About Thomas Lancaster

I am an experienced Computer Science academic, best known for research work into academic integrity, plagiarism and contract cheating. I have held leadership positions in several universities, with specialty in student recruitment and keen interest in working in partnership with students. Please browse around the blog and the links, and feel free to leave your thoughts.
Website: http://thomaslancaster.co.uk
Thomas Lancaster has written 181 articles so far, you can find them below.


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 Freelancer.com. 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 Freelancer.com).

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.

Contract Cheating and Unauthorised Homework Assistance through Reddit Communities

The sheer number of different sources that students can use for contract cheating always amazes me. One of my Imperial College London undergraduate students, Rahul Gupta, asked if he could work with me on a study about contract cheating using Reddit. We were able to get internal funding, collected data and Rahul joined me to present the results at the European Conference on Academic Integrity and Plagiarism 2021.

Reddit is an interesting site to look into, as essentially it’s the host of a lot of online communities, primarily text-based, often highly active and often accessed anonymously. It is perhaps unsurprising that we found examples of students asking for homework assistance, both with money exchanged and for free.

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


The sheer number of requests many of the subreddits (individual forums) generate is outstanding. We focused on one such subreddit which is generating over 50,000 posts per year. Not all posts are homework, since these posts also includes replies and discussion, but the high volume of posts also has a viral effect, generating more content to be indexed by Google and therefore driving more traffic from students who are looking for help and support.

Rahul and I hope to present this more formally through other academic channels, but we do encourage other educators to explore Reddit and see the range of questions and cheating opportunities that are out there. Rahul highlighted the wide range of Maths solutions available and a growth in activity during the Covid-19 period (echoing findings from a study I completed with Codrin Cotarlan).

The use of an anonymous service like Reddit is not risk free for anyone involved. Rahul highlighted examples of students being scammed and at risk of blackmail, even if they only posted and did not pay anyone, but he also showed that assignments providers were equally at risk, with students using various tricks to get them to complete work for free.

Perhaps most importantly, Rahul talked about being able to identify some of the students and how he had reported them to their universities. He said he had mostly had receptive responses at the news from UK and European universities, but had had less success communicating with universities in the United States. The message to communicate is that contract cheating is not a good option. Other students do care about academic integrity.

My friend and colleague, the late Robert Clarke, spent many years of his life tracking down contract cheating cases and I know that he would be impressed and proud of the work that Rahul and other student academic integrity advocates are doing.

Academic Ghost Writing and Contract Cheating Provision Observed on a Freelancing Website

At the European Conference on Academic Integrity and Plagiarism 2021, I presented a research study I’d been working on with Benjamin Dent, a BEng Computing student at Imperial College London.

We collected and analysed data from the Freelancer.com website, relating to contract cheating requests for written student work. This is a site I’ve used for data collection before, but with Ben’s help, we were able to increase the amount of data involved and also focus specifically on contract cheating requests for essays, reports and other forms of writing, as opposed to my own earlier work with this site, where many of the examples I’ve identified have focused on computing assignments, such as programming.

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


We do intend to document more of this work in a research paper, but some of the findings that stood out to me included:

  • the single largely discipline we saw represented in the data set was business, with the associated areas of management and marketing also ranking highly. This matches closely the findings from other studies I’ve been involved with on other sites
  • a worrying trend was the requests for work in the medical and health fields. As well as student work, we found requests for ghostwriters to prepare medical research for submission to peer reviewed journals.
  • students are requesting PhD proposals, with the intention of getting course places they don’t deserve, depriving other students of the opportunity (and also potentially getting funding or scholarships that they do not deserve). There are also requests to have thesis chapters written, for doctoral work and at other levels of study, but these are not always public, since once a student finds a good writer, they can keep working with them independently to the observable system.

The site we looked at is just one site through which assignments can be purchased. This one shows a lot of information visibly, but there are many hundreds of similar sites within which all the information is hidden. It is fairly safe to assume that the trends we observed are recreated elsewhere many times over.

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