Straight Talk From an Essay Mill Insider: Part 1 of 2
Dave Tomar is an author and journalist who has written extensively on music and education. Tomar catapulted to notoriety with his controversial and eye-opening 2010 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education titled "The Shadow Scholar." Writing under the pseudonym Ed Dante (a name now committed to perpetuity by its own Wikipedia entry), Tomar highlighted his decade-long career from 2001 to 2011 as an academic ghostwriter while simultaneously announcing his retirement from the business.
"The Shadow Scholar" became the most read article in the history of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Although student cheating is nothing new, this article underscored the extent to which student cheating had become a business, in which students paid others to do their work, sometimes for an entire course. Tomar’s revelations led to appearances on ABC World News Tonight, Nightline, and the Today Show. There he shared the ghostwriting business’s trade secrets and attempted to bring greater awareness to this hidden epidemic of student cheating.
Since then, Tomar has focused not just on exposing the broader failures in American education but also on reforming it.
TURNITIN: Thank you so much for taking the time for an interview with us. The issue of contract cheating is both simple and complex--and hearing your stories really helps us personalize the impact. You wrote a book called The Shadow Scholar published by Bloomsbury in 2012. Why did you write it? For whom did you write it?
DAVE TOMAR: For the better part of a decade, I made my living writing papers for students. So when people asked me what I did for work, I’d say, “I help people cheat for money.”
Not pretty, I admit. But it was the easiest way to explain it…and I guess that explanation lends itself to further conversation, at least more so than being an insurance adjustor or a mortgage agent. People always had a ton of follow-up questions:
- That really happens?
- You’ll write about anything?
- Where the hell were you when I was in college?
Over time, I learned that most people had no idea essay mills even existed. I also came to see, over time, that contract cheating was symptomatic of a lot of toxic systemic issues in higher education: exorbitant tuition rates; exploding student loan debt; an alarming preponderance of college students who simply aren’t academically prepared.
In the scope of all these things, it seemed like contract cheating was something people should know about. The Shadow Scholar was my way of exposing this practice to the world.
Of course, I was also exposing myself to the world. I saw a lot that was wrong with academia. But I couldn’t hide from the fact that I was also responsible for contributing to it. I knew I had to get out. The Shadow Scholar seemed like my escape, a closing statement on my decade as a cheater for hire.
I’ve spent most of my time since then paying penance for my misdeeds by shining a light on the contract cheating industry and, more generally, offering useful advice to college and grad students…y’know, ways to succeed without cheating.
TURNITIN: Please describe the process by which you procured customers and then completed essays. I.e., how did you find students? Did they find you?
TOMAR: I got my start while I was still a student at Rutgers, New Brunswick. That campus had everything you needed to get a cheating business off the ground: huge, anonymous lecture hall classes; a ton of bureaucratic rules that meant you had to take prerequisites far outside your personal area of interest; and a ton of fraternity bros….so many fraternity bros.
At that time, it was really just a word of mouth thing. People heard there was a guy with strong writing skills, a loose sense of academic integrity, and the kind of financial desperation that you need to get into this line of work in the first place. So word got out. I was pretty popular in the Greek system for a guy who never rushed, and I had work throughout college.
Then, one day, a classmate told me there were online companies that did this sort of thing.
This was back in 2001. I submitted a writing sample, and pretty much overnight, began working as an independent contractor. After that, customers were always plentiful. There were tons of companies out there—some far better than others—and I worked for roughly a dozen over my decade in the business.
Depending on the company, my employers would either send me custom orders directly through email, or I’d sign on to a bulletin board and select my own assignments. During the busy seasons—midterms and finals—bulletin boards were fully stocked. You could load up your calendar--a 6 pager on gun control, a 12 pager on Watergate, 3 pages on monetary policy, and five interconnected assignments on multiple personality disorder--like gathering a plate of misery at the buffet.
TURNITIN: How did you conduct research? Did you use an anonymous email?
TOMAR: I never did anything anonymous. I always used my own name and email address (and SS#—after all, this was taxable income).
As for research, Google Google Google. Everything is Googleable. I never left the house. Well, not for work anyway.
TURNITIN: Were there any topics you refused to write? For instance, what if someone wanted a paper on biochemistry? And you had no knowledge thereof?
TOMAR: My motto was “as long as there’s no math.”
There was, otherwise, no topic too complex, unusual, specific or boring that I wouldn’t at least try my hand at it. Doesn’t mean I’d always knock it out of the park. I’m sure a few of my med school papers fell short of Hippocratic standards. But I’d do my best with every topic.
Just no math.
TURNITIN: They say prices for contract cheating have gone down--would you still do it?
TOMAR: That’s really a question for my younger self.
I feel like it was the perfect job for the financially-struggling, quarter-life-crisis version of me that did it for a decade. You had to bust your hump to make a decent living at it. I’m glad to be out of it. Making less money for a job that difficult sounds terrible.
That said, I truly didn’t have any other options back then. This was the one paying job where I could use my very specific set of marketable abilities. I tried at all times to advance my career as a legitimate writer. I never stopped trying, even while I was writing papers. But the essay mill was the one place I could get paid to write back then. So I guess I’d probably have done it no matter what it paid.
TURNITIN: What made you stop ghostwriting?
TOMAR: Well, I learned a ton, and I got to write, and it did help me exorcise some of my anger toward my formal education. But, it’s not a great way to make a living. It’s a burnout kind of gig. There’s no end to the deadlines. It’s a constant hunched-over, jaw-clenched, brow-furrowed gig. It’s just not the kind of thing you can do forever.
Then there was the whole thing about actually contributing to the world in a positive way…or at least in a way that was less obviously negative. I have a two-year-old daughter now and I’m grateful that I don’t have to be ashamed when I tell her what I do for a living.
As for explaining my past life as a ghostwriter to her…well, we’ll cross that bridge after potty-training.
Part 2 of this interview may be read here.
Posted on the Turnitin Blog on 4 February, 2019. To read more great stories visit our blog.