Paper mills are hijacking college websites
February 19, 2021 9:55 AM   Subscribe

Actors working to the benefit of paper mills are infiltrating university systems via well-known vulnerabilities in their content management systems Paper mills have engaged in social engineering, by publishing “resource lists” such as “A list of scholarships for female students” or “A list of scholarships for students with special needs” aimed to persuade students with some legitimate information that is made available by university resource pages. This social engineering or “compromised recomposition,” what we define as instances in which a writer appears to have unknowingly recomposed and recirculated deceptive paper mill materials, includes fake scholarship/essay contests designed to harvest original student work.
posted by mecran01 (15 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Ah, that might explain the ebook scammer site I found operating out of a Harvard Medical School subdomain recently. Complete with the fake phpBB installation that had entries that appear to be real queries about books and false reassurances that when it asked for a credit card number it was totally fine.

(site seems to be gone now)
posted by scruss at 11:22 AM on February 19 [3 favorites]

[Quite a few deleted. The link has been corrected and it would be appreciated if folks could stick to the topic and not derail things so early in the thread. thanks!]
posted by travelingthyme (staff) at 11:35 AM on February 19 [3 favorites]

Like the other type of paper mill, these smell bad and spoil life downstream.
posted by homerica at 11:47 AM on February 19 [7 favorites]

I am intrigued and it might be true.

But, also, nothing about this paper inspires confidence. "Compromise of campus IT systems may be illegal. Fraud may be actionable as well" is not an untrue statement. It's an incredibly weird heading to use in a paper written for academics that's supposedly about the statistics of compromised websites preceeding a two sentence section. "A grounded theory approach of open coding" means nothing, as far as I can tell. I'm not in this field, but neither is their intended audience.

I'm really surprised that an associate dean at a research university is a co-author. Maybe I'm just jaded, having a bad day, and or getting old. But, it sure seems weird.
posted by eotvos at 11:47 AM on February 19 [1 favorite]

Ohhhhh, (academic) paper mills, not actual paper mills that produce paper from pulp.
posted by rodlymight at 11:49 AM on February 19 [28 favorites]

I'm not in the authors' discipline(s) but this appears to be a very normal academic study to me e.g., "A grounded theory approach of open coding" is a perfectly comprehensible description of an approach to analyzing textual data if you're at all familiar with content analysis or qualitative research. It's a bit weird that they're publishing this all on a dedicated website with its own domain name prior to peer review but that isn't a judgement of their methods or conclusions, just some unorthodox decisions about publication (the website-dedicated-to-this-one-study is much more unorthodox than the release of an unreviewed manuscript).

I'm not at all surprised by their findings. Websites are incredibly complicated and many fall prey to technical exploits and security flaws. The promotion of shady "scholarship contests" is the most disappointing finding as that is more in the area of information literacy which does not require complex technical training. I empathize with my colleagues in these student support units, however, and I suspect that website maintenance and communication is often handled by administrative assistants or students who are not well prepared (or well compensated!) to perform those jobs. In the best of times some of these student support units are not well-staffed and I would not be surprised if they were being hit particularly hard right now as the U.S. higher education sector has lost nearly 1/8 of its workforce over the past year.
posted by ElKevbo at 12:02 PM on February 19 [3 favorites]

homerica, before reading your comment as I scanned down before clicking on the link, it never even occurred to me that it wasn't the smelly kind of paper mill! That makes much more sense now. I mean, I wouldn't put it beyond the paper industry to be promoting questionable science in the interests of their industry, which could potentially include something like what was described. But it seemed like an unusual approach given that there are far more tried and true public relations tricks.
posted by eviemath at 1:18 PM on February 19

ElKevbo, one of the tabs is for a book, and it is much more common for this sort of academic book that will also have broad public appeal to have its own associated website, I think? Usually the book is a lot more front and center on the main page of the website though.
posted by eviemath at 1:21 PM on February 19 [2 favorites]

Thanks for the clarification, eviemath! I didn't catch that. It is framed oddly on the main landing page of the website but you're right that it makes a lot more sense for a webpage to be developed for a book. I look forward to learning more, partly because I'm curious to see how this is developed into a book-length treatment (I've read many a book where I thought "this would have made a great article or two but it's a stretch for a whole book!").
posted by ElKevbo at 5:06 PM on February 19 [1 favorite]

Oh, this is going to be fun to talk to my dean about. We're still coping with all the "Canvas integrated" products our IT department added at the request/demand of faculty, without checking with Legal on things like FERPA compliance. Now we can fret about our public-facing web presence too!
posted by helpthebear at 7:29 PM on February 19

Hey I know these people! I've know Jim since college and Bill was my professor in grad school. They are very good scholars in rhetoric and technical communication. And yes, this website is from when they made a book about rhetoric as a tool of information warfare. I know this report isn't peer reviewed but I assume they wanted to get it out there ASAP so people could actually do something about the problem urgently rather than wait for a journal to pick it up.

Jim's first book, Digital Samaritans, is open access. I learned from his work that Samaritans aren't just a character in the bible, they are a real minority community split between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. I was around Michigan State at the time the chief rabbi of the Samaritan community arrived to present him, Bill, and their third collaborator with medals in a scene none of us really had a description for other than "kind of like the end of A New Hope."

Also, Jim just reached the payoff of a ten year infosec related beef with/prank on the Modern Language Association. The MLA's annual convention got in the habit of registering a new domain with the year in it for every year of their convention, which Jim criticized as insecure. They ignored him. So he figured out how many years out they had domains registered (through 2020) and then registered the next one himself. He's been maintaining for a decade and it finally paid off this year.

Both authors are very active on Twitter and there's been a lot of chatter about this report!

I will stop gossiping now but honestly it is kind of exciting to see people I can vouch for in real life make the blue.
posted by Tesseractive at 8:41 PM on February 19 [8 favorites]

Although the header and URL suggest the reader is on an official university sanctioned page for Methodist University, the embedded content is included alongside legitimate links to the University Writing Center.

This is vile stuff.
posted by doctornemo at 6:18 AM on February 20

I didn't realize this was a preview of a book and not a self-contained work. I remain slighlty skeptical, but the format makes more sense. I assumed it was an academic paper. Thanks.
posted by eotvos at 9:02 AM on February 20

For the purposes of this report, we define “paper mills” as companies that sell academic writing meant to satisfy the requirements of a writing assignment. Since many schools use plagiarism detection software, such paper mills promise “clean” content that will not raise red flags in corporate plagiarism detection systems. To do that, paper mills must acquire or produce a constant supply of papers that are not already stored in existing plagiarism detection databases.
I don't think the term "paper mills" as defined in the linked paper is well-known. Or maybe I'm the outlier.

It would have been helpful if the OP gave a brief definition to explain the term.
posted by Artful Codger at 3:58 PM on February 21 [2 favorites]

Thank you Artful Codger, I was also in the dark on what that meant.
posted by Nec_variat_lux_fracta_colorem at 4:35 PM on February 21

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