After ordering research papers through an online "sting" operation, Boston University is suing eight Internet sites it claims are breaking a Massachusetts law prohibiting the sale of term papers.
The lawsuit was filed in federal court yesterday, charging the sites with racketeering and committing wire and mail fraud. BU is not the first to go after what many call "cheater" sites. In July, South Plains College in Texas sent letters to more than 40 Web sites, warning them that a new state law prohibited the selling of term papers or essays to college students in the Lone Star state.
The handful of sites BU is targeting were picked by a paralegal and law clerk for the university, who were told to surf the Net and identify sites that took cash for papers. The clerk apparently told the services that she was taking a summer English literature course and was desperate for a paper analyzing the mother-daughter relationship in Toni Morrison's Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, Beloved.
"There was some discussion [with the services] about what she needed in terms of the format, typeface, whether the pages were to be numbered, and how to format the contents of the title page," said Kevin Carleton, the university's spokesman.
Such sites usually feature a disclaimer stating that the term papers are only to be used for research and are not to be turned in for credit. The sites named in the lawsuit charge about $15 for prewritten reports. Some fees climb to $5.95 to $15 per page for special orders.
"We don't make a title page or add students' names to our papers. I'm quite friendly with seven of the other eight companies and none of them do that either," said Andrew Green, a research assistant for The Paper Store Enterprises, which is named in the suit.
The Paper Store, he added, marks each report with a copyright notice, an example of how to cite the company's research within a paper, and warns customers that "it is both unethical and illegal to submit someone else's work as your own for academic credit."
Boston University alleges that the high price tag for Web-based research papers, combined with the customization services, only amount to one thing: cheating.
"The Internet raises the ability for the term paper company and student to get together," Carleton said. "This damages the relationship between the students and the university and the university and the public. When some students cheat, the work of all students is called into question."
Pointing to a 1973 statute that criminalizes selling term papers to the state's students, the university wants to block the sites from coming into the state and is asking for unspecified damages. The lawsuit also seeks access to the sites' records to determine whether any of the university's students have purchased a paper over the Net and submitted it as their own work.
At least one site that is under fire says it already lets instructors check on specific students. "Our records are always open; all they had to is ask. We'll tell teachers what help we gave to their students," Green said.
Green said he's been in touch with most of the defendants and that they plan to fight the university.
"This is a witch hunt. The business of selling research has existed since the 1960s," he noted. "I seriously doubt this [university] will get the United States of America to say we can't be on the Web."