Danish drama: The curious case of a journalist and a plagiarised Britney Spears essay

Jean Hannah Edelstein was delighted when an obscure article she'd written about Britney Spears became a part of the Danish curriculum. But when she learnt that knock-off study notes about her piece were being flogged online, she set out to track the perps down

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It started with a Google Alert. Yes, the one I have set up for my own name. For the most part I like to think of myself as someone who leads by example. Who stops at traffic lights. Who would never eat foul-smelling food on public transportation. But by the end of this piece I'm going to have exposed a great deal of truth about my character, so I might as well admit it: unbeknownst to those closest to me (well, except my mum; she also has a Google Alert set up for my name, which she sometimes like to alert me about) I am one of those self-searching people.

I'm not proud that I use a tool for automatic approbation. But it does come in handy sometimes. Times like that late-spring day this year when my Google Alert dropped me a line to let me know that it was possible to purchase an essay responding to an article that I wrote some years ago, about Britney Spears.

To be clearer: if my article on Britney Spears was part of your school curriculum in your English-language class, which it might be if you were a Danish student in the latter years of your education, and if the thought of writing a response to it felt like a daunting intellectual challenge, you could log on to a website called studienet.dk and download one for the affordable price of £79 for a one-month subscription.

Fellow writers might understand why this felt like the greatest moment of my literary career; the pinnacle of all of those years of pitching and typing and striving. No, the essay-for-hire is not a work of genius: users gave it two three-star ratings, and one four-star. 'Fin nok, ku være bedre' says the most recent one, which Google Translate told me means 'Fine enough, could be better'.

I didn't care. I just felt legit. Scanning the rest of the site, I was amazed that I now stood alongside many of my literary heroes – Woolf, Mantel, McEwan. I had become a writer who caused strife to young people who didn't like to do their homework.

But I also felt unsettled. Was this essay marketplace ethical? Or should I take it upon myself to track down the perpetrators and alert the people of Denmark? Should I tell them that their education system was being undermined by the public circulation of an essay that was being promoted as 'Lidt rodet, men ellers gode pointer', which is to say, 'A little messy, but otherwise good points', in which the author (a Year 11 student in a Copenhagen school) consistently misspelt 'career'?

I thought, perhaps, I should.

You may wonder how I, an obscure freelance journalist (it's cool: I know that you're reading this and don't know who I am, unless you're my mum or a student in a Danish school) became the kind of writer whose work young people would strive to avoid reading.

I share your wonder. The chapter my essay appears in includes a few other writers of note: Walt Whitman, ZZ Packer, Barack Obama. But here's the thing: when it comes to Britney Spears Studies, they've got nothing on me. Excuse my immodesty, but I think I might even be a pioneer of the field.

It was back in 2004 that I wrote my first paper on Ms Spears, for a module on celebrity narrative, an assignment for my MSc course. In the paper, I sought to achieve a qualitative analysis of the, ahem, media narratives around Britney's sexuality, with a particular focus on their development and structure in the context of puritanical American mores. I also sought to justify the many hours I'd spend skulking around WH Smith, reading issues of OK! Magazine that I was too ashamed to buy.

"You're a great writer. Very entertaining," my distinguished professor scrawled across the marking form a few months later after I handed it in, "Poor analysis. 58%".

I decided not to ask him to supervise a PhD.

I revisited Britney four years later. By then, I was working on a magazine called Bad Idea and Britney was doing things – shaving her head, whacking a photographer's car with an umbrella – that were worse ideas. In the piece, I mused on whether the tide of our respective fortunes had turned. Instead of me regarding Britney's enviable life, might the Britney of 2008 have sighed and wished that she was me? My editors titled it 'I Killed Britney Spears' and they published it with some unsettling illustrations, because that was the kind of magazine that Bad Idea was. I was pleased, though they didn't pay me. That seemed too much to expect.

Comments on Edelstein's Britney Spears article on studienet.dk

What makes anyone a writer? There must be a line to cross, one that lies between being a person who can pound out sentences on a keyboard and being Joyce Carol Oates. But without a formal licensing body, an exam board, any diktat based on divine right, the marker of a person's passage from 'non-writer' to 'writer' is unclear.

Are you a writer the first time you call yourself a writer in response to a stranger at a party who asks you what you do for a living? The first time you get paid some money for something you've written? The first time you write it on an NHS form when you've come to your GP to seek treatment for the anxiety induced by your chronic underemployment?

Or do you become a writer when you get an email from a Danish publisher asking to buy the rights to extract your article on Britney Spears in a textbook that they are compiling for Danish school students learning English as a second language?

You do: you raise your fists in a silent celebration of victory. Of arrival. You have never before imagined that you could achieve such heights of authorial legitimacy in Scandinavia.

Legitimacy you may find yourself feeling compelled to uphold.

I wasn't a plagiarist in school. But I did look for ways to cut corners. We were underachievers in PE, but my friends and I made a sport of competing to see who could get away with doing the least amount of required reading ("I only read one chapter!" "Chapter? I only read two pages!").

So my first thought upon seeing the essay was of its potential utility for cheating. Do you spend £79 a month for access to a database of material to inspire your 16-year-old self? Or do you do it because writing an essay about an essay about Britney Spears is not the best use of your 16-year-old time?

I examined the website. The proprietors had clearly given thought to this possibility. There's a disclaimer about plagiarism on the website: they don't approve of it. "Do not cheat and plagiarise," it reads, translated from Danish. "Get inspired and get better grades… In 2011 we carried out a study which showed that many students do not know what the difference between plagiarism and inspiration. Therefore, our editorial written e-book How to use Studienets tasks and guides, a guide that teaches students to draw inspiration properly and avoid plagiarism/cheating."

Edelstein says: 'My first thought upon seeing the essay was of its potential utility for cheating.'

Fair enough, I think, but I am still suspicious. I will contact them, I decide, and ask for answers: is the market for 'inspiration' bigger than the market for 'essays that you can repackage and disguise as your own'? An email to their contact form goes unanswered. I call the helpline, open for only and exactly one hour every day. I imagine a man sitting by a mobile phone, perhaps in a shed.

"Hello," I say, when he answers, at last. "Do you speak English?"

"Yes," he says.

"I am calling because I found on your website an essay that is in response to an essay that I wrote in a Danish textbook and I want to talk to, uh, the person responsible for that," I say. "Is there someone I can talk to?"

"Yes," he says. I am struck by his tone of remarkable disinterest. "His name is Lars Bo," he says, dictating an email address. I ask him to repeat it.

"Thank you!" I say, in the clipped tones of a truth-seeker.

I email him, asking pressing questions: can he explain how the essay was sourced, and how he regards the plagiarism risk? For three days I receive no answer.

Well, I think to myself. They are afraid of me and my truth-telling campaign to expose their questionable business practices.

I am disappointed, then, when Lars Bo Thomsen writes back. At first, he is reluctant to participate. "I'm very busy for the time being," he says. I press him. What is the company's view on plagiarism, I ask.

"Plagiarism is not as big as an issue now as it has been historical [sic]," he responds. "We have removed around 100,000 essays from our website during the last two years and now aim for only having one or two essays about a given subject or work."

Oh, I think. This sounds somewhat earnest.

"We have written an e-book about how to use Studienet.dk properly, avoiding plagiarism and how to make correct references. We have given teachers the right to copy it and hand it out to their students," he explains, reasonably enough.

I am a little crushed, but not daunted.

I decide to get in touch with the publisher of the volume in question: Systime, a leading Danish educational company. I email the communications team, telling them that I am writing a piece on students and the internet. "It sounds very interesting and definitely in our area of expertise," a spokeswoman replies before ignoring all future correspondence,

Hang on, I think. The name of the school which the author of the possibly-plagiarisable paper attends is written on the front of the essay. I will send it to them! I will ask them what their policy is towards the use of their students' work in this context.

"I am curious to know if the school is aware of this practice," I write.

I wait for a response. Nothing.

Maybe, I think, I should telephone the school and ask to speak to the principal and report the fact that one of his students may have sold an essay that he wrote about my essay about Britney Spears to an essay database that is run by a man who will not answer my emails. Maybe, I think, they will see that this is a pressing issue surrounding the preservation of the integrity of the use of writers' work.

Or maybe, I think, I should fly to Denmark! I could get on an Easyjet plane and turn up at Studienet.dk's offices, pound on the door and demand answers. In person, they could not turn me away! Maybe, I think, I will make a placard.

To me, something seemed to be rotten in Denmark. But no one in Denmark seemed to care. Here I was thinking I was fighting the good fight on behalf of the academy. And they likely thought I was a strange, self-obsessed, mediocre British writer, anxious to uphold the integrity of a piece of work that is of no interest to anyone but me.

To be a writer takes immense self-belief: the kind of self-belief that you are interesting, exemplary, and that your work matters. What feels like a giant moment of success to you means nothing to everyone else.

Sometimes, the truth just stinks.

The pre-cooked essay industry

* Outside of Denmark, there are plenty of websites offering ready-made essays to 'inspire' students looking for help with their homework; they include ultius.com and ukessays.com.

* Many offer free essays on subjects from Shakespeare to nutrition. US site Ultius's custom-essay service begins at $20 (£12.50) per page .

* Other sites, such as buyessay1.com, take into account the level of study (ie, schools, undergraduates, PhD) and charge accordingly.

* A BBC investigation in 2012 found a student who'd paid £100 for an essay which turned out to be a fail.

Daniel Cooke