Discipline Differences in Contract Cheating – Presentation Slides

Here are the slides I prepared for the International Center for Academic Integrity Conference 2020, which was held in Portland, Oregon.

The presentation focused on why we need to address contract cheating at discipline level and why we need to consider methods other than surveys for deciding what is happening regarding contract cheating.

Unfortunately, for me the presentation was rather a blur, as I heard that my long-term research partner and friend, Robert Clarke, had passed away. I got the news just before delivering the presentation. I’m very grateful to the audience regarding how they received the presentation in what was a very challenging time.

You can see the slides I used below (and also on my SlideShare account).


Robert Clarke and I have collected data on contract cheating dating back to 2004, so we’ve seen lots of interest in the area since that point, but little change in academic practice. But, at the same time, the companies marketing contract cheating services are very aware about the need to market to different subjects and students and how they need to play a long-term game to develop relationships. We need to adapt to this and continue academic integrity research at all levels.

Plagiarism Across Europe And Beyond 2019

Plagiarism Across Europe And Beyond is an established series of conferences, promoted on behalf of the European Network for Academic Integrity. The 2019 edition of the conference took place in Vilnius, Lithuania in June 2019.

I attended and delivered talks looking at contract cheating at subject level and exploring the academic writing market enabled through Fiverr.com.

The whole conference was interesting, with lots of practical tips and research shared. This conference attracted many of the top names in the academic integrity world to present. There were parallel sessions, so I could only attend some of them, mostly those on contract cheating. But here are some of my take-home ideas from the conference.

Findings From Plagiarism Across Europe And Beyond 2019

There are many methods that we can use to detect contract cheating

Clare Johnson has had success examining student work for contract cheating using forensic techniques

Detecting contract cheating has been a long-standing interest of mine. My PhD work focused on detecting plagiarism and, as a Computer Scientist, I believe that technology can form part of the process for addressing contract cheating.

Three sessions picked up on contract cheating detection. PlagScan focused on its new authorship tracking solution, which takes as its premise the idea that students who are taught together should develop a similar writing style from which a metric based solution can be used to look for outliers.

Clare Johnson showed how she’d been successfully using steganalysis methods, the same ones used for forensic computing investigations, to track unexpected edits within MS Word files. GSM London had developed software to automate looking at document properties across large numbers of documents. One of their finding was that many students used the same external writer and the same writer name could be tracked within multiple files.

We really don’t know much about student cheating at subject level

Rebecca Awdry warning about the risks posed by outsourcing in Agriculture

As my own talk showed, the traditional belief is that students are most likely to buy assignments in the Business discipline. But contract cheating services have now developed their advertising to focus on disciplines individually. I found three disciplines groups: (1) Computer Science, (2) Architecture, Building and Planning, and (3) Law, that were already highly exploited. I also found that the Creative Arts and Design group was at risk of further exploitation.

Rebecca Awdry presented her survey results of subject level cheating. Her finding was that students in Agriculture were most likely to outsource their work, with students in two areas: (1) Health, and (2) Languages being the least likely. These are different findings to other studies and frankly we just don’t know a lot about subject level contract cheating. As I said at the conclusion of my talk, we need to find more out about contract cheating in individual disciplines and to put subject level interventions in place before the essay industry does.

Felicity Prentice looked at essay spinning within medicine and found that the results of paraphrasing text through Google Translate were poor. For example, the common term “Emergency Department” was translated as “Erectile Dysfunction“, potentially making it not too hard for anyone trying to detect disguised plagiarism in that academic discipline.

I showed that, despite demand, contract cheating pricing has been driven down by competition.

The contract cheating industry offers cheap work and use sophisticated recruitment techniques

In my research, I found that the price being requested by contract cheating writers had been driven down by competition, often hitting just $5 USD for 1,000 words. This isn’t necessarily reflected when students order through the more established essay mills, as they make their own mark up on the amount paid to the writer.

And, that the end quality of purchased work may not be very good. Wendy Sutherland-Smith spoke about she had purchased essays and checked the quality. 52% of the purchased essays had gained a failing mark.

Wendy also noted that students buying essays were putting themselves at risk. She said that she’d been contacted many times by writers outraged that students hadn’t paid them or had reversed credit card transactions.

Irene Glendinning found that a contract cheating service had recruited two students to work with them from a university based near Coventry, UK. By employing students, this would enable the contract cheating services to get access to other students. Recruiting students as brand ambassadors is now thought to be an established method used by these services, with the individuals referred to as “classroom moles“.

Felicity Prentice talked about the tools contract cheating services claim to be providing to students. One example of a paraphrasing tool, allegedly there to rewrite text so that this did not appear as plagiarism, provided intentionally bad output, whilst at the same time providing adverts for a better solution, buying an essay from them.

Felicity Prentice demonstrating a paraphrasing tool with links to a contract cheating provider

There needs to be more of a focus on continuing academic integrity outside the classroom

Irene Glendinning has been research international corruption in higher education

Several examples were given of where students were being encouraged to take shortcuts before reaching university level. Zeenath Khan said that her five year old had been given an assignment to make a physical model, something that they just couldn’t be expected to do. Their school must have known that parents would have to do the work.

Another conference attendant went further. She said that her son had won a prize for homework she’d completed for him.

The involvement of friends and family in the contract cheating process cannot be understated. In her survey, Rebecca Awdry said she’d found that 11.2% of students had used friends and family members to complete their work for them.

Irene Glendinning also found corruption in international quality assurance bodies, meaning that they could not always be trusted to ensure academic integrity in the universities they represented. In one startling example, 60% of higher education providers in India were said to have no quality assurance process.

We need to work with and engage students in spreading the academic integrity message

Wendy Sutherland-Smith is part of an international team collaborating with Student Unions to investigate the student experience of contract cheating investigations

Many students are concerned about academic integrity. Wendy Sutherland-Smith spoke about successful interventions at Deakin University, most notably illustrated with a recent example where a student posted a message on Facebook asking for copies of other students’ assignments. Wendy said that four students reported this post within minutes. However, not all students wanted to see more done about contract cheating. For example, when the UK’s Bloomsbury Institute surveyed their students, most were not in favour of the institution implemented a whistleblowing policy.

Discussing contract cheating with students is essential. Rebecca Awdry surveyed a large number of students and found that students who thought other students cheated were most likely to cheat themselves. Many Student Unions are now supporting the need for this discussion. Early results from collaborative research between Coventry University and Deakin University has questioned if students understand institutional academic integrity processes and found that the way an investigative process is communicated with students may be problematic.

Students at one university were said to have complained when they were caught contract cheating. They said that they’d approached this assignment in the same way that they’d approached all their other assignments. This means that contract cheating needs to be addressed early and methods of detection also needs to be in place early.

The whole conversation surrounding integrity can be difficult. Anna Krajewska from Bloomsbury Institute, UK, found that her students said they cheated so as not to disappoint her. They did not always want to engage with the subject. One student summed up why they were really studying higher education by complaining “We pay this school £6000 per year… just to have stress”.

It is important to find methods of discussing academic integrity that engage students. Penny Beale from Suffolk County Community College shared an example that worked well for her, that of discussing tattoo plagiarism, presumably valuable in these days that so many students care passionately about the uniqueness of their body art.

 

Towards Plagiarism Across Europe And Beyond 2020

Overall, Plagiarism Across Europe And Beyond 2019 proved to be a useful and important conference. I look forward to attending Plagiarism Across Europe And Beyond 2020 in Dubai, where I am delivering one of the keynote addresses.

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.

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