Examining The State of Academic Integrity in Europe – Recommendations From SEEPPAI

This presentation focused on sharing the main results and recommendations from the South East European Project on Policies for Academic Integrity (SEEPPAI).

Everything is focused around academic integrity, with particular reference to Romania, where I spoke at an event organised by Turnitin. From my observations of the wider European challenges with regards to academic integrity and discussions in Romania itself, the findings of SEEPPAI are consistent with much of European Europe and South Eastern Europe.

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

Some of the observations relate to what I see as a key challenge regarding student plagiarism. That is, educating students about academic writing and academic integrity and working with them to ensure that teaching is fit for purpose. That’s something I believe we can all work on, regardless of where in Europe or the wider world we’re based.

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”.

Plagiarism Across Europe And Beyond 2017

The Plagiarism Across Europe and Beyond conference series is now established as one of the top conferences in the world for practitioners and researchers interested in plagiarism, contract cheating and other academic integrity developments across the higher education sector.

The 2017 conference provided my first opportunity to attend and I joined a record number of delegates in Brno, Czech Republic to participate in the conference. As well as Europe, the kudos of the conference was evident with delegates attending from around the world.

From my role as a researcher into contract cheating, it was pleasing to see that this was a major theme of the conference, with two keynotes devoted to contract cheating, many presentations on contract cheating and other sessions bringing this area into their work. There is very promising work going on around the ghostwriting field right now.

I was active at the conference myself as an author for two research papers (I presented the one on contract cheating, the one on our SEEPPAI research was delivered by other members of the team), chairing a paper session and participating as a panel member for a discussion on contract cheating. There were also many useful sessions to be had outside of the scheduled activities and it was great to talk to members of the Turnitin team.

I have lots of notes and ideas from the conference. My notepad now tends to be my Twitter account, so you can see the notes from participants at the conference, including myself, collected together here:

You can view the other stories on the Storify account for Thomas Lancaster here.

Debora Weber-Wulff also provided excellent write-ups of each day of the conference on her blog. You can read her thoughts on day one, day two and day three.

As there were parallel sessions at several points during the conference, Deborah and I weren’t always in the same session, so I found her other summaries really useful. She also talks about the presentations I was involved with, as I couldn’t live tweet about this.

A lot of photography was taken during the conference and many sessions were captured on video (including, I believe, our panel discussion), so I shall look forward to seeing those. Plans for Plagiarism Across Europe and Beyond 2018 are already taking shape and that should be another awesome event. I’d also love to see more events taking place in the UK, so feel free to contact me if this is something that you’re interested in.

Policies for Academic Integrity in Montenegro and South East Europe – Council of Europe Montenegro

Montenegro is a fascinating country, which I had the pleasure to visit as part of our SEEPPAI research. There is only one public university, but it’s spread over multiple sites. There are several private universities.

I presented some of the SEEPPAI results and participated in wider discussions about academic integrity and future opportunities in the region at an event organised by the Council of Europe.

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

The presentation discussed the wide range of views I’d experienced from staff and students in the region, often seeming to depend on the level reached within the university system. I was very pleased to see the interest in doing something about the academic integrity challenges, particularly from the students at the event.

There is a lot of good work going on in the region. It all just needs to be communicated to a wider audience.