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 4 – Detecting Contract Cheating

This is Part 4 of the 7 part series examining Findings From Plagiarism Across Europe and Beyond 2017

Mixed views continue to exist across the sector as to whether we should be trying to detect contract cheating. I have always felt that this is a duty of academics to protect the value of assessments for other students, but I can see why views vary here. There should be a deterrent factor as part of the risk of being caught. But I was interested to hear the views from student advocates at the conference, as presented by Wendy Sutherland-Smith. Advocates felt that students wanted to see people who were contract cheating get caught.

This blog post focuses mainly on technology. Before anyone shouts of me, I should establish that we’re not yet in a position where we can assume that technology can detect contract cheating. However, we may perhaps be able to use technology to identify work that may be unoriginal, with the onus then being on a human to make a judgement. This is analogous to how software that identifies similarity between texts can be used as part of a plagiarism detection process.

Stylometric Analysis

Two conference presentations focused on software and techniques designed to identify the author of different documents. This is something of a trend right now, as I know of two further groups in the UK actively working on this (and I’m sure that there are other people working on this who I’m not aware of). Further, at the conference I found out about a current tool used for plagiarism detection that already has this built in. I also know about one of the largest software providers in the plagiarism field who is actively working to add writing style analysis to their software.

From the conference presentations, two quite different approaches were proposed.

Patrick Juola runs a company that aims to automate authorship attribution and proposed an approach that sounds simple on paper. He suggested collecting assessment submissions from students throughout their course. Their most recent document is then compared with the one submitted immediately prior using an automated process to see if both documents have been written by the same person. If not, there is cause for concern.

This is an approach that certainly sounds like it could have some merit, but this does also need to be supplemented by details of exactly what measures are being compared.

Rui Sousa-Silva looked at how authorship attribution software could be used by people who saw a document that they thought may have been written by someone other than the student submitting the work. He gave several examples using Wordsmith Tools. Here, an investigator would compare the suspect document with other work written by the student. This way of thinking about authorship did provide more detail, but I do still feel that a lot more training would be needed to help many staff feel comfortable with relying on this type of software, as well as understanding of the software by all involved with academic conduct investigations.

I made limited progress on the use of stylometry for both plagiarism and contract cheating detection in the early to mid-2000s, mostly working with students. Although a few results found their way into talks and papers, I was never able to devote sufficient time to this. So, it’s good to see other people taking up the mantle. There are still issues to overcome with ensuring the reliability of these stylometric approaches, as well as ensuring that student assignments are widely and systematically collected.

Other Approaches To Detection

Tracey Bretag presented results from a survey of academic staff from Australian universities based on how they had detected contract cheating. The most common responses given were detection by knowledge of the student’s academic ability (71%) and knowledge of their English language ability (62%). Both of these approaches are valid but can be difficult when anonymous marking is used.
Tracey also found that 49% of academics were alerted to contract cheating through text matching from similarity detection software, such as Turnitin. This is an interesting result from several perspectives. First, it supports some of my previous research looking at the use of Turnitin to detect contract cheating. Second, it casts doubt on the claim of many essay providers that they are providing a plagiarism free assignment. This does suggest that, even as new approaches are introduced, the use of software designed to detect plagiarism is still essential.

In research with student advocates presented by Wendy Sutherland-Smith, she also found suggestions for the use of software, particularly to identify students. One suggestion was keystroke analysis, a technique with some overlap to writing style analysis. I also noticed a suggestion of eye detection. Whether this involves tracking the eyeline of a student to ensure that it’s focused on assessment tasks, or whether this involves iris scanning to ensure that the correct student is sitting examinations and submitted work is not clear.

Perhaps all of these different approaches for detecting contract cheating have some merit?

Exploring The Culture Of Plagiarism Invading Higher Education

I was invited to deliver a high profile keynote presentation about student plagiarism in Azerbaijan, to an audience consisting largely of Vice Chancellors, other senior figures in higher education and Government officials.

This was quite an experience for me, as it’s also the first time I’ve had a talk I’ve given translated live into a foreign language. It was a very respectful audience and I hope that the translation captured everything that I presented.

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

The event was held in conjunction with Turnitin and I used the keynote slot to question several assumptions about student plagiarism and to raise awareness of why this is an important problem and one that cannot simply be ignored.

The slides contain examples of plagiarism extending beyond the traditional written essay and I hope capture the feeling that the movement that exists towards ensuring integrity in all aspects of academic life.

10 Contract Cheating Research Observations From The Past Decade That Have Shaped What We Know About Student Cheating Behaviour

10 In 10 Contract Cheating Series – Part 10

This is the final part in a 10 part series looking at how contract cheating has changed since the term was first publicised in a research paper and presentation in June 2006.

As I’ve explored throughout this series of blog posts looking at a decade of contract cheating, the world in which students are using assignment writing services and consultancies has changed substantially. Although it often seems that the push for universities to seriously tackle contract cheating is media driven, there have been substantive pieces of research completed in the contract cheating field.

This post identifies 10 research findings which are of particular interest to researchers now and which should inform the next decade of work in this area of student cheating.

 

Finding #1 – Once Students Have Begun To Cheat, Many Such Students Continue To Do Cheat Habitually

One of the most interesting findings in the first contract cheating study that Robert Clarke and I published, was that very few students cheated as a one-off activity. We noticed the behaviour that students had successfully made several requests to outsource their work, sometimes with multiple assignments for different subjects being completed at the same time.

Recent media reports looking inside essay mills have also noticed the same group of students appearing again and again. Other media reports speaking to essay writers have also stated that there is a personal continuing business relationship between the writer and the student.

The traditional academic research into student cheating suggests that student cheat due to desperation, because they don’t know how to complete the work, or because they don’t have enough time. All of those issues may be enabling factors for student cheating, but it appears that once students have found that cheating has granted them academic success, they will continue to cheat. There are cheating networks now, where students refer other students to writers. The growing awareness of these essay writing services around students is leading to their continued growth.

 

Finding #2 – Workers Can Be Commissioned Quickly To Complete Assignments For Students

One proposal to combat contract cheating that has been made is for the assignment details to be released to students very late, so as to give them little time to secure a worker.

Melisa Wallace and Philip Newton investigated how long the likely turnaround times on visible contract cheating sites and found a group of people ready to take on an assignment with either a week’s deadline or even 24 hour’s deadline. They even found that over 10 such workers would be available to choose from for each such assignment. For workers for whom academic writing is their living, being responsive to market needs is important.

Other essay mills also regularly advertise that same day turnaround for assignments is possible. They can do this as they have access to their own army of freelance writers, usually consisting of far more people that they actually need. They people are trained to turn assignments around quickly, following the formatting and layout norms for that academic discipline.

Our own observations of contract cheating agency sites have seen requests to hire workers in advance, so that these workers are online and available at the time that assignments are released. This is particularly the case for take home examinations.

The recommendation has to be that “just in time” release of assignment details is not the right option and may actually create more problems with allowing students to do their best work in this area.

 

Finding #3 – Essays And Assignments Can Be Purchased Cheaply And They Can Be Of High Quality

There is a traditional viewpoint that original essays purchased from third party sources will be of low quality, particularly since the essay provider has not vested interest in turning out high quality report. Several studies of around ten years ago went along with this viewpoint, showing examples of work purchased at premium prices, but received marks around the pass threshold, involving some failures.

The more recent studies about the quality of student work have counteracted that viewpoint.

A study by Lisa Lines saw the purchase of multiple essays from different providers, at both undergraduate and postgraduate level. Although the marks awarded for completing essays with the same title varied across providers, she identified essays receiving exceptional marks (above 90%), with few failures. She also found that the work at undergraduate level was generally better than the work at postgraduate level and that the providers who charged more generally returned higher quality essays.

During our own research, we’ve seen examples of essays, reports, programming assignments and other pieces of work produced by different academic writing firms and directly commissioned from writers. The standard has been variable, but the work from major providers also seems to have improved in recent years. This is likely largely due to increased education between firms and writers about how high quality academic work should be presented. It also appears that there may now be more internal checking included in the academic commissioning process.

It also seems that the quality of the work is dependent more on choosing the correct writer, rather than the amount being paid. It is possible to commission writers directly through contract cheating agency sites. Working with a motivated writer, perhaps through setting them a question that differs from run-of-the-mill assignments, can be engaging for them. Direct communication with a writer can also keep the prices down.

Although I don’t have a budget to directly commission work from writers and assess how good this is, I am certain that a high quality 2000 word assignment could easily be purchased for $100 USD or less (and earlier in this series, I’ve demonstrated that offers exist to complete work for as low as $20 USD).

 

Finding #4 – The Business Academic Discipline Represents The “Bread And Butter” For Contract Cheating Providers

During our early studies, we identified that most assignment requests on the EssayBay site were from the business discipline.

That finding has been supported many times since. Several academics in the discipline have told me that they believe that there is a real problem in business. I’ve also spoken to a writer for an essay mill and he was very quick to tell me that business assignments and term papers ranked at the top of the more requested list.

I often joke that we are turning out people equipped to work in business, as they understand where they should invest money. But clearly, contract cheating in any discipline is not a behaviour that we want to encourage.

In the assignments we’ve seen, requests for MBA work and MBA dissertations are appearing with alarming frequency. These are often needed as a professional qualification, can be taken online and don’t appear to have the same level of supervision as other types of qualification. When Neil Wellman and Julia Fallon seriously investigated cheating in an MBA module that they were responsible for, they were able to identify consistent cheating rates of around 30%. The students estimated that around 40% of the work on the MBA was purchased, although that number could not be verified. One student even confidentially admitted that he had given the assignments to their cousin to complete the work.

It may soon get to the stage where MBA holders have to be able to demonstrate that their qualification is, indeed, a reputable one.

 

Finding #5 – Ghostwriters Now Look At Completing Work For Students As A Reputable Career Move For Them

Another interesting research strand that has begun to emerge has been looking at the people who are completing work for students, the techniques that they use and why they engage in this behaviour.

A key finding, backed up by my own investigations into the people bidding to complete work for the students, is that this is purely a financial arrangement. The work can be well paid, particularly in economies where the cost of living is lower. There is a lot of work available. The hours and working arrangements can be flexible. As I’ve outlined in previous talks and post, academic writing work is now seen as so lucrative and in demand that people will pay to get access to writing work opportunities. There are whole communities set up to help academic ghostwriters perform better, work more efficiently and avoid the fines imposed by essay writing agencies.

Several sources have found ghostwriters who are in this field for revenge. Shiva Sivasubramaniam, Kalliopi Kostelidou and Sharavan Ramachandran identified a community of international writers with qualifications from western universities, but who had resorted to academic ghostwriting due to a lack of work experience. A media investigation found a UK based tutor who had been unsuccessful at gaining an an academic position, so was now supplementing tutorial work by writing assignments for students. My own research has seen plenty of workers on outsourcing websites offering to complete academic work and advertising academic qualifications up to PhD level as their credentials.

I have spoken to online writers and found a mix of ethical views towards completing student work. Many writers say that they are happy to complete academic work for students, as they see this as fulfilling a market need, but ethical boundaries vary. One writer said that they were unwilling to help prospective nurses, for example, but would happily turn out several business essays a day if sufficient work was available.

Christopher Harris and Padmini Srinivasan went further and created a fake website offering homework help services. They found that most workers on a micro-outsourcing site were willing to allow their answers to be submitted by students for academic credit, most significantly when the worker was from India or Bangladesh. They also found that the size of the payment made to the workers did not change their ethical views on this topic or whether they would accept work offered as providing contract cheating opportunities. These workers were either already willing to support student cheating, or they were not.

The growth of individual writers advertising contract cheating services on social media and the more aggressive and the targeted nature of this advertising suggests that workers are now seeing the benefits of setting up their own direct provision of essay writing services. There are all kinds of involved marketing methods that students can now use to attract students. I predict that the number of people who are using academic writing as a major source of income, or looking at this as their career, will only grow further.

 

Finding #6 – Contract Cheating Detection Software Has Still Not Proven Successful

One of the biggest surprises to me during the 10 years of contract cheating research that I’ve been involved with, is that no-one has made substantial progress towards the problem of writing software to identify when contract cheating has taken place.

My own research publications have identified several possible models for this, ranging from suggesting stylometric analysis to look for a student writing style that differs from what would be expected, to developing intelligent systems designed to monitor the requests posted on contract cheating websites and attempt to alert the owners.

I have seen some initial findings of promise, including some unpublished work suggesting that there are elements of student writing styles that can identify them, even with a small writing sample. But, there has not been interest shown by funding bodies to take this work to the next level and no computer scientists or linguists have taken this on as a personal project to challenge them. Likewise, none of the major plagiarism detection services have looked to add this type of detection to their services, preferring instead to stick with releasing traditional text matching software.

One surprising result that I have found during my investigations with Robert Clarke is that running requests for assignment help found online through Turnitin can sometimes help to identify the source, particularly where academics reuse the same assignment briefs year after year. Likewise, student work can often throw up indicators that all is not what it seems, particularly through small percentage matches to external sites. Not all ghostwriters provide work that is as original as they advertise and several students have been caught out when their writer was found to have taken shortcuts.

Contract cheating detection would be an excellent area for PhD students to get involved with. There’s scope for multiple PhD projects in this area as there are many different approaches that can be investigated. There is a timeliness for this work and so opportunities to make an impact during and beyond the PhD. This ties in with trends of national and international interest. My own PhD developed software to solve the more traditional problem of detecting plagiarism, but I would be keen to work with PhD students looking to develop methods, metrics and software for detecting contract cheating.

 

Finding #7 – The Real Money In Contract Cheating Is Made By The Third Party Subcontractors

Very early on in our contract cheating research, we identified the pattern of certain accounts that were requesting that vast volumes of assignments were completed for them. These were often across different academic disciplines, involved multiple years of study and even covered assignments from several universities.

What we identified were third party subcontractors, essentially people or businesses who took in orders from students and then themselves used an outsourcing process to find workers to complete the assessments.

Over the past decade, that third party subcontractor model has become more commonplace, with many of the larger essay writing companies using a similar process. The main difference here is that the continued outsourcing process is often kept private inside those sites and only seen by registered writers.

For smaller companies, for instance those single-person companies operating within a local area, or targeting students at a particular university, cheap outsourcing to traditional agency sites such as Freelancer still exists. Sometimes, this can be done by individual writers who simply do not have the capacity to complete all of the orders that they’re receiving at busy times of the academic year. During the continued student work outsourcing process, the latest observations are that these third party subcontractors often have a group of regular workers that they use, continue to manage and put their assignments through, all protected through the privacy and escrow payment process in place at these outsourcing websites.

Writers have indicated that as little as 10% of the money paid by students to essay sites may end up with writers. The real money in the essay industry is clearly taking in the orders, not completing the writing. Likewise, the students who are now identified as going directly to writers rather than through other companies have also clearly identified how to get the best return for their academic writing investment.

 

Finding #8 – Over 50% Of Students Are Willing To Buy Essays If The Price Is Right

One of the most interesting of the contract cheating studies that I’ve read about over the past decade was an investigation by Dan Rigby and team into how much willing students would be to pay to outsource their assignments. They completed this study using standard proven economic theories.

They identified that over 50% of students would be willing to buy original assessments from ghostwriting services, with a clear reduction in numbers if the risk of being caught went up. Increased numbers would commission work if the quoted price was lower or the likelihood of receiving a top grade was higher.

It is still difficult to ascertain exactly how many students have used contract cheating services, as only a small number of students get detected and taken through formal disciplinary processes. I’ve seen small scale estimates suggesting that this number could lie anywhere between 1 in 100 and 1 in 2, depending on the students and discipline. I suspect that the real percentage of students who have tried using contract cheating services is closer to 10%, although this will vary between cohorts and academic disciplines. In any case, the number of students contract cheating must be sizable, as the latest estimates suggest that a minimum of £100 million (GBP) a year of business is working its way through these sites (although my own studies suggest £20 million as a more immediately believable figure).

 

Finding #9 – International Students Are Particularly Susceptible To Taking Advantage Of Contract Cheating Opportunities

Much media attention has been paid to the likelihood that international students are involved with outsourcing their work. A Freedom of Information Act request in the UK found that international students were three times more likely to be caught cheating than home students. A media investigation in Australia went inside an essay mill aimed at students from China and found that many made prevalent and repeated use of this service.

When Dan Rigby and group investigated which students would be willing to pay for assignments, they found that around 75% of students with English as a second language were willing to buy assessed work, as opposed to 50% of the general student body.

When non-international and international students work in teams together, there have been several online discussions where the non-international students have reported pressure from the international students to use academic writing services. There are many indications that suggest that the use of contract cheating providers is common across that group.

We need to be aware that international students are particularly susceptible to the marketing of contract cheating services and identify how to best support those students and ensure that they do not end up tempted to use essay writing services.

 

Finding #10 – All Assignments Are Cheatable When Students Are Inclined To Cheat

If we can dream up an assignment, students can find a way to either cheat on that assignment, or to give themselves an unfair advantage.

I’ve often given talks and heard academics talk about their “unbeatable” assignment. For instance, they require students to complete work in stages, each of which receives feedback and is sent back to the student for improvements.

Assignments like those are just as easy to outsource as any other. We’ve seen plenty of examples online of students securing workers to complete their project work, with the workers being sent the feedback comments as they come in. If anything, this makes the workers life easier, as they get the benefit of the feedback intended for the student.

What we can do is avoid setting the type of standard repetitive essays that are many writers bread and butter. The writers eagerly await the essays on standard themes that they can turn around in a few hours. Many of the more challenging and unusual assignments are harder for students to find a worker to complete for them.

 

Contract Cheating Research Must Continue

Although this is the final post in this series on contract cheating, you can be assured that coverage of this problem will continue on my blog, through my teaching and learning presentations and as part of my wider media and research work. The problem will not go away. New cheating developments will continue to emerge, as a small group of students continues to look for new ways to earn qualifications that they do not deserve.

Do take a look at the other parts of the 10 in 10 contract cheating series and let me know about any areas of student cheating that you’d like me to focus in on, or to direct other researchers in the academy integrity field towards.

As always, I’m happy to be contacted regarding keynote speaking opportunities, research collaborations, training sessions and other consultancy opportunities around the field of contract cheating.

Attributing Contract Cheating Through The Turnitin Text Matching Service

Birmingham City University holds a research conference, Rescon, in December of each year, providing short accessible shorts from staff and PhD students about their research.

My session built on work presented to the Higher Education academy looking at how text matching algorithms supplied by Turnitin could be used as part of the attribution of contract cheating. This is the challenging process where a request to have assessed work completed can be found online, but the academic institution to which the work is associated is hard to identify.

The slides, can be accessed on my SlideShare account, or viewed below.

The talk led to a wide-ranging discussion about wider aspects of contract cheating, plagiarism and academic misconduct. There was clearly a lot of local interest in the use of Turnitin and the associated training as well as the reasons that students cheat and how that could be avoided.

The group also had a discussion about translation plagiarism. Although I did undertake some initial research on this a few year’s ago, this is still a problem and needs to be the topic of continued research. Several academics believed that they had seen attempts to cheat by taking work and automatically translating it into different languages. The actual behaviour that I have previously observed and researched is more subtle and this may also be something that I discuss in more detail on this site in the future.

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