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Contract Cheating in Health Courses (Unpublished Paper)

Here is an unpublished full paper that was otherwise gathering virtual dust on my hard drive.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


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).




Student Plagiarism And How To Stop An International Problem – With A Focus On Kosovo

In November 2017, I had the pleasure of visiting Kosovo to speak about student plagiarism. This formed part of the Council of Europe’s work as part of the Pan-European Platform on Ethics, Transparency and Integrity in Education (ETINED) and also allowed me to talk about some of the SEEPPAI research I’ve been involved with.

I spoke at two universities, answered questions and invited discussion for what look to be difficult issues for Kosovo. There seems to have been little attention paid to plagiarism in education in Kosovo before. I see this as a vital discussion for the future.

I was particularly heartened to see students joining the events and sharing their ideas for future change.

The slides I used available on my SlideShare account and included below.

The slides deliberately approached both plagiarism and academic integrity as concepts that I did not expect everyone in the audience to be familiar with. That means that they may look relatively basic to experienced audiences when compared to my regular presentations. The questions asked showed that the expectation of starting from a low shared knowledge base was the correct one.

The first of the two talks was featured as a news report on the national TV evening news. Unfortunately, the report also shows a small audience, looking even smaller than it really was based on the angle the TV crew chose to show the audience from. The talk the following day was much better attended, with some audience members saying they had seen the coverage the previous day.

There is further online coverage about the presentation in Pristina here and the presentation in Prizren here.

Thomas Lancaster speaks about Student Plagiarism in Kosovo

There are still more discussions to be had and I look forward to being further part of the movement aiming at promoting academic integrity in Kosovo.

Emerging Issues In Plagiarism Prevention And Detection – My View From 2004

Writing About Plagiarism In 2004

My hard disk contains quite an archive of material I’ve prepared, but which has never seen the light of the day. Some of it is good, some of it deserves to be formally completed, some of it I could never quite work into a shape that I was happy with at the time.

I want to share with you some extracts from a partial paper I wrote in early 2004. All the quoted text is presented, unedited, just I left it in the draft over 13 years ago. Had this paper been completed in a form I was happy with, the choice of words would likely have gone through further fine tuning.

To put these extracts into their historical context as part of my research journey, I completed my PhD on plagiarism detection in 2003. Later that year began working as a Lecturer in Computing at the University of Central England (now known as Birmingham City University).

My working title for the paper was “Fresh Issues in Plagiarism Prevention and Detection” and the paper was constructed to:

discuss the issues that will be relevant to plagiarism prevention and detection in the near future

as well as to:

inform the directions in which it is necessary for future research to proceed

The planned paper ended up taking a back seat with the pressures of adapting to the pressures of a new teaching intensive environment. My subsequent research efforts ended up going in a different direction.

In hindsight, perhaps this paper did deserve to have been completed. My experience is that this type of paper tends to be well-received.

An earlier paper of mine, Plagiarism Issues In Higher Education, which I wrote alongside my PhD, is one of my most cited papers. That is despite this being one of the first papers I wrote – and also one of the easiest to write. I presume that, being introductory in nature, meant that this paper was accessible by a wide audience.

Now, I tend to publish material of this type as blog posts. Perhaps not the best strategy if the results also suitable for citation…

Eight Plagiarism Issues

The draft I wrote in 2004 included updated ideas from my PhD thesis together with observations I’d made during the intervening year.

Here’s what I said in the draft paper…

Eight main issues have been identified that are worthy of further investigation. These include both issues of academic and practical interest.

The issues are:
outsourced submissions – has work submitted by a student actually been produced by that student?
ownership of work – is it both legal and ethical to submit work from students to detection services.
tool usability – there are many technical solutions available to find out if work is similar to another source, but are those tools produced to ease tutor workload?
extent of cheating – conflicting evidence exists stating how common cheating is, can parity exist between different subjects and different researchers?
policy – how far is reducing the level of plagiarism and the methods to deal with plagiarisers related to appropriate from the upper echelon of an academic institute?
earlier exposure – are students plagiarising due to practices accepted in further education being condoned in higher education and, if so, can what are the solutions?>
transparency – how far can students see that a due-process is being followed for plagiarism prevention and detection?
open source detection – does an institution committing themselves to commercial detection technology hinder them in long term planning?

Although my writing style has developed since and I would likely use more supportive language, many of these issues are still equally relevant today.

The issue referred to as outsourced assessment, of course, has been much developed in the form of research into contract cheating. The particular example given, that is authenticating if the author of an assessment solution and the student submitting this for academic credit are the same person, has still not been solved for anything other than very specific cases.

User Experience

I’d like to pick up on one of the 2004 issues as worthy of more immediate attention.

Whether or not software tools for plagiarism detection are optimised for user experience continues to be questionable. The fact that similarity reports are often misinterpreted – and that users cannot always differentiate between similarity and plagiarism, suggests otherwise.

Much valuable progress has been made since 2004 on working with students as academic integrity partners. That includes supporting students in developing their academic writing by providing them with controlled access to appropriate software tools, such as those that show similarity. I have seen far too many tweets where students are boasting about getting their similarity (plagiarism) score down to an unrealistic level.

Improving the usability of support tools, for instance by making the results more readable and the practical steps to take more intuitive, is now important for students too.

The user interfaces for originality checking software tools do not seem to have evolved, in any real sense, since the first commercial providers came onto the market. There is an opportunity for thought leadership here.

One of the major challenges for academics investigating possible non-originality is taking the output from a tool and converting this into a format considered acceptable for a university academic misconduct panel. Often, panels still require information in a printed format and I know of academics who have had to spend many hours laboriously marking sources up by hand. This is an area which is ripe for improving the user experience.

There is certainly the opportunity for a PhD to look at redefining these user interfaces. If you would be interested in working on that area, under my supervision, please contact me and let me know.

I also believe that the potential exists for artificial intelligence techniques to be used to provide personalised help for a user accessing a similarity report. Such AI could be used to consider whether or not similarity is likely to represent plagiarism and where in the document a user should focus their priority (whether this is a student learning academic writing who has forgotten to cite their source, or a tutor investigating possible plagiarism).

Plagiarism Prevention And Detection Issues Of 2017 And 2018

What are the main issues that exist for individuals researching plagiarism prevention and plagiarism detection today? Is it appropriate to consider issues previously identified, such as my ideas from 2004, during the production of a more up to date list?

Which of the many issues then most deserve to be quickly addressed?

Do feel free to share your thoughts using the Comment box at the end of the post.

(and now that I have extracted some value from them, the rest of my outdated materials from “Fresh Issues in Plagiarism Prevention and Detection” can safely be moved to the Recycle Bin)

Beyond Contract Cheating – Towards Academic Integrity

I explored the issue of contract cheating and the growing movement towards academic integrity as part of a teaching and research seminar at the University of St. Andrews.

You can see the slides used in the presentation on my SlideShare account. They are also embedded below.

This was one of the most respectful audiences that I’ve ever presented for, with an extended period of questions and answers afterwards. I was also pleased to see students in the audience.

From the discussion, it was clear that many in the audience hadn’t really considered that contract cheating happened. I hope the discussion we had about assessment design techniques was useful. I don’t think that it’s ever possible to completely design out cheating from assessments, but it is possible to make this a strategy that students wouldn’t consider effective to use.

Page 1 of 512345»