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.

Do We Need To Worry About Smartwatches Disrupting Education?

I’ve spoken a lot recently about the challenges posed by the changes in technology used by students in education and in the wider world, particularly when lecturers aren’t poised to react to these changes.

Several student cheating commentators, myself included, have mentioned the Apple Watch as being a device that exam invigilators should look out. And this is only one of a number of smartwatch competitors on the market.

The smartwatch essentially moves several features of a mobile phone to the convenient location of being on a student’s wrist. A student looking at a watch, or even lightly touching it, wouldn’t usually be of concern to an invigilator (unless the student had forgotten to disable the annoying beep sound that some watches emit). A smartwatch is a different story.

Many university exam procedures and anti-cheating regulations do not yet specifically discuss smartwatches. This needs to be discussed during regular periodic reviews of teaching processes.

Likewise, not all invigilators are yet familiar with looking for smartwatches and I suspect that many would not know how to recognise them when confronted with a examination hall full of students. With such a variety of fashion watches available for students, even the slightly bulkier frame of a smartwatch may not stand out.

Along with the Apple Watch, there are many other brands and types of smartwatches available on the market and these really don’t need to be expensive. For instance, I imported a low-end smartwatch from China running the common Android operating system to test out and this cost under £10 – and that included shipping to the UK.

News stories in this field have found examples of students taking examinations having answers transmitted to them. These answers were displayed on the small smartwatch screen.

You can now also buy smartwatches that are advertised specifically as cheating watches. Functionalities vary, but all of them are designed to provide quick access to information that students might have ready for an exam, whilst also looking like a regular smartwatch. Particularly sophisticated versions of this use a screen that looks like a real watch face. It would be difficult to notice this without doing very close and careful checks of all student watches.

I have seen some movement towards addressing this problem with revised university examination processes. There are examples of universities where students are now only allowed to take a watch into an examination when placed in a clear plastic bag and positioned on their desk, presumably not to be touched during the examination.

The media has raised a wider question asking if schools, colleges and universities on the way towards airport style security for exams? To protect the integrity of exams, there do certainly need to be changes put into place.

Having been both a student and an invigilator in many examinations, I know that the methods used to communicate time remaining can be limited. Think, poorly positioned clocks Think also, inconsistent clocks in different parts of a large room and analogue devices where it’s really not obvious which minute the clock hand is pointing to. I’ve even seen clocks with failing batteries which lose time during the examination. That’s why, it’s currently almost a necessity for students to have a watch with them. I do think that simply disallowing watches should be possible, but to do that, much better ways of communicating exam timings are needed.

Something for the educators involved with examinations to think about.

Do You Recognise That Exam Taker? Exploring The Changing World Of Examinations And The Students Who Are Using Contract Cheating Services To Find People To Take Their Exam For Them

Many academic studies looking at contract cheating think about this only from the point of view of this being a way for students to get essays, terms papers and assignments written for them.

The reality is that the definition of contract cheating extends much more widely than that. As part of wider work, I’ve recently been looking a lot at exam cheating and there are certainly mechanisms that are easily available for students to use to pay a third party to attend an examination for them.

These slides, originally presented at the CSpace Conference devoted to teaching and learning and held at Birmingham City University look further into the issues about how third parties can become involved in the exam taking process.

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

The slides from the exam cheating presentation include examples of cheating seen in agency sites, as a spin-off to the work that essay mills already offer and on online classified sites. They also look at the people being paid to held students with exams through advances in technology.

There’s a whole murky underworld of exam cheating going on through students who have the money and this continues to be an area that needs research and practical solutions.

A Decade Of Contract Cheating – Examining The Changes That Have Been Made To The Marketplace For Bespoke Essays Video

10 In 10 Contract Cheating Series – Part 2

This is the second in a 10 part series looking at the developments in contract cheating since the term was first used in a research paper and presentation in June 2006.

I’ve previously showcased the slides from my anniversary presentation 10 Years of Contract Cheating.

For the people who weren’t able to attend the talk live, I’ve also produced a screencapture video version, covering much of the same content.

The video provides more details about the contract cheating marketing innovations that I’ve included on the presentation slides.

There are lots of interesting examples discussed, including many of the people who feed into essay mill marketing and the legitimate looking jobs and careers that are available. There are also examples of how cheating services are marketing themselves to students on sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

You can follow this link to see the other parts of the 10 in 10 contract cheating series.

Contract Cheating and Academic Misconduct in Examinations and Tests Video

Here is a video version of my contract cheating talk from the Higher Education Academy STEM Conference, which was recorded in advance of the conference for the benefit of people who could not attend. You can see the slides from the original HEA talk and a short discussion here.

I do have a full teaching and learning seminar available on examination cheating and what can be done about it, which can be presented alongside our contract cheating examples or independently. There is a lot of fascinating stuff available in this field, including much of the technology available to enable students to cheat. Please contact me if you’re interested in me speaking about this at your event or institution.

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