About Thomas Lancaster

My name is Dr. Thomas Lancaster, and I am a Associate Dean in Recruitment at Staffordshire University in the United Kingdom and a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. My background is in the Computer Science discipline. My best known academic research relates to student plagiarism and contract cheating. Please browse around the blog and the links, and feel free to leave your thoughts.
Website: http://thomaslancaster.co.uk
Thomas Lancaster has written 122 articles so far, you can find them below.

Plagiarism Indicators For Academics

All academics, regardless of the level of the student, need to be aware that some students may take short cuts when producing academic work.

These slides (from my SlideShare account) outline five different indicators that work submitted may not all be the student’s own.


Many times, what you find when marking work will just be an indicator that something is out of place. This can lead to a more thorough search by hand.

TurnItIn, and other similar tools, are excellent as starting points, but often a specific Google search can identify parts of the web that are hidden to TurnItIn, so this approach is particularly useful.


What other indicators do academics use? Have you found any interesting plagiarism cases using indicators? Use the Comments box to share your findings.

Growing Your Professional Network With BranchOut

Did you know that there’s a way to manage your professional contacts inside Facebook?

The BranchOut App works in a similar fashion to the LinkedIn professional social network. It takes the form of an App which runs inside Facebook.

Facebook friends generally become your BranchOut contacts, but you can also reach other people through the extended network and there are a number of job opportunities advertised on BranchOut.

At present, BranchOut is primarily Facebook based, but the profile page can be accessed from outside Facebook, giving you another good professional view. I’d also imagine that this will grow further outside Facebook in the future.

Here’s what my profile looks like:

The BranchOut Profile For Thomas Lancaster

One way to use this is to include professional contacts within your Facebook friends. Use the Privacy settings to keep the information that you display to this group within Facebook suitably restricted. Then include them as professional contacts within BranchOut to access the benefits of their network.

Whilst BranchOut isn’t a LinkedIn competitor yet, it does offer a lot of potential and is one of the up-and-coming social tools which I believe that you should be using to present yourself professionally online.

You can view my BranchOut profile here.


Computer Science – Birmingham City University – Word Cloud

I thought I’d generate another word cloud, so here’s one for BSc Computer Science at Birmingham City University, the course which I’m in charge of.

The text for the word cloud was generated by manually taking the text from the four tabs on the official BSc Computer Science course information page on the Birmingham City University web site.

Word cloud showing the BSc Computer Science course at Birmingham City UniversityIt’s interesting, as I think that this represents the course and it’s industrial focus very well, in particular the focus on software and systems. Many of the main course areas are prominent. The only word which looks out of place is the word credits, but that’s reflects the details of specific modules provided (quite rightfully) on the course information page.

Feel free to try this for your course and let me know if the word cloud offers a good representation.

A Quick Way To Jazz Up Presentations With Word Clouds

Here’s a quick way to jazz up presentations and to offer a talking point.

It’s to generate a word cloud for an appropriate site, which you can do easily using Wordle.

Just type in a url, or copy in a section of text, and Wordle will generate a well-formatted tag cloud showing the most terms on that site (excluding English language filler words). It’s interesting, as they’re often not the terms that you expect to be used most.


Here’s a tag cloud for my main site at http://thomaslancaster.co.uk

Word Cloud For ThomasLancaster.co.ukInteresting that the word research dominates teaching. It feels the other way around. I’m gla to note that students is prominent.


Here’s a tag cloud for this blog…

A word cloud for Thomas Lancaster's blogI think this one is more coincidental based on the topics I’ve been promoting. It doesn’t feel like I’ve written a lot about search. I’ll have to regenerate it when there are a few most posts on the blog.


Both of these are up-to-date at the time of processing, of course.

You can play around with these a lot to change the layout style and formatting, but I’ve found that even the randomised default settings will give you an interesting slide to include in a presentation.


Have you had any luck using word clouds? Just reply below and share your experience.

My First Experience Of Contract Cheating

Perhaps the area of academic life that I’m best known for is contract cheating. I’ve both published and spoken widely on this subject, exploring how students are getting work completed for them, which they are then handing in for academic credit as if this were their own work.

I’ve also recently been instrumental in setting up a Contract Cheating Special Interest Group on behalf of the Higher Education Academy, which is well worth participating in if this area of practioner and academic research interests you.

I can’t remember when exactly I first came across outsourcing services, such as RentACoder (now known as vWorker). As someone with a widespread interest in computing and technology, I’m normally at the forefront of interesting new developments like these services, and I certainly knew about services like essay mills from my PhD research into plagiarism detection.

But, I do remember the first time that I saw one of my assignment specifications on RentACoder.

It was late 2003, a few months into my tenure as a Lecturer at Birmingham City University, when I was teaching C programming to second year students. I always believe in setting original assignments to students, and this one was original, but it was based loosely on a Java programming assingment from my teaching at London South Bank University. The objective was to model the seat reservation system for an airline.

Out of curiousity, I happened to search for terms I’d used in the assignment specification, not expecting to find anything, but the search raised a match on RentACoder. A quick check of the link revealed a copy of the assignment specification hosted on RentACoder and that a contractor was working on this for a cost somewhere under $20. It also revealed that this was not the first assignment specification listed under this user’s account.

But, particularly interesting were the combinations of assignments that were listed. There was no way that these could all belong to a particular student, or even to one university. Unknowingly, I’d stumbled upon my first example of what I’d now term a contract cheating subcontactor.

In this case, even though the username didn’t directly match a student, it was pretty easy to track down both the students involved using forensic clues. This turned out to be a student who had put up a few of their assignments, both for our course and at a previous university they’d attended (this combination making this particularly simple to track down). My assignment was the result of putting up a bid request for a friend.

Even if I hadn’t spotted it, the finished assignment, when submitted, would have raised alarm bells, mainly because the coding style didn’t bear any resemblance to the class teaching. The assignment specification also required a number of reflective elements, which weren’t clearly addressed by the finished work. Most importantly, the other requirements for the module assessment design meant that the student wouldn’t pass with the outsourced work, even before appropriate actions were taken through the official university disciplinary processes.

It was that incident that sparked off an interest in what would come to be called contract cheating. That hasn’t been the most memorable incident of contract cheating that I’ve been involved with, but perhaps that can be addressed in another post.


Feel free to add your first (or subsequent) experience of contact cheating as a reply.

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