By Colleen Vallo
Adviser to The Tystenac
Students praised its services; educators deplored it. And for more than 37 years a Tiffin-based company prospered as a self-proclaimed international business dealing in ready-made "literary productions"—in other words it sold research papers to students.
Ah, the good old days before robots roamed the internet, revealing recycled papers through plagiarism detecting services, such as Turnitin.com, the good old days when the lazy, the desperate or clueless Johnny come lately could readily pass off a paper as his own and businesses could make money supplying them.
But it wasn’t' cheap to cheat. According to a 1901 advertisement for the Tiffin-based Colchester, Roberts and Co., which called its prices "the very lowest rate," high school orations and essays sold for $3 to $8; college essays, orations and debates cost $3 to $15; political speeches and lectures ranged from $10 to $30. Bear in mind that the average hourly rate of pay for skilled laborers at that time was 50 cents.
To keep business brisk, the company, based downtown at 11 Court St., made prodigious use of mass mailing circulars and classified ads, such as this one that appeared in the October 1901 St. Stephen's College Messenger: "For outlines and for material for essays and orations, address Colchester, Roberts and Company, Tiffin, Ohio." It was a simpler time indeed when mail could reach its recipients without a street address or zip code. Similar advertisements appeared in the Tarheel, the student newspaper for University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Purdue University's The Debris, as well as national magazines, including The Nation. Sometimes the mass mailings were addressed at large to "a member of the senior class" at high schools throughout the country with the instruction that "if not delivered to the person addressed, please hand to some student."
To show its appreciation for the literary production service, The (Purdue) Debris newspaper staff dedicated its hard-bound compilation of the newspapers from the 1894-95 academic year to Colchester, Roberts and Co.: "This charming volume will appear in August, ’95. The binding, which will be in Hyde, is a special feature, the ideas of the editors being all strongly hide-bound. The dedication is extremely appropriate—To Colchester Roberts & Co., of Tiffin, Ohio, who have [sic] enabled ’95 to skin [sic] through college." This section of the editor's column reads as if it had been quickly skimmed during proofreading.
This need for busy students to quickly skim through their assignments was one of the selling points in the company's longer advertisement which read: "We are at present, as in the past, supplying the busy students of the country with all kinds of Literary Productions. … [O]ur work is becoming more and more a necessity to the student as he becomes a specialist in education, and to the man who, as the victim of circumstances, is forced to perform literary labors, for which he has neither the time nor the adaptability."
Not everyone found the company praiseworthy. The Atlantic Monthly criticized it after an advertising circular reached the editor's desk. The April 1, 1900 issue of the education journal, The Intelligence, decried the service for preying "upon the souls of weak but innocent young people" and further stated that "these scoundrels would tempt the young person to stand upon the graduating platform before friends and neighbors with a production that plainly declared that he or she had both the time and adaptability for the literary labor represented in it." The journal also expressed sorrow for the town of Tiffin for "harbor[ing] such an infamous business concern."
A 1900 semi-annual issue of the Educational Review went so far as to muse whether the penal code of Ohio could "reach this form of enterprise." While time rather than fines shut down Tiffin's term paper mill, committing academic fraud is still frowned upon just like it was in the good old days. At Tiffin University offenders may find themselves facing the fine of an "F" on the paper or in the entire course.