Academic Integrity 2020 – Keynote Presentation Slides

I delivered the opening keynote for Plagiarism Across Europe and Beyond 2020. The conference was moved online creating an interesting dynamic, but worked very well in the circumstances.

In my presentation, I looked back at the 20 years I’d been working in academic integrity, starting off trying to use technology to detect plagiarism, moving through the current changing situation with Covid-19, finishing by considering the challenges likely to face the sector in the future.

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


The talk was wide ranging, paying credit to many of the researchers who have laid the foundation to contract cheating research and showing how many of the issues we’re looking at now are the same ones we were talking about over a decade ago.

At this time when we’ve moved a lot of assessment online, how will we ensure continued academic integrity and how will we address the contract cheating industry aggressively marketing to vulnerable students? How will we react when students struggle with extortion and blackmail demands? The issues are very real and the threats posed by Artificial Intelligence will only see continued challenges for academic integrity in the future.

International Center For Academic Integrity Conference 2020

My trip to Portland Oregon in March 2020 to the International Center for Academic Integrity Annual Conference may turn out to be my only physical visit to a conference in 2020. As always, there were a range of interesting talks presented, including (I hope) my own session on Discipline Differences in Contract Cheating.

It has taken me longer than usual to reflect on the conference as the whole positive experience was slightly shattered by hearing about the sudden passing of my long-time friend and research collaborator Robert Clarke. You can read more about the man we all knew as “Uncle Bob” in this tribute published in Times Higher Education.

As always, the conference saw a range of parallel sessions, so I was only able to attend some of those, with much of my interest focusing on the sessions on contract cheating. It’s true that many of the same ideas appear repeatedly at academic integrity. But here are five themes that I think are a good reminder of where we’ve been, what is still happening now and what we need to consider for the future.

#1 – We Should Be Detecting Much More Contract Cheating

During her presentation, Cath Ellis reminded us that the contract cheating industry markets itself to students based on the idea that they won’t be detected.

I hope things are changing. Many software vendors at the conference were presenting their contract cheating detection solutions, but they are not yet in widespread use.

Kane Murdoch is a contract cheating detective

Kane Murdoch proudly billed himself as a contract cheating detective, something I’m proud to see in light of Bob Clarke’s role in this area (particularly as we once had a paper heavily criticised by reviewers for suggesting such a role should exist). Kane talked about the workflow he uses, with contract cheating processes following four stages: (1) suspicion, (2) investigation, (3) determination, (4) appeal.

Cath reminded us of the need to closely check references for evidence of contract cheating and provided some pointers. As a Computer Scientist, I do feel there’s lots of scope for automating the exploration of references and identify where things look amiss.

Ann Rogerson provided a related powerful tip, simply saying that we should get students to show us the process they used to find their sources. If a student can’t recreate this process, there’s a good suggestion that they didn’t complete the original searches for themselves.

Based on the numbers she’s collected in this field, Cath left us with this stark quote about where institutions should be at with contract cheating detection. “If your institution is not detecting contract cheating in 6% of the student population, you’re not succeeding”.

#2 – Exam Cheating Is Still A Problem

One of the big changes we’ve seen in the light of Covid-19 is a move to remote exams, often unsupervised, as a means of assessment. But if exams themselves are vulnerable to breaches of academic integrity, then surely ill-considered remote exams have many of the same issues as face-to-face exams and more?

Leonore Neary encouraging academics to improve their exam practices to make cheating more difficult

During the conference, Leonore Neary reminded us of some of the ways that students cheat. A long list of methods were presented included technical solutions like cell phone, smart watch, ear buds and camera use, but also more traditional methods like signalling, notes on clothing and notes concealed in pencil cases.

Leonore mentioned how unsuitable many room types are for taking tests and exams. Spacing and desk layouts often make them hard to invigilate and sometimes make it difficult for students to avoid seeing other student answers, even if they don’t plan to cheat. She shared her biggest success getting 85% approval from students by using privacy folders for multiple choice exams, essentially folders with small windows through which students can only view and answer one question at a time.

Leonore also shared a big tip for detecting cheating during the marking process, which is to look for evidence of eraser marks, often suggesting that answers had been changed when students were able to share their thoughts with one another.

#3 – What Students Share About You And Your Course Matters

One powerful reminder shared at the conference is that students have a lot of power to express their opinion about university life, teaching and research using the Internet.

Leonore Neary reminded us to “Google” ourselves and our class codes to see what they say. Students who have been put through an academic misconduct process or have a grudge often use sites like Rate My Professor to get even. Poor online feedback can be disastrous to the future careers of academics.

Students have also been observed encouraging their friends to gang up on by giving poor feedback to academics and were said to have even taken physical action, such as puncturing car tyres. University level support for people upholding academic integrity needs to be in place.

Ann Rogerson reminded us of the dangers of file sharing sites, said to be a bigger problem than contract cheating. Here, students share questions, answers, notes and resources online, often behind a paywall making them hard for academics to monitor. In many ways, this is an extension of the twenty-plus year old idea of an essay bank.

The file sharing site Course Hero was given particular attention in several talks. Eric Gibbs from Urkund said that this was now one of the most common sites found as a source of plagiarism in submitted student work.

I was inspired by the ongoing work of Kelly George to develop Course Villain, a web crawler for Course Hero. The work is still only in its early stages, so was presented in the form of a poster, but the software should enable academics to track when their work ends up on Course Hero, or when students are using this to share illicit materials. Kelly’s early work has again demonstrated just how big a problem this area really is.

Poster about the Course Villain software being developed

#4 – The International Dimension Of Academic Integrity Is Important

In my own presentation, I stressed the need for us to develop localised case studies and to realise that information on contract cheating needs to be considered based on an awareness of wider subject and institutional needs.

Several presenters reminded us that cultural awareness is important, with David Ison suggesting plagiarism is not universally seen as bad.

Stephen Gow has extensively researched how Chinese students adapt to studying in the UK, noting a disconnect between their expectations before arrival and the reality once they arrived. Motivated by the opportunity for independence, they often found a reality of language problems and limited opportunities for interaction with other students, areas we should we aware of when designing curriculum and scaffolding support into our courses.

Sarah Eaton has been continuing excellent work on contract cheating from a Canadian context. One striking observation Sarah shared is that contract cheating providers in Canada are marketing to students before they hit high school, but most teachers are still completely unaware of this. We need to be finding ways to get teachers to talk to their students about academic integrity from a young age.

International contract cheating firms are also finding news ways to appeal to students to get them to sign up their friends as customers. Mark Ricksen shared a fun example of an affiliate programme where students grow their virtual cactus with every customer they refer.

Mark also reminded us of the very real risk to students of blackmail and extortion by contract cheating companies. Having purchased a large number of custom essays for research work with Deakin University in Australia, Mark found essay mills that were requiring photographs of his credit card, leading to a real security risk of identity fraud. Mark didn’t share this personal information and avoided those firms, but worries that students may have felt compelled to proceed with the transaction.

I feel like I have to share the concluding findings of David Ison’s talk on international differences in academic misconduct here, just because it provided the quote of the conference. “When we cheat in the US, we cheat real good!”

Conference presenters Mark Ricksen (Turnitin), Sarah Eaton and Stephen Gow

#5 – Graphic Plagiarism Is An Underexplored Issue

One of the most interesting talks at the conference came from a team at Ryerson University, exploring how students are cheating in graphic design and in how they create artwork. This matched nicely with my own talk, where I discussed the dangers of students in these areas being exploited by contract cheating providers.

As the Ryerson team mentioned, students have easy access to vast quantities of images and graphic design ideas through the power of Internet searches. There are currently major problems with students searching for designs, then plagiarising them or using them as inspiration with only minor changes to colours or layout.

Similar to how we might ask students to show drafts of written work, graphic design students can be asked to show their process. The Ryerson team also found evidence of students faking this process work, for example by getting friends to pose in ways similar to a final plagiarised illustration to look as if the friend was their inspiration rather than the image found online.

The team also provided a stark reminder of the dangers of sharing graphic work online, with one image they created ending up used without attribution on all manner of items from quilt covers to as a dating site logo. One Chinese company were said to have even claimed the copyright for that image.

In my own talk, I stressed that we need more research on academic integrity and contract cheating at discipline level. Art, for both its good practice and weaknesses, is definitely an area that should be at the forefront of that research movement.

Logo plagiarism example from Ryerson. Student found design online, then faked process drawing.

Next Year In Chicago

I fear we will learn a lot more about academic integrity in the coming months, including what happens when online assessment goes wrong.

Next year’s conference is planned for Chicago. Assuming the world is back to normal, I’m already looking forward to it.

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.

The Implications of Plagiarism and Contract Cheating for the Assessment of Database Modules

As part of our research into contract cheating, we collect a lot of examples of the ways that students have tried to cheat in different subject areas and academic disciplines.

Along with Robert Clarke, I wrote a paper for the International Teaching Learning and Assessment of Databases workshop (also known as TLAD). This paper looked at contract cheating and the wider area of plagiarism as it applies to database teaching and database modules.

Although I have a broad knowledge of the plagiarism literature, I’m not a database specialist, so this paper preparation was useful as it allowed me to explore this field. Two factors immediately grabbed me. First, there’s relatively little research into technical methods of detecting plagiarism in database modules, despite this being a large part of Computer Science and other Computing degrees. Second, where there were reported figures relating to the extent of cheating in database modules, these seemed high.

You can see more about what I discovered in the slides for the talk, which can be accessed on my SlideShare account, or viewed below.

I do think that there’s a lot more to do be done regarding plagiarism research specific to database modules. Some of the techniques used for text and for source code could be converted across to work with databases. There’s also a whole area relating to assessment design that’s worth a further look.

As often happens, the verbal presentation led onto an interesting discussion about the wider areas of plagiarism and contract cheating, including a chat about how easy essay spinning is (where a piece of text can be converted into a new version through an automated process). Another discussion looked at how reliable Turnitin is for computing education. Lots of areas to continue to explore.

An Initial Analysis Of The Contextual Information Available Within Auction Posts On Contract Cheating Agency Websites Video Presentation

Here is a presentation of a recent paper I coauthored with Robert Clarke presented in video form. The presentation muses on the detection opportunities afforded to contract cheating through a consideration of the wider context on which requests on agency sites are made.

The video is also available on the YouTube account for Thomas Lancaster

Automated methods of detecting contract cheating are one of the areas in which there is currently a real need. Whilst people like Robert Clarke provide a human detection process, this can never be 100% successful. For instance, there’s no way that a human can be continually monitoring every post on an agency site such as Freelancer.

Whilst an intelligent system would not be a sole solution to this problem, since it would require human checking, it would also increase the consistency through which posts are monitored, and would allow more information from such sites to be captured.

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