BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. Millions of college kids have traveled home for Thanksgiving this weekend, but before they left school there were midterms to take and – eww – papers to write. Some students pulled all-nighters, studying the texts, reviewing notes, searching for primary and secondary sources - and churning out pages. Others put Google on overdrive, cutting, pasting and stitching together a patchwork of other people’s ideas.
For still others, online plagiarism was simply too laborious, so they pulled out their credit cards and bought their term papers from people like our guest. Writer Nick Mamatas spent several years doing other people’s assignments for them, an experience he wrote about last month for the Drexel University online magazine The Smart Set. Nick, welcome to the show. NICK MAMATAS: Thanks. BOB GARFIELD: Okay, let's start with some terminology. You refer in your piece to, quote, “model term papers” [LAUGHS], as if anyone actually used your work simply as a template or a how-to. Do you know of any instance in which your work wasn't handed in under your customer’s name? NICK MAMATAS: Oh sure, for a lot of these clients handing in something that is any good would be so obviously not their own work that they do try to rewrite it. BOB GARFIELD: They take what you've said and worsen it. NICK MAMATAS: That's right. They put in their own words, their own horrible, horrible words. BOB GARFIELD: All right. Now, I'm wondering about the mechanics of the business. You’re willing to sell yourself for money. How do you get your clients? NICK MAMATAS: Well, I worked through brokers. I was a freelancer, and these brokers would handle most of the dealing with the clients because the clients are sort of – well, they're – essentially they're so dumb that most of them don’t even understand their assignments. So the broker is there to talk with them over the phone for sometimes hours, trying to get what the actual assignment is. The brokers take the financial risk of using like the credit card and deal with the customer service and what-not. So they collect two-thirds of the money or so from that. BOB GARFIELD: Got it. Now, you wrote that the clientele fell into three main categories. Can you give me the thumbnails? NICK MAMATAS: Sure. Well, the first category, as we've already hinted at, was the dumb client, and one of my brokers would even have “dumb client” in the email describing that, so I would know not to make the paper too good.
The second are sort of the one-timers, people who have one bad class or who got sick, and out of an act of desperation, you know, buy a single paper.
And the third were people who just weren't very good with English, and they had advanced degrees in their home countries but they didn't qualify here, so they had to go to school again. And, for the most part, they would just write their own papers and we would rewrite those in proper English. BOB GARFIELD: The biggest part of the business was the so-called “dumb clients”? NICK MAMATAS: Oh, yes, oh, yes, definitely more than half. BOB GARFIELD: And how did your customers do? Did you find out what grades you got for them? NICK MAMATAS: Oh sure. Both when they were thrilled they'd, you know, say, oh, we want you to do the second paper because the first one was just so great for us. Of course, when they failed miserably, you know, we also heard about that a lot, too. BOB GARFIELD: You mean, you got paid to write papers and the people flunked? NICK MAMATAS: Oh sure, they flunked for several reasons. People hand them in and, obviously, they don't even realize that it’s obviously not their work. BOB GARFIELD: Let me just quote from you here. Quote, “Writing model term papers is above-board and perfectly legal. Thanks to the First Amendment it’s protected speech, right up there with neo-Nazi rallies, tobacco company press releases and those ‘9/11 was an inside job’ bumper stickers.”
So, I mean, I don't want to be putting words in your mouth, but I think what you’re saying is legal but repulsive, sleazy. NICK MAMATAS: Oh, sure. BOB GARFIELD: Unethical, morally disgraceful. Am I leaving anything out? NICK MAMATAS: No, that pretty much sums it up, yeah. BOB GARFIELD: So Nick, how do you rationalize your behavior? I mean, it sounds kind of whorish to me. NICK MAMATAS: Mm, well again, I also think that prostitution should be legal, and I've written several term papers about that over the years.
As far as my own work in term papers, basically I felt my other writing was more important. You know, everyone makes these decisions. What about people who work in munitions factories, or who work for defense contractors?
So we all make these decisions. It’s just a cost benefit analysis. In the end, I felt I benefited from writing these papers ‘cause it allowed me to work at home and write novels and short stories and articles. And the people who were buying the papers, well, they - that was their decision. They could take that as a model paper, and many of them did. They could hand it in and roll the dice, ‘cause I was always happy, always thrilled, actually, to hand in a paper to a professor. If the client, you know, was trying to pull one over on me, or was even nasty to me sometimes, I'd just sort of like secretly fax it. BOB GARFIELD: Wait, wait, wait. What did you do? You submarined your own client for cheating? NICK MAMATAS: [LAUGHS] Sometimes yes, if they were nasty to me. You have to sign a document saying, I will use this paper only for research purposes, etc., etc., when you buy one of these papers. So if they broke that rule, all I'm doing by sending the professor the same paper is giving him a heads-up. BOB GARFIELD: Wow. Now you’re scaring me. I hear your rationalization. Of course, mind you, I don't buy it. But now that this is all behind you, is there nothing about your personal conduct that torments you as an enabler for cheaters? NICK MAMATAS: No, because I think a lot of those cheaters ended up getting their own in the end. You know, they ended up – karma tends to work out in my favor, or in the favor of people who don't cheat. BOB GARFIELD: I don't predict the future much, but I can - NICK MAMATAS: Okay. BOB GARFIELD: - I'm going to predict it this time. We're going to run this conversation, and well, the online comments will go as follows: Ninety percent are going to say, what’s the matter with this guy? I felt dirty just listening to him trying to rationalize his own unsavory behavior. Is there anything you want to say to those people, kind of in advance, maybe to preemptively address their concerns? NICK MAMATAS: After the essay came out in Thesmartset.com last month, I got a lot of email from people, and some of them were from professors saying, how can I, you know, see if I have cheating students? I said well, quiz them on their papers afterward. Just, you know, talk to them informally about the content of their papers.
And I got about a dozen or so emails from people, some of them who have Ph.D.s, some of them who were graduate students and some of them who were just independent writers or what-not, saying, can you introduce me to your old broker? BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Oh, my God! [LAUGHING] Oh, Nick. Thank you very much for coming on to the show and taking this drubbing. NICK MAMATAS: No problem. BOB GARFIELD: Nick Mamatas is the author of two novels. His piece The Term Paper Artist, about his experience as a paper-writer-for-hire, appeared last month in The Smart Set, a journal published online by Drexel University. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]