Cheating is so widespread these days. Students take stuff off the Internet, uncredited, with little remorse. What is there to stop them?

Maybe we have missed something. Maybe dishonest shortcuts are not as irresistible as they seem. Consider, for instance, a remarkable column by Dan Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business.

His examination of cheating in college appeared in the Los Angeles Times under the headline “What money can’t buy.” He credits his lab manager, Aline Grunelson, with helping arrange a sting of the term paper industry. The piece’s contrarian conclusion is both troubling and heartening, a neat trick.

Ariely designed an experiment to test his worries about essay mills. They provide papers to order for high school and college students. The companies say they are only supplying reference material — wink, wink — but everyone knows what is going on. Ariely ordered an essay from four companies. He told them he wanted 12 pages for a college-level social psychology class using 15 sources, conforming to American Psychological Association style guidelines.

He gave them this topic: “When and why do people cheat? Consider the social circumstances involved in dishonesty, and provide a thoughtful response to the topic of cheating. Address various forms of cheating (personal, at work, etc.) and how each of these can be rationalized by a social culture of cheating.”

All four companies accepted the assignment. They requested $150 to $216 in advance, which Ariely paid. I wonder how he listed that on his expense account.

When the papers arrived, on schedule, two weeks later, he felt both astonishment and relief. “What we got back from the mills can best be described as gibberish,” he wrote. “A few of the papers attempted to mimic APA style, but none achieved it without glaring errors. Citations were sloppy. Reference lists contained outdated and unknown sources, including blog posts.”

The writing was awful, Ariely said. It looked like some of the work had been outsourced to overseas providers not comfortable with the English language. Ariely offered this sample paragraph:

“Cheating by healers. Healing is different. There is harmless healing, when healers-cheaters and wizards offer omens, lapels, damage to withdraw the husband-wife back and stuff. We read in the newspaper and just smile. But these days fewer people believe in wizards.”

Here is another: “If the large allowance of study undertook on scholar betraying is any suggestion of academia and professors’ powerful yearn to decrease scholar betraying, it appeared expected these mind-set would component into the creation of their school room guidelines.”

Ariely is as puzzled as I am that paper mills could be thriving in this weak economy when what they are selling is so bad. I would welcome e-mails to or comments on my blog at from students (I will protect your identities) or teachers who have dealt with term paper providers. Are standards so low that even these messes get passing grades?

Ariely has a new book, “The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty,” well worth reading. I admire his daring and imagination. At the end of this experiment, he checked the essays for plagiarism and asked for his money back from the two companies whose papers were 35 to 39 percent copied from other work.

Both companies sent him indignant messages of denial. One, still thinking it was dealing with a student, even threatened to expose Ariely by calling his college dean and revealing that he had purchased an essay from a paper mill.

Have standards of honor and composition sunk that low? Tell me what you know. Ariely has given students who use others’ work something to consider. No matter how poorly prepared they are for the assignment, they may find that they are incapable of producing something as embarrassing as a paper from an essay mill.