The lecture theatre I’m trying to enter holds three hundred, but the security doors only admit two people at a time. Smart. I wait with the gang — Isha, Barb and Zach — in the underground atrium.
“Lin,” Isha asks me, “you totally don’t have to tell me, but are you on brain–rec?”
“No. I mean, not yet, anyway.”
“I am,” Isha admits.
The gang gasp. Isha is normally squeaky–clean.
“I didn’t cheat! I was on face–rec,” Isha explains, “but then I was writing my Decadence essay and the face–rec didn’t know who I was, because I was wearing a hat. So the department put me on brain–rec, too.” She frowns. “It’s not fair. It was my thinking hat.”
The gang coos. Isha is adorable.
The gang were thrown together in a hall of residence in their first year of University. Isha is sweet, Barb is melodramatic and Zach is nerdy. Not well–suited, they nevertheless became fiercely loyal and emotionally pot–bound. Now, in their second year, they’re renting a house together. I’m shy. I’m not one of the gang, yet. I’m Zach’s girlfriend.
“What do they do if you fail the brain–rec?” Isha asks.
“They’ve got truth drugs,” says Barb.
This is a peril of studying literature: scientific illiteracy. I don’t tell them that truth drugs don’t work. I don’t want a reputation for being a know–it–all.
We don’t discuss the subject we’re studying. Maybe it’s too personal, or too easy to say something clueless. So we keep talking about plagiarism, probation, punishment. A vision of a grubby grail hovers before us: undetectable plagiarism.
“My mate said his friend’s, like, cracked the code,” Zach tells us. “He’s not doing any work, just twiddling his thumbs, and he’s going to stroll out with a First.”
Isha reminds everyone that plagiarism is foul and most unnatural. I say something bland about fear and failure.
Barb bellows at me: “You don’t have to worry about failing, you swot!” Then backpedals: “You’re totally not a swot, sorry.” My family’s Chinese, and perhaps Barb doesn’t want to stereotype me. But it’s fair enough, I’m pretty swotty. I don’t talk about it, but the girls have guessed that I still live with my parents, and they’re academically pushy.
Complaints about how much everyone is paying in fees, how much everyone is working, how much everyone is expected to write, are passed up and down the queue like a bag of crisps.
“What did you get for the Decadence essay, Lin?” asks Isha.
I drop my head. Zach hugs me. We’ve reached the card–slots and cameras of the security doors.
“Don’t worry about it, Lin.” Barb says. “Decadence is the least of our fucking problems.”
She swipes her card to and fro, fast as a hummingbird. We all shove through the doors together.
Barb issues a significant invitation: “You should come to Club Sandwich at the Union with us. It’s horrible.”
Whenever I pass the Union it smells of bleach, beer and vomit.
“I totally would,” I say, “But I’ve always got a lecture the next day, first thing.”
I scan the rows of the lecture theatre. I can see twenty women who look a bit like me. Six of us have the same hairstyle. A few of them are wearing gold eye–shadow. I might try that. I tend to copy people. I wish I could be more original, but it feels risky.
Zach and I sit next to one another, and our knees touch as Zach gets out his department–issue device, logs on and thumb–prints in to type his notes. I crack open my paper notebook, and he smiles because I’m old fashioned.
My ex–boyfriend, Linton, became entranced by plagiarism.
He was writing a doctorate on a handful of black American writers and their inter–textual influences. Doctorates are very specific. But they need momentum to get going. So you generalise a little, add a slug of confirmation bias, so you can believe you’ve got something huge.
Linton began to see inter–textuality everywhere. Anything ‘new’ grew out of revision, transformation and theft. We weren’t just standing on the shoulders of giants; the giants threw us in the air, and we hauled them up with us. He told me when we met: we dance with giants in the air, man.
I probably encouraged his exaggeration. Relationships need momentum to get going, too.
Around the same time, Linton’s University made him sign a four–page document stating that he wouldn’t plagiarise.
It took him a week to reason himself into it. He got philosophical and then incredulous and then paranoid and then did them all again, drunk. He argued it out with his tutor, and his tutor said “Yes, but Linton. Seriously.” He found that the text of the anti–plagiarism document had been copied directly from another institution’s anti–plagiarism agreement and rolled on his bedroom floor with hysteria.
But he signed it. Then the bad faith ate at him.
He started to talk a lot about undetectable plagiarism.
First, he was going to write software that would generate essays.
“It’s a problem crying out for a smart solution. You know what smart is?”
“No, you’re clever. Smart is when you have huge datasets, and a bit of processing power. You ask a question, the smart–thing pulls in data and filters it and personalises the output. Like, you ask where can I buy…”
“Dinner for my girlfriend, who helped me with my thesis today?”
“Yeah, dinner! The smart–thing checks restaurant locations, menus, reviews. Now, there are databases full of essays, articles… If I create something smart, it can pull them in, and answer an essay question.”
“ ‘Is Hamlet mad’ isn’t the same as ‘Can I have extra mozzarella’.”
“In some ways, it’s identical.”
Linton programmed a simple Markov bot. He fed it essays and the bot learned their rules. Then he asked it to churn out new essays, unoriginal but unique.
The new essays were like a child babbling down a crackly phone line. Linton swore and started again.
Later that day I hear Isha crying in her room. She can’t find any relevant material for her essay, and the deadline’s at midnight. I offer to help her.
“Would you really?”
“It’ll take an hour. I can teach you how to use the databases.”
“Oh, I couldn’t. That wouldn’t be fair, you’ve got your own work—”
“Buy me a pint at Club Sandwich, some time.”
Isha plugs in her dedicated device. An oval light shines up at her: the face–rec. She isn’t wearing her thinking hat, this time. I stay away from the camera so as not to confuse it and risk her reputation. She sticks two cheap sensor suckers to her temples, embarrassed, and tucks the wires into her cardigan. Brain–rec. I’ve not seen it in action, before.
I talk her through the big databases in our subject area, the differences between them. I set her some test exercises and make her a cup of tea while she completes them. Then on to the fun part — refining search terms, pinning down page numbers, whittling irrelevancies.
At the end of it, it’s taken two hours, and we have six good articles, and she knows how to do it for herself next time.
“You’re sooo clever,” she says, correctly.
“Well, I’m smart. Just, you know, ask if you need anything else.”
“You’re so kind.” She sounds uncertain, as though I’m trespassing on her territory. I want to reassure her: I’m shy and swotty but I’m not really sweet. She can keep sweet. And she doesn’t know how kind I’m being.
Linton studied the leading text–matching service. It besmirched the white innocent page of the essay by highlighting unauthorised quotes, each separate source in a different colour. A plagiarised essay would light up like a Christmas tree.
Linton made a programme which turned all the Es in an essay into something that looked like an E but wasn’t, so that the text–matching service couldn’t recognise it. The service became a blustering idiot: Fourscor3 y3ars and t3n? Never heard of it! I hav3 a dr3am?!
Essays treated with Linton’s programme had a 0% match, were white as snow.
“But that’s just as suspicious as a 100% match,” Linton admitted.
Linton made a synonym swapper. He told it that the plot of the Sensation novel, in essence, owes much to the Gothic novel. It told him that the scam of the funky tingle, in pith, is in hock to the Barbaric quirky.
“It sounds good, yeah?”
“It sounds like an encyclopaedia with a head injury.”
“It’s getting there.”
Linton tried to teach code to write like people. Like hung–over, distracted, overworked amateurs. Like students.
Linton realised that he was trying to simultaneously solve all the major problems of language and computing and creativity, to invent a product he could never sell.
My phone wakes me at just past midnight, and I can’t remember which scruffy room I’m in. The poster of Tim Berners–Lee’s benign eyes (‘THIS IS FOR EVERYONE’) doesn’t narrow it down much. I slap the phone to silence it, and when my disorientation passes, I slip out from under Zach’s arm to talk in the hallway.
Barb is phoning me, crying, from the library. The results from her last essay were released onto her device at 00:00.
The mark isn’t what she’d wanted.
“It’ll be on my transcript for ever! I’ll get suspended!”
“It’s alright for you! You’re going to get a First!” She wails for a bit: starve in a gutter, go on the game.
I interrupt. “If you come home and sleep now, I’ll talk to your tutor with you tomorrow.”
“Print me off a copy of the version you submitted and put it under Zach’s door. And don’t write anything about it on your device — no messages, no notes, OK? See you at eight in the kitchen.”
She is snottily grateful. I return to bed.
“What was that?” Zach asks, wrapping his skinny arms round me.
“Barb. Didn’t get the grade she needed on Modernism.”
“You’re the good deed fairy, you are,” he says, rambling, half–awake.
I feel his arms slacken in sleep. I stay awake, waiting for Barb to slide the essay under the door. I build the case for the defence.
Barb swipes us into the Tower and we climb the concrete stairs. I review my longhand pencil notes. She fiddles with her device. I want to remind her not to drop it; it’s a nightmare to get the department to replace them.
We have a ten o’clock appointment with her tutor. Barb has drawn heavy lines round her big eyes. She’d better not use her wiles on him.
“What are you going to tell him?” I ask.
She starts her panic breathing but I grip her arm and she says: “That I did read a lot of critical material, and I drew pretty heavily on one source —”
“Mitchell, 1980. But I didn’t understand how to reference it.”
“OK. And don’t ask him to change the grade.”
“But that’s what I need!”
“Yes, but it’s rude to ask. Just say ‘I’m worried about getting into trouble.’ That means ‘change my grade’.”
“He’s going to flay me!”
“This is the least of your fucking problems,” I tell her, to reassure her. She looks shocked, and I remember that I don’t usually swear in front of her. I reach past her and knock on the office door.
I only catch a glimpse of him, as she enters: a young man in corduroy, elbows on knees and fingers steepled. Playing at being an academic. The name on the door isn’t his; he’s a PhD student borrowing the office. This year is the first time he’s taught. I’m not psychic — this is all public information, if you cross–reference. He’s under–trained and underpaid and scared that he hasn’t got it right. Maybe the wiles would work.
I’m doomed for a certain term to walk the corridor and eavesdrop. I move far enough away from the door that they won’t hear me speaking, and I listen in through Barb’s microphone.
He has a soothing voice, impersonating other people who have taught him. “…but Barbara, it’s a very respectable grade!”
“I’m worried about getting into trouble,” Barb says, shrill in my ear.
When he speaks — “Why would you be worried?” — I know she’s infected him with her panic. He’s afraid he’s failed to spot something, and there will be a referral, a process.
“Tell him about Mitchell,” I say into her earpiece.
She tells him.
“Tell him you put it in the bibliography.”
“I did put it in the bibliography!” Barb retorts, a loud defensive non sequitur, which is even better — no tutor wants to deal with a mental health crisis. Barb rephrases herself: “I mean, I did put it in the bibliography, but I didn’t know how to reference it properly…”
The tutor sighs with relief and spends ten minutes discussing ways of acknowledging sources. He’s pretty good. I jot some of his tips in my notebook.
“Make sure he’s going to change the grade,” I remind Barb. “You’re still worried…”
“I’m still worried that I’m going to get into trouble.”
“It’s a fine grade, it won’t affect…”
“Mention probation,” I prompt.
“I’ll go on probation and they’ll make me work in the cells, and I can’t, I’m claustrophobic.”
“I mean the Supported Learning Unit.”
“Oh, I see. I’m not sure whether I can actually —”
I want to barge the door open and show him. I have to instruct him through Barb: “Tell him your friend had his grade changed.”
Double puppetry: I work Barb, she works her tutor. “My friend’s tutor put something, hang on, he wrote post–tutorial grade adjustment on the — what? The online feedback sheet…” She dips in and out of fluency, sounds like she’s possessed. I think: I can’t keep doing this. As soon as the procedure’s complete, I yank Barb out of my ear and leave her to say her own goodbyes.
Barb catches me up on the stairs.
“Why did you give me a fucking A essay, anyway?”
“You wanted better grades.”
“I wanted a C+! Maybe a B.” That single A, in amongst Barb’s Cs and Ds, would have triggered an avalanche of new anti–plagiarism measures. Hopefully, we’ve averted that.
“It was a B–, at best. Your tutor’s a soft marker, doesn’t want his students crying all over him.”
She’s glaring at me, but she still needs me. We have a pre–existing appointment that evening, because she owes the department an essay on psychoanalysis in contemporary women’s fiction.
And it’s fine. I don’t like her, either.
The ones I don’t like, I do everything for them. I run all the searches and don’t show them how to use the databases. I steal their style and I tidy their grammar, but I don’t tell them what a comma splice is or how to use a semi–colon. They bob along. Sometimes they think what I do for them looks easy, and they try to write something of their own; their grades dip down, and they come back to me, begging. But their arrogance, their attempts to break away, keep them on the borderline between passing and failing. In their final year, around Easter, they realise everything hangs on their dissertation. They just can’t risk doing it themselves. And by then, nobody else knows their style. By then, I am their style.
And I fleece them. If you’ve paid so much in fees, how much more would you pay, to not fail your entire degree?
It’s not entirely personal. I like Isha, but it helps to have a lot of goodwill in my cover–house. I dislike Barb, but it also helps to have someone in my cover–house who’s in as deep as possible. Not handy tips for the promise of a pint. The full service.
Barb is still glaring at me when we settle in her room for the evening’s work. I have pages of handwritten preparatory notes. (Never type anything, never use a device. Never leave a trail. Electronic document barely exist but they never stop barely existing.)
The log–in takes forever. Password and thumb–print and luminous face, suckers on her temples like extra nipples, and more passwords and a voice–check.
“It’s measuring my stress levels, isn’t it? How should I be? Should I be calm, or terrified, or…” She’s nervous because she’s cheating, she’s calm because I’m going to write her an impeccable C+ essay. She’s nervous because she’s not sure if she’s nervous enough.
“It doesn’t test stress.”
“Of course it does. Doesn’t it?”
“How would they know how stressed you ought to be?” I imagine complex charts, with variables for parental income, bar job, caffeine and tranquilisers, with a slider to adjust for how close to the deadline the student has started typing. “It’s checking your brain activity.”
“Oh God, it’ll know…”
“It’s not that sensitive. We’ll be fine. I’ll explain it, bit by bit, you’ll write an essay plan, then I dictate the essay.”
She frowns. She wants it to be over quicker.
“It’ll be useful if you understand the argument, in case they pull you in for a viva.”
“They won’t, will they?”
“They’ll ask to see the essay plan, first. But they viva 5% of second year essays.”
Barb looks sick, so I give her a pep talk: “This way, you understand what you’re writing about. Which is good, because we want to learn, not just get the degree. Don’t we?” A little humour, there.
The brain–rec is incredibly crude, and my precautions should fool it utterly. Its outputs look like crayon drawings. The detection tech always fails, and sometimes I think it fails because it’s striving for the impossible, the philosophical. A sniffer dog, or an honest gumshoe, would ask: are there phrases which match other sources? Was this file originally created eight years ago, in the wrong country? Simple things.
Detectors ask impossible things. What does a lie sound like? How does an honest man breathe? They want to photograph the shadow as it falls across the soul.
I’ve reread one of Barb’s essays to catch her style. I’ll drop in ‘furthermore’ every page, weave in some multi–sub–clause sentences deliberately. But most of my imitation is intuitive artistry. I take on her crooked way of thinking, and her writing comes naturally to me.
I consult my notes. “OK, so: the phantom in psychoanalysis! The phantom comes back, but he doesn’t want to set things right, he just wants to continue a cover–up…”
I could write a better piece. I don’t build an elegant argument, stack up unique evidence, deliver a killer punch. It’s only a second year essay, and it can’t be higher than a C+. I wish I could write more for the final–year students, but I can only write for the modules which are taught through large lectures. I’d be spotted in small seminar discussions, despite my boring hair and my boring clothes.
The polite term for what I do is ghost–writing. Sometimes I’m ghostly. When I creep into lecture theatres. When I need someone to swipe me in and out of buildings, to pick up their device, to type for me, as though I can’t touch objects. When the lecturer says, ‘Any questions?’ and I’m bursting with questions, but I can’t have a voice. When I see my face reflected in the screen of someone else’s device and I pull away before the face–rec can catch me.
But the writing itself doesn’t make me feel like a ghost. I’m shaping, knitting, hacking, building, and never more alive.
If there’s a ghost in me, it’s my conscience, which is undetectable by current tech.
Suddenly, Barb cries out. I peer over at the screen of her device.
Another window has opened, an image in moody blues with splats of mustard yellow. A blue figure solidifies out of the general fog, and another shrinks back and melts away. At the foot of the screen lie two twitching red blots.
I jump away from the screen and scramble towards the window. I wrench it open, and Barb is yelling, terrified, and springs up after me but is tethered to her device by her brain–wires and drags it half across the room. I wave my hands to keep her away from me. I lean out of the window as far as I can, sitting on the sill, out into the cold air, away from the device.
Because that screen — which I shouldn’t have seen — was a combination of heart monitoring and thermal imaging. I didn’t know the devices could do such things.
I signal to Barb, hand over my mouth, pointing to the floor: sit down, shut up.
She scowls. She points at me, then makes two of her fingers run like little legs, across her other palm and off the edge, peddling in mid–air. She thought I was going to jump out of the window. I don’t let myself laugh in case the device is audio–recording.
I tell her with gestures to put the earpiece back in. I can whisper the rest through my phone from here on the windowsill. It’ll be awkward, and annoying, and my arse hurts already from balancing.
When we’re done, Barb pulls the sweaty suckers off her head, and I hobble out of the door before she can speak.
And Isha is haunting the hallway and she calls after me: “I know what you do. I heard you and Barb talking about it.” The sound insulation in student houses is terrible.
She is shaking with indignation. Maybe she’ll try to throw me out of the house.
“You need to write my Victorian essay for me, or I’ll report you.”
Sweet little Isha! The worm turns! She’s been nervous lately, and her perfectionism drags her grades down.
I mentally review my portfolio. I’m running some students at another college, across town. They bring enough money for me to live on. But it would be a shame to lose Barb, and the other students at this University, before they mature — before the big pay–off from their dissertations next year.
“I’ll write it, but you need to pay me.”
“You’re a cheat.”
“And you’re a blackmailer! Except I’m not going to write for free, so you’re not even a successful blackmailer.” I’m amused because it reminds me of an old joke — we’ve already established what kind of women we are; now we’re just haggling.
“How the fuck is it different?” She looks more shocked at my swearing than my ghost–writing. I’ve been a good shy swot. I try reasoning. “Let’s start again. You don’t want the person who writes your coursework to be pissed off at you. That’s just —” Fuck–witted, I think, but I keep it clean. “That’s handing me a weapon.”
“You couldn’t report me. They’d kick you out, as well.”
“Kick me out of where?”
“Bless you. I’m not a student here.”
We’ve known one another for a year, practically lived together for the last six months. She counters surprisingly quickly. “Well, where–ever you’re studying. I’ll tell them, they’ll kick you out.”
The solipsism of youngsters protects me all the time, but sometimes it’s staggering. Knowing it means the loss of this whole house, I say:
“Isha, I’m not a student. I haven’t been a student for years.”
I duck into Zach’s room while she’s still blinking.
Linton got bitter. Academia was a pyramid selling scheme. We’d polished our PhDs, churned out scholarly articles which nobody read, and taught undergraduates for minimum wage. But there weren’t any jobs for us. I had a couple of interviews for lectureships but — possibly because I looked so young — nobody took me seriously.
Linton would wake in the middle of the night gripped by new ways to plagiarise. He stopped thinking of selling his solutions, and planned to give them away for free, the keys to the ivory tower.
Meanwhile, I marked hundreds of essays in which the stolen sections stood out like dolmen on a dull landscape.
I stopped listening to Linton, because it seemed simple to me: the most rigorous tech couldn’t beat slippery, dishonest flesh. But the most eloquent, creative tech couldn’t persuade a human marker, either. It was stalemate. To write a convincing fake essay, you’d need to be human and on the ground. Attend the lectures, collect the hand–outs, read the lecturer’s favourite sources. Remind yourself how students thought and sounded. You’d have to spend time with them, but that would be easy. Their social circles were passionate but weirdly permeable. In fact, if you hooked up with one of them, you’d have an instant sample group.
Linton’s mania progressed so far that when his final submission deadline arrived, he had nothing to submit. I had to write his thesis. I wrote it with him, at first, standing over him, questioning him, kept him typing and talking. When he flagged, I wrote it for him.
We worked, night and day, for a fortnight, and then parted. He was rotten, or he wouldn’t have let me do it; our relationship was rotten, and I had to end it. (I don’t mean to duck the blame, but I still can’t decide. Was I already rotten, or I wouldn’t have done it? Or did I, during that fortnight — living a double life, over double–length days — bend too far, and become rather more flexible than before?)
“You could alter the students’ genetic code,” Linton woke me to tell me, one day in that endless fortnight.
“You could make them fluoresce if their stress levels reached a certain point.”
“Go to sleep. Some of us have to write your thesis in the morning.”
“Turn them into human lie detectors. You could switch off the lights in a lecture theatre, shout ‘who’s been cheating’, and boom — pull in all the glowing students.”
“Hang on — isn’t that a detection idea?” I asked.
Concealing plagiarism and detecting it went hand in hand; Linton had been watching the detectives so he could design his dodges. When his fascination became all–consuming, he forgot which side he was on, and just marvelled at the fight. After he passed his viva, after we broke up, Linton got a job with one of the biggest plagiarism detection companies. He writes impeccably original copy for their publicity.
When I got my own doctorate, I went into the plagiarism business as well. I didn’t have a vendetta, like Linton. I just wanted to keep learning, and writing, and if there was nobody who wanted to read my ideas, there were certainly people who wanted to buy them.
I’m smart. I have a small, high–speed processor, and access to huge datasets. I can pull in information, quickly filter it and tailor my outputs. But I’m also clever.
Students approach me warily, broaching the subject outside the library, and they always think there’s a single solution: a magic formula, a cloak of invisibility. Managing their disappointment became part of my job, breaking it to them gently that the only way to write an essay is to write an essay.
Zach is sitting with his back to me, so it takes me a moment to see that he’s unpacking my bag. He’s heard me arguing with Isha. He’s looking for evidence. Clever.
He’s laid all the faces out on the bed, side by side. And of course they look creepy, like a decapitated choir. Which is unfair, because they’re purely pragmatic. The face–rec is, indeed, stupid, and I can pop on a mask and pass as one of my clients long enough to type their essay for them. The faces are just colour photocopies, with pieces of elastic, not weird rubber masks or anything.
There’s a trio of students from China; they pay huge fees, they’re not used to this country’s referencing conventions, and nobody’s got time to explain it to them. There are four incredibly posh but not very literate finalists from the Home Counties. A couple of mature students. Each name is written in pencil on the back of its face.
“You’ve just been lying to me forever,” Zach says.
I don’t say: “No, it only feels like forever because you’re, what, nineteen?”
I’m sick of being Mr Chips and Mrs Robinson.
The truth is, students are so similar to one another they might as well have been cut and pasted. Someone is always sweet and someone is always melodramatic and someone is always nerdy. I can always half–live in a student house with them (retreating to Linton’s spare room whenever I need to, because he’ll owe me forever). I can pick up enough — words, clothes, gestures — to blend in. And I can pick up the kind, nerdy boy who’s pleased to be picked, who believes I live with my strict parents who he can never meet. I’m a good girlfriend. And I’m fond of Zach. I’ve been fond of all my cover–boys. I have sympathy for him, for all of them, paying so much to get a leg up a broken ladder, with unemployment waiting for them at the top.
He’s looking at me with disgust, though, and my patience for that is limited.
“How can you do it?”
It’s only plagiarism. Two–thirds of his housemates have asked me to help them cheat. None of us are monsters. We’re symptoms of a sick system.
And then his face crinkles up, as much as those super–young faces can crinkle, and he says, “I liked you.”
He’s angry about our relationship, not my job. That’s fair enough, I was pretty despicable.
He says, “How old are you?”
Which they almost always ask, and which is the least of their fucking problems.
More from E. Saxey: