The Shadow Education Economy

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently ran a much-discussed essay titled “The Shadow Scholar.” Published under the pseudonym “Ed Dante,” the author vividly reveals how he earns fruitful living writing academic papers of all shapes and sizes for university and post-graduate students all across America, from the Ivy League to state schools, and from MBAs to nursing students. The essay has unleashed a firestorm of hand-wringing about academic integrity among students, but also questions as to the enabling environment for such activity: the academy itself.


One of the most interesting passages in this manifesto describes the author’s reliance on the Internet. He writes 

“I haven't been to a library once since I started doing this job. Amazon is quite generous about free samples. If I can find a single page from a particular text, I can cobble that into a report, deducing what I don't know from customer reviews and publisher blurbs. Google Scholar is a great source for material, providing the abstract of nearly any journal article. And of course, there's Wikipedia, which is often my first stop when dealing with unfamiliar subjects. Naturally one must verify such material elsewhere, but I've taken hundreds of crash courses this way.”

What is profound about this statement is not that it comes from someone who is paid to use any means necessary to produce a quick and passable paper for either spoilt rich kids or non-English fluent immigrant students, but rather the impossibility of quantifying how many students do in fact write their own papers in this way, without paying a “shadow scholar.”

The combination of Amazon, Google Scholar, Google Books, and other online content providers and databases of bibliographic content is not only rendering going to the university library obsolete, but circumvents the entire process of lengthy engagement with material in preparation for drafting serious and original academic writing. Instead, students can quickly cut-and-paste their way to papers which pass muster, and even earn honors. Anti-plagiarism software kits are proliferating, but none can cope with the exponentially proliferating volume of material available on the Internet today and ever more.

Unless universities find ways to confront the impact of search technologies on students’ ability to cut corners, their own reputations will suffer while students rob themselves of a rigorous education and “shadow scholars” make out like bandits. We might witness, perhaps, a return to oral examinations to demonstrate competence, or collaborative group projects that require each student to contribute in real-time to a collective project that cannot be so easily faked—or bought. Either way, the “shadow scholars” salvo in the academic establishment’s premier journal is a wake-up call to all who argue that American higher education produces the best and the brightest.

Ayesha and Parag Khanna explore human-technology co-evolution and its implications for society, business and politics at The Hybrid Reality Institute.

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