This is Part 3 of the 7 part series examining Findings From Plagiarism Across Europe and Beyond 2017
An area that has, as of yet, received little attention in the literature has been contract cheating by academics. I’ve touched on this on several occasions and this also its way into talks at the conference, but it’s generally a subject that may more closely fit with research integrity conferences. Although I don’t recall seeing much work on contract cheating going through those conferences either.
The wider issue of research integrity did come up in the keynote by Jeffrey Beall, where he discussed the market in predatory journals. He presented a model of how some academics used predatory journals to gain promotion. The model was simple. The academic plagiarises a paper, submits it to the predatory journal, pays the fee and the paper gets published. A wider discussion looked at how the plagiarised paper version could be generating using article spinning software (an area I discussed in relation to student plagiarism in my paper on essay spinning). Once the plagiarised paper is published, the academic then adds to their publication count which they can use towards their next promotion. I’ve observed versions of this technique with contract cheating suppliers involved, particularly to get the paper written.
A presentation by Muhammad Shahid Soroya about the promotional requirements for academics in Pakistan emphasised how this model can be successful. Muhammad discussed how many academic requirements have been standardised across Pakistan, largely to around inconsistencies and corruption. One of these related to promotion, with academics required to get 10 papers published to become an Associate Professor and 15 papers to become a Professor. Papers published quickly, even for a fee, could prove to be financially advantageous to an academic in this situation.
A related issue in Romania was raised by Emilia Sercan, who worked as a undercover journalist to expose plagiarised PhD theses, seemingly a necessity for promotion for many positions in the country. She said that 14.63% of PhDs awarded by military universities were plagiarised, including some from high profile public officials. She also identified some of these PhD holders who had become supervisors, with their own students found to have plagiarised. Following the investigations, public access to the PhD archive was said to have been restricted, possibly suggesting that there was no desire to identify any further plagiarised theses. Although this investigation did not relate specifically to contract cheating, a separate presentation by Strike Plagiarism stated that Romania did not consider the use of essay mills a threat, despite these being said to be cheap to use. This does leave an open question regarding whether or not contract cheating services could be being used to support PhD completion in countries such as Romania.
The related area of fake authorship emerged in several discussions at the Plagiarism Across Europe and Beyond conference. Most notably, this observed as either a financial or reputational transaction.
Jeffrey Beall talked about a move by authors to sell authorship on their papers. I’m assuming this is usually as an additional author, but I’ve also observed contract cheating services offering to write journal papers who I presume are offering the whole publication. Jeffrey also talked about authors who were gifting authorship, presumably as a form of bribery designed to pay dividends down the line. In some ways, this is not much of a stretch from forms of publication that happen with the names of large research teams involved. There may be the need for a discussion to see where the dividing line should be drawn. I know of people who do some (perhaps intense) copy-editing of research papers in return for an authorship credit, so this is not an easy area to define.
Another conference discussion covered a related area, where author names are added to a paper without their knowledge. This is presumably done to increase the kudos of the paper by having a bigger name associated and to hence improve the odds of publication. I’ve heard of variants of this technique, including things as sophisticated as setting up fake email accounts and profiles for the additional author, as well as recommending fake peer reviewers to ensure that the paper gets published without the added author becoming aware of the deception.
Academic Views on Contract Cheating
As part of a survey of academics working at Australian universities, Tracey Bretag and her team collected data from more than 1000 people. Some findings from that research are of concern.
Most of the academics surveyed were said to not take contract cheating cases forward. This suggests elements of “turning a blind eye” to the problem.
Two figures are of more concern. 0.5% of academics said that they had provided unfair materials of students. More analysis will be needed to confirm what that means, but it could include supplying assignments to students. Further, 10.0% of academics said that they had contract cheated themselves as a student. It is not clear is that means that they purchased assignment solutions themselves, or if they provided answers for other students, but neither of these are good reflections of academia, particularly as this is unlikely to be a topic that many academics would choose to boast about.
Phil Newton did note his wider research about the teaching of academic integrity principles to teaching staff in the UK, with none of the major textbooks used to show lecturers how to teach covering academic integrity. If this finding is typical of the rest of the world, it may be that a major rethinking of the curriculum used to teach academics about delivering high quality education are needed.