Canadian Symposium on Academic Integrity 2021

The 2nd Canadian Symposium on Academic Integrity, an event that takes place every two years, was held virtually on 22 and 23 June 2021. The Symposium was a large scale event, with over 700 people registered and the third big academic integrity conference of 2021 (following the International Center for Academic Integrity Conference and the European Conference on Academic Integrity and Plagiarism.

Although aimed at a Canadian audience, being virtual the event was attended by delegates from all around the world. I gave the keynote address looking at academic integrity communities, a theme that was also picked up elsewhere at the conference. You can read more about the conference on Twitter with the #CSAI21 hashtag.

Research into academic integrity and contract cheating in Canada has developed very quickly over a short space of time. Some people presented multiple times, being involved in a lot of interesting ongoing research projects and other collaborative activity.

I attended as much of the symposium as I could, but with five parallel sessions it was impossible to attend everything. Here are three of my take-home messages from the symposium.

File Sharing Sites Won’t Go Away

The student use of file sharing sites has to be the academic integrity story of the pandemic. It was also one of the discussions that appeared repeatedly at the conference. These were also called pay-to-pass sites in other presentations, a rather fitting expression.

Bow Valley College have done a lot of work on this area, after they found students posting their exam questions and assignments online. Bow Valley College even showcased the information they were able to get back from investigations with one of the sites, with some students surprisingly being brazen enough to register with their educational email address.

Staff at Bow Valley College received information about students using Chegg to cheat on their assignments and exams. They were alerted to this when they kept finding the same (wrong) purchased answers appearing in student work.

A little reported concern was exactly how academics feel when they discover their students using file sharing sites. Heather Martin from Bow Valley College found staff were feeling defeated, demoralised and disrespected, thinking that all their hard work creating course materials was not valued.

Ebba Kurz said that students need regular reminders that they are breaching copyright and not respecting intellectual property when they post materials on file sharing sites. Ebba recommended making a statement about this explicit as part of course materials.

Brenna Gray questioned the Canadian use of homework systems. It’s an idea I haven’t come across in the UK, but apparently some Canadian institutions require students to pay extra to take required off-the-shelf courses. They tend have to complete assessments within those courses. Unsurprisingly, the answers to such courses are readily available online for a fee.

Certainly there are undesirable practices happening in higher education which, although they don’t excuse contract cheating, do show why students may choose to not focus their own attention on certain assignments. We do need to question why such undesirable developments are happening and how we can ensure that academic integrity really is a key discussion for everyone in education.

We Can Always Learn From The Past

Although new methods that students can use to cheat come along all the time, there’s very little in the academic integrity field that is completely new and has never been studied before.

I mention that as there were quite a few talks which repeated ideas which I’ve seen at other conferences already this year, or which built upon things I remember being talked about 10 years ago. After all, a lot of Canadians are now seeing contract cheating as a brand new problem (even though, as I mentioned when I spoke at the conference, it was almost 15 years to the day when the first presentation of the research Robert Clarke and I conducted on contract cheating took place).

We can always learn from the past. Previous research studies are much more readily available than they’ve ever been before. So many studies are now accessible through Google Scholar. But at the same time, in the interest of building community, we have to find ways to support people joining the academic integrity field and give them the opportunity to share what they’re discovering (and express their feelings).

Sarah Eaton spoke about the history of contract cheating in Canada, finding newspaper adverts dating back to the 1960s and 1970s.

Nowhere was the need to remember the past made clearer than in the presentation Sarah Eaton gave about the history of contract cheating in Canada. Sarah had tracked down largely forgotten theses and news stories, including a (failed) 1972 attempt to make what we would now call contract cheating illegal.

Sarah also estimated that contract cheating services in Canada were doing $10 million (Canadian Dollars) of business per year back in the 1980s. We often underestimate the sheer scale of the contract cheating industry.

We Will Keep Hearing More And More Horrific Stories About Contract Cheating

It is rare that I’m surprised by stories of the techniques used by the contract cheating industry.

Universities are already having to deal with the problem of what happens when a disgruntled writer or company contacts them to say a student has been using their services (sometimes when an attempt to blackmail a student fails).

A new variant of that technique has emerged, falling much more into the phishing levels, where scammers are inventing contract cheating cases either in an attempt to collect student details, or to get universities to pay them money in sympathy for their loss of earnings.

We also heard of companies reporting when graduates had worked for them back to the original university. Presumably this happens when the graduate decides they no longer want to continue as a writer. At the same time, false reports were also being made, a difficult situation when these also have to be investigated.

Canadian universities sell advertising space around the campus, including in bathrooms. One delegate discussed how their university had been taking paid adverts from a contract cheating service advertising in Mandarin and the posters remained active for some time. The rise of local contract cheating services each supporting only one course was also explored.

One contract cheating provider managed to get the contact details of all students on a course and found out details of a quiz they had upcoming. It then emailed personal invitations to all students saying they could “assist” them with that quiz (for a fee).

Other contract cheating providers have started running their own conferences and have even provided academics with research funding to make themselves seem legitimate. It is disappointing that people are falling for the contract cheating industry tricks, but we need to stay alert and also think about how we support academics who get taken in by the contract cheating industry.

The Power of Academic Integrity Communities – Keynote Presentation Slides

I was delighted to be asked to deliver the keynote presentation for the 2nd Canadian Symposium on Academic Integrity. Although this was originally planned to take place in person at Thompson Rivers University, this ended up being an online presentation, with more than 700 participants registered for the conference (and over 200 watching live and joining in with the discussion).

In the keynote, I focused on academic integrity communities, of which the conference itself was one such example.

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

I gave examples of the communities that exist around academic integrity, both those supporting students and those liable to mislead them. I also showcased examples of the many communities that have developed around the world since I started working in this field in 2000, both online and offline, with one of the most pleasing developments being the full involvement of students in the communities.

At the end of the keynote, I encouraged delegates to find ways to both help more members to engage in the communities, but also to support the people who are lurking in the communities, interested in academic integrity, but not feeling that they have to actively engage.

Contract Cheating – Addressing The Business School Challenge

There are specific challenges for Business Schools looking to identify and address contract cheating. From my previous research, I’ve seen particular demand for students to have assignments produced for them in business related subjects, including finance, marketing and management. I’ve also seen wide availability of writers claiming to be qualified or specialised in these areas.

I gave a remote presentation for staff at the Birmingham Business School (part of the University of Birmingham) to discuss these issues.

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

Business is one of the areas where we need more specialised research into contract cheating and the ability to share best practice. There is a lot of demand for Business School qualifications, but students can sometimes be motivated more by the value of the qualification than the associated learning.

We need to consider how to address contract cheating in Business Schools and how we can encourage and support academic integrity.

Contract Cheating: An Introduction for the Research Active

The European Network for Academic Integrity now runs a popular summer school programme, with one week of intensive workshops, two per day, aimed at PhD researchers and other staff interested in improving their knowledge of academic integrity and perhaps conducting research in the field.

Along with Ann Rogerson and Zeenath Khan, I delivered a session on contract cheating, focusing on information for researchers, including ideas for future research. This was complemented nicely by Ann and Zeenath’s expertise, who both delivered their own presentations.

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

One of the difficult ideas we discussed is that contract cheating is an option for researchers. Doctoral proposals, editing services, statistical analysis and even chapter writing is available to purchase online. Sometimes academics work for contract cheating providers.

I’m sure that no one at the summer school would consider contract cheating, but the options to do so are out there.

European Conference on Academic Integrity and Plagiarism 2021

The European Conference on Academic Integrity and Plagiarism (ECAIP) is the conference formally known as Plagiarism Across Europe and Beyond. The 2021 version of the conference took place virtually. The timing, unfortunately, clashed with my having many university commitments, so I was only able to attend a small number of talks live. A lot of information about the conference is archived with the Twitter hashtag #ECAIP2021.

I was fortunate enough to be able to deliver two talks with student partners, both of which I have written about on the blog. Benjamin Dent and I looked at contract cheating on Rahul Gupta and I focused on contract cheating on Reddit. I also hosted a paper session, chaired a panel on contract cheating where we discovered that many countries are still not fully engaging with this problem and presented at a workshop aimed at helping others to publish in the academic integrity field.

It was very pleasing to see so many students involved in this conference, not only presenting and sharing research results, but also talking about innovations in their institutions and participating on panels.

My five conference reflections this time will be shorter than many, but I also encourage you to look at the three days of summaries from Debora Weber-Wulff, the first of which is linked here. These include many presentations I couldn’t get to, although with four presentations running in parallel through much of the conference, there is a lot for everyone to catch up on through the video recordings as time permits.

Reflection #1 – We Need To Ensure That All Students Understand Academic Integrity And Are Treated Equally

I’d like to start by highlighting the work of Mary Davis from Oxford Brookes University. Mary is also a member of the London and SE England Academic Integrity Network, which launched earlier this year.

Mary Davis encouraging universities to consider how inclusive their academic integrity policies are

At her own institution, Mary found that Indian, Pakistani, Black African students were disproportionally referred for academic integrity investigations, along with students with specific learning differences and those from widening participation backgrounds. There is an important question to ask about whether the correct support is in place for those students.

Mary also highlighted how stressful and difficult the process was for those students, including the example of one mature student who thought her student would view her as a criminal for being referred. More needs to be done to make sure that all students are supported to avoid academic misconduct in the first place and that any academic integrity investigations are conducted with dignity and avoid the prejudgement of guilt.

The issue of students not always understanding academic integrity, or only looking at this from a partial viewpoint, remains a problematic one. This issue is amplified when issues of inclusivity are considered. Here is a tweet from Mike Reddy which sums up the situation.

Reflection #2 – We Need To Make Technology Work For Us

So often, academic integrity is looked at as an issue of technology. The idea is that, with the right software, we can solve the problem. As I’ve said many times, technology is a tool, it can be useful, but technology is only one part of a wider solution.

The issue of proctoring software was hotly debated, including in a presentation by Phillip Dawson where he gave 10 suggestions for improving practice.

Phillip Dawson recommended that remote proctored exams should only be used as a last resort.

The word “blockchain” appeared so many times during the conference, to the extent I even joked about it (although I’m not sure everyone realised I wasn’t being serious). The problem is that blockchain (or decentralisation) is a trend, it’s discussed a lot, but it’s not clear what problem it is a solution for. Even if it was a solution, quite frankly many people just don’t understand the technology. Explaining how the technology used to support academic integrity works is going to become very important.

Reflection #3 – The Effects Of Covid-19 On Academic Integrity Will Be Felt Over The Longer Term

Several people highlighted their own data, including studies in progress, which suggested an increase in student cheating during Covid-19. This was echoed in my own work with Rahul Gupta. Some people had numbers from their own institutions, with Ann Rogerson noting a big increase in collusion at the University of Wollongong.

Ann Rogerson discussed how students had developed new cheating networks as a result of Covid-19.

Ann Rogerson talked about how students are now sharing answers during exams taken remotely through channels that couldn’t easily be tracked and archived, including using Snapchat messages that delete after a few seconds and by routing communication through the messaging systems inside popular online games.

A concerning development that Ann identified was the way that cheating networks evolved once lockdown was lifted and students were able to get together in person. Ann found examples of students gathering together in the same location, able to collude and to talk together during remote unproctored exams. There was no need for the further apps and technology in that case. A conversation has to be asked in situations like this regarding how such situations can be avoided when (and if) in-person study resumes.

Reflection #4 – We Need To Do More To Address Degree Mills

The problem of students buying not only individual assignments, but also a whole qualification, is an underexplored one in the literature. Jamie J. Carmichael and Sarah Eaton have been working on this area

One finding Jamie and Sarah highlighted, based on analysing website text, was the over-appearance of the words “Chinese” and “Malaysia“, suggesting a market that diploma mills were aiming their services towards.

Jamie and Sarah found that you can buy not only the finished degree certificates, but also the accompanying transcripts. In some cases, providers claim to have access to computer systems to put fake grades into an official system. But in a link with the research we’ve seen into blackmail and contract cheating, if you don’t keep paying up and buying more and more qualifications, you run the risk of the company exposing your identity.

Sarah Eaton and Jamie J. Carmichael highlighting the issue of diploma mills

Reflection #5 – Students Are At Risk Of Continual Exploitation And We Need To Act

The dangers posed by the contract cheating industry have come up many times in my own research, not just because students can be getting qualifications that they don’t deserve, but also because students themselves are being cheated and taken advantage of.

Rahul and I highlighted several Reddit scams, including how students were being contacted by fake services after asking for help, who were out to extort students.

I unfortunately didn’t get to catch Felicity Prentice’s presentation on contract cheating, but I did see Zeenath Khan’s tweet, which highlighted students complaining about receiving poor quality or plagiarised work. Now, the hope is that students will never be in a situation where they do purchase answers, but this happens and we have to think about how we support them when they are taken advantage of by essay mills and contract cheating providers.

Robin Crockett shared how contract cheating providers were sharing the details of their customers to other prospects, often in the form of so-called testimonials. These customers are then identifiable. When student partners share such testimonials with staff at their university, these purchases are no longer risk free.

Robin also discussed how misleading the whole contract cheating industry. Here is just one example from his talk, an essay mill claiming to be based in the UK, but which is actually operating out of India (the same country which my own research with Benjamin Dent was found generating most of the requests for work on

This essay mill, identified by Robin Crockett, has a UK domain and displays a Union Jack, but is based internationally.

To close, the issue of legislation came up several times at the conference. I was asked about in my own presentation. But the issue of where contract cheating providers (and their workers) are actually based does mean that, although we should certainly be pursuing the legal options, enforcement may end up being rather difficult.

As always, we have to continue addressing contract cheating through as wide a range of methods as possible.

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