About Thomas Lancaster

I am an experienced Computer Science academic, best known for research work into academic integrity, plagiarism and contract cheating. I have held leadership positions in several universities, with specialty in student recruitment and keen interest in working in partnership with students. Please browse around the blog and the links, and feel free to leave your thoughts.
Website: http://thomaslancaster.co.uk
Thomas Lancaster has written 155 articles so far, you can find them below.


Plagiarism Across Europe And Beyond 2019

Plagiarism Across Europe And Beyond is an established series of conferences, promoted on behalf of the European Network for Academic Integrity. The 2019 edition of the conference took place in Vilnius, Lithuania in June 2019.

I attended and delivered talks looking at contract cheating at subject level and exploring the academic writing market enabled through Fiverr.com.

The whole conference was interesting, with lots of practical tips and research shared. This conference attracted many of the top names in the academic integrity world to present. There were parallel sessions, so I could only attend some of them, mostly those on contract cheating. But here are some of my take-home ideas from the conference.

Findings From Plagiarism Across Europe And Beyond 2019

There are many methods that we can use to detect contract cheating

Clare Johnson has had success examining student work for contract cheating using forensic techniques

Detecting contract cheating has been a long-standing interest of mine. My PhD work focused on detecting plagiarism and, as a Computer Scientist, I believe that technology can form part of the process for addressing contract cheating.

Three sessions picked up on contract cheating detection. PlagScan focused on its new authorship tracking solution, which takes as its premise the idea that students who are taught together should develop a similar writing style from which a metric based solution can be used to look for outliers.

Clare Johnson showed how she’d been successfully using steganalysis methods, the same ones used for forensic computing investigations, to track unexpected edits within MS Word files. GSM London had developed software to automate looking at document properties across large numbers of documents. One of their finding was that many students used the same external writer and the same writer name could be tracked within multiple files.

We really don’t know much about student cheating at subject level

Rebecca Awdry warning about the risks posed by outsourcing in Agriculture

As my own talk showed, the traditional belief is that students are most likely to buy assignments in the Business discipline. But contract cheating services have now developed their advertising to focus on disciplines individually. I found three disciplines groups: (1) Computer Science, (2) Architecture, Building and Planning, and (3) Law, that were already highly exploited. I also found that the Creative Arts and Design group was at risk of further exploitation.

Rebecca Awdry presented her survey results of subject level cheating. Her finding was that students in Agriculture were most likely to outsource their work, with students in two areas: (1) Health, and (2) Languages being the least likely. These are different findings to other studies and frankly we just don’t know a lot about subject level contract cheating. As I said at the conclusion of my talk, we need to find more out about contract cheating in individual disciplines and to put subject level interventions in place before the essay industry does.

Felicity Prentice looked at essay spinning within medicine and found that the results of paraphrasing text through Google Translate were poor. For example, the common term “Emergency Department” was translated as “Erectile Dysfunction“, potentially making it not too hard for anyone trying to detect disguised plagiarism in that academic discipline.

I showed that, despite demand, contract cheating pricing has been driven down by competition.

The contract cheating industry offers cheap work and use sophisticated recruitment techniques

In my research, I found that the price being requested by contract cheating writers had been driven down by competition, often hitting just $5 USD for 1,000 words. This isn’t necessarily reflected when students order through the more established essay mills, as they make their own mark up on the amount paid to the writer.

And, that the end quality of purchased work may not be very good. Wendy Sutherland-Smith spoke about she had purchased essays and checked the quality. 52% of the purchased essays had gained a failing mark.

Wendy also noted that students buying essays were putting themselves at risk. She said that she’d been contacted many times by writers outraged that students hadn’t paid them or had reversed credit card transactions.

Irene Glendinning found that a contract cheating service had recruited two students to work with them from a university based near Coventry, UK. By employing students, this would enable the contract cheating services to get access to other students. Recruiting students as brand ambassadors is now thought to be an established method used by these services, with the individuals referred to as “classroom moles“.

Felicity Prentice talked about the tools contract cheating services claim to be providing to students. One example of a paraphrasing tool, allegedly there to rewrite text so that this did not appear as plagiarism, provided intentionally bad output, whilst at the same time providing adverts for a better solution, buying an essay from them.

Felicity Prentice demonstrating a paraphrasing tool with links to a contract cheating provider

There needs to be more of a focus on continuing academic integrity outside the classroom

Irene Glendinning has been research international corruption in higher education

Several examples were given of where students were being encouraged to take shortcuts before reaching university level. Zeenath Khan said that her five year old had been given an assignment to make a physical model, something that they just couldn’t be expected to do. Their school must have known that parents would have to do the work.

Another conference attendant went further. She said that her son had won a prize for homework she’d completed for him.

The involvement of friends and family in the contract cheating process cannot be understated. In her survey, Rebecca Awdry said she’d found that 11.2% of students had used friends and family members to complete their work for them.

Irene Glendinning also found corruption in international quality assurance bodies, meaning that they could not always be trusted to ensure academic integrity in the universities they represented. In one startling example, 60% of higher education providers in India were said to have no quality assurance process.

We need to work with and engage students in spreading the academic integrity message

Wendy Sutherland-Smith is part of an international team collaborating with Student Unions to investigate the student experience of contract cheating investigations

Many students are concerned about academic integrity. Wendy Sutherland-Smith spoke about successful interventions at Deakin University, most notably illustrated with a recent example where a student posted a message on Facebook asking for copies of other students’ assignments. Wendy said that four students reported this post within minutes. However, not all students wanted to see more done about contract cheating. For example, when the UK’s Bloomsbury Institute surveyed their students, most were not in favour of the institution implemented a whistleblowing policy.

Discussing contract cheating with students is essential. Rebecca Awdry surveyed a large number of students and found that students who thought other students cheated were most likely to cheat themselves. Many Student Unions are now supporting the need for this discussion. Early results from collaborative research between Coventry University and Deakin University has questioned if students understand institutional academic integrity processes and found that the way an investigative process is communicated with students may be problematic.

Students at one university were said to have complained when they were caught contract cheating. They said that they’d approached this assignment in the same way that they’d approached all their other assignments. This means that contract cheating needs to be addressed early and methods of detection also needs to be in place early.

The whole conversation surrounding integrity can be difficult. Anna Krajewska from Bloomsbury Institute, UK, found that her students said they cheated so as not to disappoint her. They did not always want to engage with the subject. One student summed up why they were really studying higher education by complaining “We pay this school £6000 per year… just to have stress”.

It is important to find methods of discussing academic integrity that engage students. Penny Beale from Suffolk County Community College shared an example that worked well for her, that of discussing tattoo plagiarism, presumably valuable in these days that so many students care passionately about the uniqueness of their body art.

 

Towards Plagiarism Across Europe And Beyond 2020

Overall, Plagiarism Across Europe And Beyond 2019 proved to be a useful and important conference. I look forward to attending Plagiarism Across Europe And Beyond 2020 in Dubai, where I am delivering one of the keynote addresses.

An Examination Of How Successful Essay Mills And Contract Cheating Services Have Been In Integrating Within Different Academic Disciplines – Presentation From Plagiarism Across Europe And Beyond 2019

During Plagiarism Across Europe And Beyond 2019, I presented a new study examining the extent of contract cheating across different discipline areas.

There will be a full paper based on this data, but you can see some of the highlights as they were shared during the talk. The slides I used are available on my SlideShare account. The slides are also included below.


The paper considered the demand for contract cheating services, based on requests posted online by students across multiple previous studies. These noted that the extended area of Business attracted substantial contract cheating requests.

New data presented looked at the online visibility of contract cheating service marketing across 19 main discipline groups, as identified by the UK’s Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA). This showed that, although essay mills are already visible in search engine results, most disciplines show several opportunities for further essay mill exploitation.

The visibility of discipline specific contract cheating advertising is surely something that search engines, such as Google, need to address with their algorithms. They should aim to ensure that students looking for help online receive useful information rather than links to essay mills.

Exploring Low-Cost Contract Cheating Provision Enabled Through Micro-Outsourcing Web Sites – Presentation From Plagiarism Across Europe And Beyond 2019

My recent research has focused on the companies and writers who are fueling the contract cheating industry.

The Plagiarism Across Europe And Beyond Conference 2019 provided me with the opportunity to update the audience with my latest research in the area. This was focused on changes on the way in which the use of the Fiverr.com marketplace is used by writers, with comparative research from 2016 and 2018 presented.

The slides I used are available on my SlideShare account. They are also included below.


As the slides show, the supply of essay writing labour on Fiverr.com has increased. At the same time, the pricing of essays has dropped substantially, potentially making this more affordable to students.

A full paper based on this area is in review, giving more observations on the underlying data analysis. There is a lot more data on sites like Fiverr.com that is ripe for analysis and which will provide more evidence about the scale of essay mill operation and the continued development of the contract cheating industry.

The Underlying Causes of Academic Cheating – Keynote Presentation From Westminster Higher Education Forum On Contract Cheating

The Westminster Higher Education Forum held an event focused on contract cheating on 22 May 2019. I delivered the opening keynote as part of a wide range of talks addressing the contract cheating problem.

During my presentation I considered the reasons why students cheat, including examples from my previous research in South East Europe and my recent paper examining why students say they cheat on Twitter.

The slides I used are available on my SlideShare account. They are also included below.


I argued that there are multiple reasons why students cheat, but much of this comes down to the easy availability of contract cheating services, ready to take advantage of students when they feel under the most pressure.

The whole event was interesting, with a lot of focus on the legal approaches to address contract cheating and the grey areas surrounding this, such as how far students can use proofreading services.

Canadian Symposium on Academic Integrity 2019

The first Canadian Symposium on Academic Integrity took place in April 2019, bringing a sell-out crowd to Calgary in Alberta, Canada to discuss academic integrity. The symposium aimed to raise awareness of academic integrity challenges in Canada, along with sharing the current research being undertaken, with many findings being presented for the first time.

I delivered a new presentation and also chaired the parallel session on contract cheating, which was a major theme of the conference. Tracey Bretag also attended to present two keynotes, including a brand new talk considering how approaches to academic integrity had developed differently around the world.

Here are some of the findings from the symposium sessions I attended that are worth further circulating. There was lots of good material that I’ve seen presented in different forms before, so I’ve tried to focus this post on areas that are likely to not likely be widely known about.

 

Findings From The Canadian Symposium on Academic Integrity

The contract cheating industry is manipulative – and workers don’t always realise they’re employed as part of the contract cheating industry

Corinne Hersey presenting her research into the contract cheating industry

Corinne Hersey talked about her experiences accidentally working for contract cheating services. She had been employed working for what she thought was a question and answer site. Questions could come in at any time and very quick answers were expected. It turned out that the answers were going straight to students, either as short homework questions, or to be used as part of a live online examination process.

Corinne also gave an example of how contract cheating services are hiring editors to take what may be poor quality essays and to improve them. The individuals being hired think they’re just working on lower quality work produced by a student.

 

Academic integrity has developed its own set of communities – but those people looking to subvert academic integrity have developed their own communities too

Tracey Bretag talked about the ways in which communities of practice had developed around the world, often in different geographic locations. This included in areas of the world where getting a community developed could be difficult, for example in Latin and Central America. Communities had even begun to develop where interest in academic integrity had emerged from different directions, for example the UK had originally become interested in academic integrity based on the technical problem of detecting plagiarism.

That move is positive, but I shared some less desirable developments in my talk, including showing the online communities set up by contract cheating services to help their writers, as well as independent writer communities not connected with any particular contract cheating service. I also demonstrated that some of these communities aimed at contract cheating service writers are now moving offline, with conferences being held for them in the same way that the academic integrity community holds its own conferences.

 

Many staff don’t actually know much about contract cheating and academic integrity

This was demonstrated in James Blackburn’s presentation. James had purchased an essay for £70, but educators thought that it must have cost up to £600. When James quizzed his participants he found out that academics knew very little about the contract cheating industry or how it had developed.

Tracey Bretag recommended that staff were supplied with access to academic integrity training, such as the training we developed in conjunction with Epigeum.

Staff did not seem to know that wide range of assessment types could be outsourced. I showed many examples in my presentation, based on my own searches for information about this field. But Tracey found that even authentic assessments could be outsourced. She suggested that this might be be because students were unsure how to approach unfamiliar assessments like this and so more scaffolded and nuanced support would be necessary.

 

The contract cheating industry is developing a hidden side – includes new ways of operating and the move to new markets

The hidden side of contract cheating includes the involvement of companies and the operating of individuals.

One case study presented by participants from across Calgary saw discussion of when a father had written versions of an assessment for both of his twin girls. Although written separately, the end results were still similar enough to rise suspicion. This ties in with the research that Tracey Bretag presented, showing that the majority of contract cheating goes through friends and family rather than commercial services.

Roswita Dressler and Sarah Eaton talked about their work on the non-English language side of contract cheating. There has been little attempt to study these sites. They showed one essay mill aimed at the Canadian market which would provide solutions in both English and French. They also showed that essays and academic work could be purchased in a wide variety of languages.

A new business model being used by contract cheating services looking to cut their costs was presented by Corinne Hersey. She found that contract cheating providers were outsourcing work to low cost writing services, not always with English as their first language. The end results were then sent to an editing service to correct the language and improve the arguments. Presumably using this two stage process gave better results and reduced the overall costs, leaving more profit available for contract cheating providers.

 

Note-sharing sites offer future threats – and students do not always see using these as breaching academic integrity

Nancy Chibry and Ebba Kurz delivering a live demo of a note-sharing site

The issue of note-sharing sites (also referred to as “pay to pass”) came up multiple times during the symposium, including in my own presentation. These are the sites set up where students can share notes, assessments and resources from the courses they are studying, often being made to feel that they are part of a community helping other students. As Tracey Bretag’s research suggested, few students think that using these sites, either by sharing material themselves or accessing shared material, is a form of cheating. The whole use of the term “sharing” makes this sound as though it is something positive.

The idea of sharing resources is not new. The old days of university fraternities allegedly saw these groups keeping boxes of previous assessments, designed to help the frat members to succeed with little effort. And many students groups have their own agreements to share materials. But these sites are often breaching copyright and the intellectual property of the people creating the resources, as well as tempting students to cheat by providing access to previous solutions. But it is apparently very hard to get materials taken down once they are placed online.

The viral methods used by note-sharing sites to get content were discussed. This included students being required to upload resources themselves to get access to other resources for a limited time (or alternatively paying a fee, a seemingly less inviting proposition for students). Many students did not seem to realise that their name would often be visible with the resources they uploaded.

Some attendees seemed surprised and unaware that sites like this exist. A live demo for one such individual undertaken during the conference saw 40 documents relating to his course available online, including solutions.

 

We Need To Continue With Our International Work

It is really positive to see the continued work on academic integrity taking place around the world, including in Canada. This post gives just a flavour of the many initiatives that are happening.

Note-sharing sites do offer a threat and we need to continue to make students aware that they shouldn’t be sharing university intellectual property with such sites. They are part of an advanced, always developing and manipulative contract cheating industry, all profiting off by encouraging students to breach academic integrity.

 

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