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.

 

Who Writes The Assignments For Our Students? Presentation From Plagiarism, Ethics, Pedagogy and Practices 2018

I was invited to accept the prime speaking slot at the Plagiarism, Ethics, Pedagogy and Practices 2018 conference, held in Stockholm, Sweden in August 2018. This conference is supported by URKUND and has been running for a few years now, although it is the first time I’ve been able to attend.

I took the opportunity to share what I know about the writers and other individuals who are working for essay mills and keeping the contract cheating business running. Previously on the blog, I’ve looked at the type of individuals taking essay mill writing jobs. I’ve done a lot more research since and have some papers going through review in this area, so this talk allowed me to give an updated overview, including 12 things you should know about academic writers for essay mills.

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


With the essay industry becoming such a complex beast, the reasons why writers join the business remain varied. For many, it is a low paid profession, but still one that is desirable, with the opportunity to work from home on a flexible schedule. It remains a fascinating area.

Contract Cheating and Essay Mills 2017 Findings Part 7 – Understanding Contract Cheating From The Student Viewpoint

This is Part 7 (the final part) of the 7 part series examining Findings From Plagiarism Across Europe and Beyond 2017

It was really positive to see the views of students strongly represented at Plagiarism Across Europe and Beyond 2017. There were some student participants (I’d like to see support for more students to attend), as well as presentations where the views of students were directly reported.

Why Do Students Resort To Contract Cheating?

The question about why students cheat, plagiarise and fail to demonstrate academic integrity is a long-standing one. The specific analysis of the motives behind students resorting to contract cheating is less developed, but many wider principles still seem to hold.

The issue of the marketisation of higher education was discussed at several points during the conference. Wendy Sutherland-Smith said how students perceived buying an essay as just a business deal, citing some of my work with Robert Clarke where we’ve observed similar behaviours. Other people said that the high cost of fees was a main cause of contract cheating.

Although I’m sure that there are elements of truth here, and I’ve referred many times to the cost of failure, where the prospect of having to repeat a year and pay high fees makes contract cheating into a risk that some will feel is worth taking, marketisation itself does not tell the whole story. I think this is a reason that some students are using to justify cheating, rather than the cause of it.

To back this idea up, I’d also refer to the SEEPPAI work I’ve been involved with in Europe, as well as developments I’m aware of in the wider world. Contract cheating still seems common in countries with no fees and even in places where students are awarded a grant. This means that discussions about the reasons why contract cheating takes place can’t be boiled down into a simple soundbite.

What Factors Contribute To Contract Cheating?

Several presentations considered why contract cheating takes place. Students in the Czech Republic, as surveyed by Veronika Kralikova, gave a single main reason which must also sum up a lot of quick turnaround advertisements made by the essay industry. Their reason for contract cheating was a lack of time.

Student advocates form Australia who worked alongside Wendy Sutherland-Smith identified multiple reasons why contract cheating took place. A main reason for contract cheating was fear of failure, an area that could be considered a possible consequence of a lack of time. Two more views from this work are also worth considering. The first was where students were said to have a goal of passing a subject, not learning about it, perhaps particularly relevant where they did not feel they would use the subject in the future. The second was where students were said to be not understand the seriousness of contract cheating. Those latter two views do not closely overlap, so it may be that there are several conceptions about contract cheating that need to be considered when working with students.

One of the main recommendations to come back from the work with student advocates in Australia is that students need specific modules on academic integrity. These modules need to be mandatory and a step change from the single lecture telling students not to plagiarise that is all that many students seem to get now.

Further, the teaching of academic integrity needs to be addressed on a global level. During our SE Europe research for SEEPPAI, we identified that many students are not even taught the basics about plagiarism, referencing or academic writing. These are core ideas that need to be taught as the basis for a strong commitment to academic integrity and reinforced for both staff and students continually throughout an academic career.

Working In Partnership With Students

I was very pleased to see the presentations and contributions about working in partnership with students to reduce contract cheating. Having a senior member of the National Union of Studies (NUS) in the UK attend the conference also showed how the issue is being considered as vital for discussion on a national level.

As well as providing something of a general theme, work with student advocates also provided the focus for Wendy Sutherland-Smith’s presentation.

Wendy also mentioned the fantastic work going on at Deakin University looking at contract cheating awareness, which has really led the way for activities going on in other countries. Deakin ran a contract cheating awareness week last year and plans to repeat it this year.

More widely, the first International Day of Action on Contract Cheating took place in 2016, with universities around the world participating to use local activities and social media to have a positive influence on academic integrity. I’m delighted to say that this activity is happening again in 2017.

The second International Day of Action on Contract Cheating will take place on 18 October 2017. I hope that many more universities can take part.

Contract Cheating and Essay Mills 2017 Findings Part 6 – Which Students Are Contract Cheating And What Does This Mean For Assessment?

This is Part 6 of the 7 part series examining Findings From Plagiarism Across Europe and Beyond 2017

As Tracey Bretag said at the opening conference keynote, it is just not possible to set an assessment for which cheating is impossible. Despite that, there is still much good practice to be considered when setting assessments to benefit the students who engage with it.

Highly unusually, I think that this is the first conference I’ve been to in a while where I didn’t once hear the term “authentic assessment”. With that said, several of the recommendations from conference speakers support the ideals of authentic assessment in all but name.

Which Students Are Contract Cheating?

Several studies presented at the conference showed progress towards answering the difficult question regarding how many students are contract cheating, or if certain groups of students engaging in the practice can be identified.

In her opening keynote, Tracey Bretag settled on the figure of between 6% and 10% of students having contract cheated at least once. That figure remained mainly consistent across the conference. Tracey did note that there was no significant difference in the cheating figures between the universities that Australia defines as elite and non-elite. I suspect that the same would be true in the UK, even though the figures that UK universities choose to report to the media can differ substantially.

Veronika Kralikova surveyed over 1000 students in the Czech Republic and found that over 8% of them had contract cheated. Veronika also observed a gender difference, with 5% of female students saying that they had contract cheated, but 15% of male students stating this. She also found that 34% of the students said that they knew someone else who had contract cheated, suggesting that this isn’t an activity that students keep quiet about.

Several other groups of students likely to be susceptible to the temptation of contract cheating were also identified in Tracey Bretag’s presentation, with numbers based on a survey of 14,086 students on courses at universities in Australia. 814 of these students said that they had carried out one or more behaviours classified as cheating on a wider scale.

15.8% of the overall survey responders were international students, but 33.0% of the cheating group were international students.

13.1% of the overall group were engineering students, but when looking at just the cheating group, this figure rose to 24.6%.
It does need to be stressed that the cheating behaviours do not just cover contract cheating and also include areas like hiring an exam impersonator or cheating in an examination, but the overall figures do suggest that there could be issues to overcome regarding contract cheating that are specific to the engineering discipline.

The identification of engineering is interesting, as many of the listings of the subjects where most contract cheating is found, including some of my own studies, identify the areas taught in a Business School as most at risk. Business was not singled out in Tracey’s presentation. However, there is still analysis to be done. It may be that Business has been a red herring, with the contract cheating numbers appearing high simply because there are a lot of students taking the subject. It may also be that engineering numbers are bolstered in this study due to examination cheating. The full analysis will be interesting.

There may also be an overlap between the international student group and the engineering student group.

Tracey also verbally noted that the highest cheating levels seemed to be related to groupwork, with a possible overlap to engineering. Contract cheating and groupwork is an important area to consider regarding assessment design. I’ve previously suggested that well-designed groupwork can make contract cheating difficult, since this can be structured to require group complacency with contract cheating. However, I’ve also observed outsourcing requests on agency websites where students are just sending their section of a piece of groupwork to a third party. To me, that isn’t groupwork at all, it’s just standard assignments which can be completed individually.

Further, I recall a presentation at the Western Australia Forum for Contract Cheating where the presenter talked about whole groups of students agreeing to outsource their tasks as a collective. And, in that case, groups largely consisted of international students. This means that just assigning groupwork, on its own, is not a solution for contract cheating. More research into how to develop successful and authentic groupwork assignments in the age of contract cheating is needed.

What Assessments Are Susceptible To Contract Cheating?

Why students cheat and plagiarise is a long-standing question, but the answers do support types of assessment that may work better than others.

Tracey Bretag presented the results of a survey of more than 14,000 students in Australia that was used to identify which types of assessments they were most likely to outsource. The top three were: (1) assignments with a short turnaround, (2) weighted assignments and (3) continuous assessment. Hannah Sketchley, representing the National Union of Students in the UK, gave supporting results from her investigations, where “high stakes assessment” was of concern. From a practical viewpoint, I can see that, but from a pragmatic viewpoint, I also know of students who complain about overassessment when there are too many assessment points in a module. That may also support the high ranking given for the likely outsourcing of continuous assessment.

Indeed, in my presentation I discussed the growth of sites designed to complete every assignment on a course or module for a student and such sites appear highly targeted at students with lots of small assessments. It will be interesting to see what the recommendations are that will rationalise two concerns that seem to be polar opposites.

The issue of assignments with a short turnaround continues to be of concern as there is no evidence suggesting any benefits to students here. I’ve shared many examples I’ve shown of student assignments being completed by third parties in a matter of hours and Phil Newton has analysed turnaround times by individual writers to show that they can deliver work quickly (and may even like the faster turnaround times as they can charge a premium price). Phil shared an interesting observation from an essay mill that now defaults to a three-day turnaround on the site. This suggests that essay mills have decided that fast turnaround this is the best way to market their offer.

The results from Tracey’s survey were not all doom and gloom. She also identified the three factors that students said would make them least likely to outsource an assignment. These were: (1) reflections of practice, (2) viva and (3) personalised and unique. I’ve long since advocated on the increased use of vivas within higher education assessment. They are not perfect, but can work well if used in a controlled manner. The other ideas are worth considering. Many essay mills offer reflective writing, although it may be that students choose not to order this.

Personalised assignments are another good way to increase student engagement, but like the other assignment types, they are not foolproof. I’ve observed many examples of students outsourcing project reports and dissertations, getting this back a chapter at a time and returning the comments of their supervisor to their hired writer. There are whole sites that market themselves solely as dissertation and capstone project suppliers. I’ve seen lots of examples of dissertation outsourcing at MBA level and have also observed requests at PhD level. Other safeguards still need to be in place here.

Teddi Fishman suggested a possible variant on the viva which may be worth trying. In this assessment, students give a presentation based on the topics they’ve learned about in the module. The twist is that they don’t know what will be on the presentation slides until they arrive in the assessment room. If anyone does test that one out, please let me know how well it goes.

Contract Cheating and Examinations

One suggestion that is often made when contract cheating is discussed is to simply use examinations again. That may be a partial solution in some cases, but it’s not a complete solution. I was pleased to see that I was not the only person presenting on the challenges posed by examinations. This topic found its way into several other presentations.

In the survey of over 14,000 Australian students reported by Tracey Bretag, she found that 0.2% of students had got someone else take an exam for them. Of the students getting someone else to take an exam for them, only 10% has paid money. By contrast, 0.5% of students said that they had taken an exam for someone else, of which 16.7% received money. I do think that some caution needs to be applied to those figures, as many seem to use exam as an interchangeable term for assessment. If correct, the difference between these figures has to be of interest.

Tracey’s team also surveyed over 1000 academics working at Australian university. They found that 5% of staff had observed impersonation in examination, a number that is much higher than I would have anticipated and has to be of alarm.

Bob Ives presented his work in progress regarding cheating in Moldova and Romania. Both countries were said to have substantial problems with examination cheating, including through impersonation and through the use of unauthorised materials in the exam.

I was also introduced to a site I haven’t seen before, http://ipaidabribe.com, where individuals in India post about bribes they’ve (had to) make. India has often been in the news regarding exam cheating and unsurprisingly the site contains several hundred examples of bribery relating to exams, including examples of bribe payments being required to pass driving tests, engineering certifications and even to qualify as a medical doctor. It’s a site I need to explore further.

My own presentation showed several examples where people attempted to outsource their examinations, including university students and people taking professional exams. Tests taken on a computer looked to be particularly susceptible here. Students were seen using several novel ways to communicate with people outside an examination hall, including instant messenger services like WhatsApp. If communication like this is successfully happening, some changes regarding examination security are necessary.

I also discussed the availability of other technology, particularly the hidden earpieces that were found to be prominent during our SEEPPAI research and allow someone outside an examination hall to whisper answers to a student inside it. A question was raised regarding how such exam cheating technology works, so cheating devices is also an area that I feel needs to receive more widespread communication with the academic audience.

Assessment Recommendations

The same principles regarding good assessments repeated themselves in several different ways during the conference. One of the main ones has to be to stop essay writing being a main part of the requirements for an academic qualification. These are assessments that are susceptible to contract cheating and are “bread and butter” to writers for contract cheating services. As several presenters expressed in different ways, if a writer can turn out multiple essays on multiple subjects a day, then these can’t be essays that are worth writing or reading. But yet, such essays still seem to be being purchased and they still seem to pass.

Hannah Sketchley said that there was a need to co-design assessments with students. It’s not the easiest thing to get right, particularly to also comply with quality processes, external expectations and professional body requirements, but this is certainly a direction to strive towards. A similar recommendation to redesign assessment to remove high stakes components also came from Wendy Sutherland-Smith. Wendy has been attempting this but she also noted that this approach had heavy resource implications which may not prove sustainable in the long term.

Teddi Fishman summed up the challenges posed by contract cheating and assessment well at the keynote that closed the conference. Teddi advocated that “we must require our students to be active participants in their own learning”.

Contract Cheating and Essay Mills 2017 Findings Part 5 – Emerging Issues in Contract Cheating

This is Part 5 of the 7 part series examining Findings From Plagiarism Across Europe and Beyond 2017

There are always new emerging issues that relate to contract cheating and academic integrity. This post is my attempt to capture some of those ideas that don’t fit too cleanly with the other themes.

Addressing Contract Cheating Beyond The Academic Environment

Early in the opening keynote, Tracey Bretag proposed the use of the term outcomes instead of penalties when discussing academic misconduct cases. I’ll try and remember to use that terminology.

Phil Newton discussed his investigations regarding the legality of contract cheating providers. This continues to be location dependent.

Phil did discuss interesting findings from Rebecca Awdry that say a lot about public perceptions of contract cheating. Rebecca found that the majority of people think that it should be illegal for companies to sell essays to students. Perhaps more interestingly, they also thought that it should be illegal for students to buy essays and assignments. If such a development happened, this could make contract cheating into a criminal offence. Government legislation was also suggested as a solution by student advocates from Australia in research findings presented by Wendy Sutherland-Smith.

Trudy Somers suggested that contract cheating might need to be presented as a fraudulent activity. I don’t want to attempt to get into a legal discussion as this was said from a United States viewpoint, but there may be issues here with student loans having being obtained fraudulently if a student is found to have contract cheated. There may also be issues with the future credit scores of students. This seems like something worth warning students about if they are considering getting a mortgage, or even a loan for a new car, later in their life.

Student advocates also thought that students do not know enough about the possible consequences of contract cheating. Wendy Sutherland-Smith presented the results of research with advocates in Australia. One of their recommendations was that students need to be made aware about the risks posed to their wider professional registration. It certainly seems that the discussion with students regarding contract cheating posing more than just an academic outcome is worth having.

Other Academic Integrity Challenges

Some other challenges were discussed at the conference which I think are worth flagging, even if they are only tangentially related to contract cheating.

Much has been said in the past about a race between students and academics to get around any safeguards put in place to preserve academic integrity. One such example is the move away from “copy and paste” plagiarism to contract cheating, since word for word copying is detectable. There are also many more players getting involved in this race now, since helping students to cheat is seen as big business.

I’ve presented many times on the development of technology designed to enable cheating in exams, ranging from the sophisticate contract cheating like processes with third parties completing an examination for a student, all the way down to the simple micro-sized notes printed onto a fake water bottle label.

Some students have been looking at ways to defeat plagiarism detection software and have resorted to various types of article spinning and essay spinning. One of the most developed of these methods appears to be the use of translation software, an area which I’ve presented on and which was presented at the conference by Rui-Sousa Silva. There are various methods that students can use here, including using Google Translate to take an essay written in a foreign language and translate it into English, to taking English text and translating it through a chain of languages back to English, then ending up with text that is rather different than the original. I wouldn’t be surprised if many essay writers for contract cheating services weren’t using techniques like this to quickly supply work that gets around the “no plagiarism” guarantee that many essay mills advertise.

Rui believes that the patterns left behind by the machine translation can be detected and presented some initial ideas at the conference. There is a wider problem for linguistically able detectives to research here, as my foreign language skills are not at that level. Rui’s ideas do depend on knowing that something is amiss with the writing, or that the written ability does not match the spoken ability of a writer, but this is not possible in all situations. One thing I did discover that I wasn’t aware of is that Turnitin does now offer the detection of translation plagiarism in its software, but this isn’t turned on in many installations. This is a step in the right direction, even if the algorithms don’t perfectly solve this problem yet.

Translation is not always perfect, whether this goes through a machine or is completed by hand. I also noted that at the end of my talk, where a quote I gave to the media had become scrambled through translation and may even have been suggesting the opposite of what I intended. The quote was actually there to introduce a wider question about student cheating and smart drugs. These drugs are the (usually prescription) medication that students and professionals can take to stay awake, increase concentration levels and work more efficiently – that is, if the promotion behind these substances is to be believed.

I’ll discuss more about these substances, which appear under a variety of classifications including smart drugs, study drugs and nootropics, another time, but there is a wider question to be answered. This questions asks does using smart drugs gives a student an unfair advantage over another student that could be considered as cheating. Research is starting to emerge on this subject with much to suggest that the drugs do provide an advantage to some, but the cheating issue remains unanswered.

I’m pleased to say that the conference organisers quickly picked this topic up as one of the conference themes for Plagiarism Across Europe and Beyond 2018 (using the term “mind stimulating drugs”). That means that there will be plenty of opportunities for the academic integrity community to research and address the smart drugs issue.

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