you with a paper, and you are not stealing anyone’s ideas; we are giving them to you willingly.” They claim that not a single one of their jobs has been detected, and if one had been, it would have been because of the stupidity of the student.

These purchases are done in a very systematic and ambiguous way; there are also several ways of doing so. Mazen, a second year architect student, helps out friends at LAU, the American University of Beirut, and at Haigazian University for about $90 an assignment. “Michael Jackson”, or MJ as he dubs himself, prefers to do things more ambiguously.

Sandra (an alias name), a third year journalism student, reports: “MJ wanted me to drop off the money and requirements at his hotel lobby and he would have left me an envelope when done. He wanted $100 for a PowerPoint presentation about two chapters. I didn’t go through with it, but his number might come in handy some day.”

The Consultants, however, go about things in a more professional manner. Lina (an alias name), a senior journalism student, testifies: “I called and he said that we needed to meet. I met him at the corner of Western Union right next to LAU. He asked about the course, the teacher, the assignment requirements and then he set the price. I paid him half as a down payment and the rest when the assignment was finished.”

The Consultants claim that their writers are mostly Masters students and that before writing an assignment they conduct “university planning and education analysis.” “Some of our writers have been in this business for seven years,” claims the ambiguous phone operator that refused to give his name. “They wrote assignments for some teachers in LAU when they were still students,” he adds. Their prices range from $120 to $180 depending on the requirements and the amount of time given to complete the assignment.

“Me and my friends are like those girls you see on Gossip Girl,” confesses Sandra. “We are rich and we just sit around and gossip and pay people to do our work.”

Sure, the amount of plagiarism or copying from the Internet has decreased since the arrival of turnitin.com, but that is not the kind of plagiarism plaguing the teachers.

This article was previously published in the Lebanese American University’s Tribune and Hibr Lubnani