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 137 articles so far, you can find them below.


Plagiarism, So What? Or How To Interest Students In Academic Integrity

In May 2018 I made a return visit to Podgorica, Montenegro, to join a Council of Europe debate on plagiarism aimed at a student audience. I delivered a presentation on plagiarism, explaining what it was and what students could do to promote academic integrity and also led a discussion.

As I always do, I tried to change this around a bit to keep it interesting for students. One of the challenges of presenting in the South East Europe region is that presentations often have to be at a basic level and also suitable for live interpretation to the local language. But many of the students who choose to attend an event like this already know about plagiarism and need something more.

You can see the slides I used on my SlideShare account. They are also included below.

Without going into too much technical detail, I ended up focusing this on the people who suffered through plagiarism, often students themselves.

A lot of the discussion ended up being about punishment, as that is the expectation in the region where it is right now, but I was also able to balance this with the need for support for both students and their teachers.

After all, as I said in the final slide, it’s not just plagiarism. It all comes down to integrity.

The Modern World Of Essay Mill Spam

Essay Mill Spam

Click here if you’d prefer this post on essay mill spam in the form of a video

Essay mill and contract cheating services are as visible as they’ve ever been. This has to be creating a challenging market for those companies looking to peddle their unethical wares to students. After all, students now have a wealth of people offering assignment production services that they can choose to purchase work from.

Companies have already begun to play hardball with their marketing to try and get customers. This has got so severe that some essay writing ads have already been banned in the UK, certainly a step in the right direction.

What’s next with essay mill marketing? What we’re now seeing are companies finding ways to get their messages to students, whether they’ve expressed any interest in paying for a completed assessment or not.

I’ve rounded up several examples of how essay mills are spamming their services for this post.

 

Email Spam

Here is an extract from an email advert that one of my former students received directly to his university email account.

This is also an email address he hadn’t used outside the university and for which the account details weren’t listed anywhere online.

It may not be the best ever advert, but it would certainly get noticed in a student email account.

All of the classic sales points are there, including the mention of prominent universities, a distinctive offering of statistical services and the option to sell Turnitin reports (something which really shouldn’t be possible).

Despite being advertised as a UK company (including a UK address), further investigation suggests that this company is almost certainly based in Pakistan.

It is not clear how the student’s email address was accessed. It may be through access to email account details, through a link inside the university with access to address books, or perhaps just automatically guessed email addresses (many universities use email accounts that are formulaic in nature).

These services don’t differentiate between staff and students. I too have received spam emails from essay mills to my university staff email account.

 

Twitter Spam

I’ve discussed before how essay mills and individual academic ghost writers have used Twitter to connect with students. Some accounts are set up to “talk” to anyone who posts tweets about essays. Here’s a post with an example of how Twitter spam takes place.

This process is now much more automated than it ever was before. If your tweet contains word combinations along the lines of write essays, chances are you’ll immediately receive both public and private offers to help from would-be helpers.

Thankfully, many people are now starting to fight back, or at least make it clear that they do not support the essay company spam. Here are some recent examples from Donna Yates and Joseph Gordon Diehard.

Other Types Of Essay Mill Spam

There are many other ways in which essay mills use spamming techniques to get the message about their companies out there.

If you run an educational blog, post related videos on YouTube, or submit content to anywhere that allows comments, you’re bound to find essay mill spam posted to them before too long. There’s a chance you’ll get such comments even if your site has nothing to do with education, as so much of this spam comes from automated software.

Sometimes this is more subtle. Right now, one of my contract cheating articles on The Conversation has several comments from essay mills showing. Even though the comments may not be spam, the links going back to the essay writing services themselves are very visible.

Use Facebook and find yourself looking at Facebook Pages relating to essay companies? Don’t be surprised if the Messenger box puts up and asks if you need help.

I wouldn’t be shocked to hear of essay mill spam being circulated through SMS messages and WhatsApp.

Even the Wikipedia articles on essay mills has seen companies attempt to edit at and themselves as credible sources. There are also essay companies taking advantage of web site vulnerabilities to spam.

There’s only one place I think is safe and that’s your own letterbox. I haven’t heard of essay mills physically pushing leaflets through people’s doors – at least not yet!

For More Information

You can find out more about essay mill spam in this video.

You can also contact me if you’d like to find out more about academic integrity and working with me.

Spinning Academic Integrity News Stories In The Era Of Fake News

How far do we trust what’s published as news? In this era of fake news, it’s interesting to note how article spinning and machine-based plagiarism can make even the most trustworthy news feel suspect.

(full disclosure – in the interest of making the best of use of materials, this blog post is based on two slides of a presentation I never gave)

Back in June 2015, Channel 4 Dispatches ran a story about essay mills and contract cheating, which I contributed to. A very of it ran in The Guardian.

As with so many news stories, this ended up in various versions around the Web which vaguely looked like the original. Here’s a comparison between The Guardian version and the Best Education News version.

The second version is derived from the first, presumably through some automatic method of machine-based plagiarism. This may have been completed manually, but it looks unlikely based on the strange choice of words.

Unlike many plagiarism cases, it’s very obvious which the source document was and which was plagiarised version was. The source can be identified as it carries authority and the language makes sense in the original context.

The plagiarised version doesn’t make complete sense. Even the words “schools” and “colleges” have subtly different meanings. This also demonstrates how easily the meaning of a phrase, or whole news report can be changed by bad wording.

Certainly, a contributor to fake news and to false news.

The way in which students are using tools like these has also begun to receive attention recently. I have previously looked at this under the title of essay spinning, but there are other related areas of work such as back translation. The term machine-based plagiarism has also been suggested to cover the whole field.

There are lots of opportunities for research in this area, both to investigate automated plagiarism in student work and in the related area of news stories. I can see this offering an increasing challenge to academic integrity in the future.

(or, as an esteemed colleague of mine would say “the walls are falling in“)!

 

Contract Cheating in Health Courses (Unpublished Paper)

Here is an unpublished full paper that was otherwise gathering virtual dust on my hard drive.

Examining Contract Cheating, Essay Mill Use and Academic Misconduct by Students on Health Courses – from 2015 – Thomas Lancaster and Robert Clarke
(Full Text including PDF Download on ResearchGate)

I originally wrote this in 2015 based on a talk that Robert Clarke and I delivered. The problem of contract cheating in health and nursing education was prominent then and I have addressed this in subsequent talks and on this blog.

The paper was never submitted for publication, as the conference I was originally aiming this at didn’t run and I haven’t subsequently seen the right outlet. Looking back at the paper with 2018 eyes, it would need a substantial rewrite to fit suitably into the current academic integrity climate. This would include updating the sources and examples, so that it was substantially a new paper.

Due to this, I am providing the original unpublished paper here as drafted in the hope that it may be useful to researchers instead.

Abstract

When students obtain academic awards in the health industry that they do not deserve, they may emerge unfit for professional practice. This paper explores the challenges posed by academic misconduct in public-facing health fields, such as nursing and medicine. Specifically, the paper explores contract cheating, where students employ a third party or ghostwriter to complete assessed work. The problem appears more crucial in health than some other academic disciplines, since here fitness for practice is important and human lives may be at stake.

The paper argues about the importance of academic integrity in health through multiple examples. This includes showcasing media cases where medical professionals have been put in positions which their skills did not warrant and giving three specific examples of attempts by students to cheat that have been detected online. The examples demonstrate that such contract cheating starts before students arrive at university. This misconduct continues throughout their academic career up to postgraduate level. The overall findings in this field support the view that contract cheating is habitual and repeated regularly by some students.

Several sources are used to show that contract cheating in health is amongst the most popular subjects that students cheat on. Other examples show that original essays and assessments can be purchased by students for affordable prices. These essays will not be detected as unoriginal by Turnitin. The paper concludes by arguing that increased academic pressure is needed to change the wider health culture that is affording contract cheating.

There is still a need for research in this field. In particular, this includes gathering more data and implementing subject specific solutions. I would like to look back at this area again as time and opportunities permit.

I’m always open to speak on contract cheating and essay mill use in health education (you can contact me here).

 

 

 

Introverts In Higher Education Teaching

Is it a good thing to be an introvert when working as a teacher or professor in higher education?

It’s quite a common question, particularly when people think of school teachers needing to demonstrate their personality, engage their pupils and keep control in the classroom.

This question was originally asked on Quora, where I like to provide answers to interesting questions when I have time. I answered the question on introverts in teaching on Quora and this post is an edited and extended version of the answer I gave there.

If you prefer video, I’ve also provided a (different) answer on my YouTube account, which you can see embedded below.

Do Introverts Make Good University Lecturers?

(or good University Professors if you prefer the American terminology)

The short answer to this question is yes.

I’ve worked in a variety of higher education/university roles and they include teaching and lecturing. I enjoy speaking and helping students. And I, like many of my colleagues are very much an introvert.

If anything, I think that introverts have an easier time working in university lecturing roles than extroverts do. This can vary very slightly by subject, but generally introverts have the most natural set of skills for success.

Most lecturers are naturally introverts, myself included. It’s part and parcel of the type of person who enters the profession and is willing to make the sacrifices for study to reach that point. It also reflects the wider responsibilities of being a lecturer.

Lecturers typically get qualified as being able to teach by being educated up to PhD level. That’s gaining a doctorate, so the same number of years of study as a medical doctor (and often one year more, as many lecturers in the UK will have taken an additional years at Masters level).

There are short teaching courses that Lecturers often take too, but these are mostly done after having started teaching. It’s rather a “learn on the job” profession.

Gaining a PhD requires great immersion in a subject discipline. It means that you have to demonstrate that you can think and provide original knowledge in detail. As well as conducting research, as this is primarily intended as research training for a career, you have to document this in a formal thesis and pass a challenging viva examination.

You may be able to picture PhD students spending three or four years sharing a large office and not distracting the others. All deep in concentration and getting on with their unique studies. It’s an environment where extroverts really have to reign in their behaviour.

Career Management

Throughout their career, those people who both get through their PhD and get one of the limited jobs as lecturers have had to work hard. Often, there’s a gap between completing a PhD and gaining a lectureship, where the individual continues to work on short-term research projects to build up their reputation. It’s not the most secure work. Some people don’t get their first lectureship until their 40s or 50s. Those people who make it have shown dedication.

The appointed lecturers then have to balance multiple responsibilities. Typically, these include teaching, research, administrative functions and external engagement, although the balance between those will vary between individuals. Teaching is, of course, very important. The ability to inspire students and communicate knowledge is essential, but you don’t need to be an extrovert to do this.

For most professors, large group teaching will only be part of the role and not where the majority of time is spent. After all, those years building up research ability and credibility have to count for something.

The requirements to conduct research continue. By this stage of their career professors are typically busy writing research grants and books. Many administrative aspects also require deep and private concentration.

There are some externally facing responsibilities, for instance in my case I work a lot with external companies, present research, deliver training and work in student recruitment, but these are all manageable and enjoyable. Being an introvert does not mean that you dislike these activities, just that you can’t do them continually without quieter reflective time. It is also very different being in a controlling position able to shape a class of people who are looking at you for guidance than being hostage to being a member of a large and noisy class.

And, even within teaching, there are opportunities for introverts to work with small groups. These include activities like supervising students on individual projects, which is very enjoyable work.

The Changing World Of The University Lecturer

I want to end this blog post with a world of caution.

The academic world has changed. Many people joined academia for the autonomy, but the profession is now much more target and metric driven, similar to a commercial organisation.

Like many jobs, academia doesn’t automatically offer lecturers tenure and job security any more. Many lecturers are employed on short-term contracts, which are only renewed if they meet their targets. Lecturers also have to move positions if they’re looking for promotion. So, lecturers changing universities every few years is common now.

That can be quite stressful and not everyone enjoys that, regardless of whether they’re an introvert or extrovert.

The moves can also be exciting, with the opportunity to meet new people, teach new subjects and get immersed in different university cultures. But this can also be distracting when you’re trying to complete research projects.

There are also some aspects of academia where it is beneficial to be an extrovert. For instance, these may include later career managerial roles or working in services like marketing. There are disciplines where lecturers are likely to join as a second career from an industry background too and these attract a higher percentage of extroverts. Nursing lecturers and journalism lecturers are examples.

Overall though, providing you have a plan of sustainable academic research, are good at multi-tasking, cope well with a changing profession and, most importantly, want to help students, then yes, aiming to be a university lecturer offers a good career choice for an introvert.

 

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