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.

Canadian Symposium on Academic Integrity 2019

The first Canadian Symposium on Academic Integrity took place in April 2019, bringing a sell-out crowd to Calgary in Alberta, Canada to discuss academic integrity. The symposium aimed to raise awareness of academic integrity challenges in Canada, along with sharing the current research being undertaken, with many findings being presented for the first time.

I delivered a new presentation and also chaired the parallel session on contract cheating, which was a major theme of the conference. Tracey Bretag also attended to present two keynotes, including a brand new talk considering how approaches to academic integrity had developed differently around the world.

Here are some of the findings from the symposium sessions I attended that are worth further circulating. There was lots of good material that I’ve seen presented in different forms before, so I’ve tried to focus this post on areas that are likely to not likely be widely known about.

 

Findings From The Canadian Symposium on Academic Integrity

The contract cheating industry is manipulative – and workers don’t always realise they’re employed as part of the contract cheating industry

Corinne Hersey presenting her research into the contract cheating industry

Corinne Hersey talked about her experiences accidentally working for contract cheating services. She had been employed working for what she thought was a question and answer site. Questions could come in at any time and very quick answers were expected. It turned out that the answers were going straight to students, either as short homework questions, or to be used as part of a live online examination process.

Corinne also gave an example of how contract cheating services are hiring editors to take what may be poor quality essays and to improve them. The individuals being hired think they’re just working on lower quality work produced by a student.

 

Academic integrity has developed its own set of communities – but those people looking to subvert academic integrity have developed their own communities too

Tracey Bretag talked about the ways in which communities of practice had developed around the world, often in different geographic locations. This included in areas of the world where getting a community developed could be difficult, for example in Latin and Central America. Communities had even begun to develop where interest in academic integrity had emerged from different directions, for example the UK had originally become interested in academic integrity based on the technical problem of detecting plagiarism.

That move is positive, but I shared some less desirable developments in my talk, including showing the online communities set up by contract cheating services to help their writers, as well as independent writer communities not connected with any particular contract cheating service. I also demonstrated that some of these communities aimed at contract cheating service writers are now moving offline, with conferences being held for them in the same way that the academic integrity community holds its own conferences.

 

Many staff don’t actually know much about contract cheating and academic integrity

This was demonstrated in James Blackburn’s presentation. James had purchased an essay for £70, but educators thought that it must have cost up to £600. When James quizzed his participants he found out that academics knew very little about the contract cheating industry or how it had developed.

Tracey Bretag recommended that staff were supplied with access to academic integrity training, such as the training we developed in conjunction with Epigeum.

Staff did not seem to know that wide range of assessment types could be outsourced. I showed many examples in my presentation, based on my own searches for information about this field. But Tracey found that even authentic assessments could be outsourced. She suggested that this might be be because students were unsure how to approach unfamiliar assessments like this and so more scaffolded and nuanced support would be necessary.

 

The contract cheating industry is developing a hidden side – includes new ways of operating and the move to new markets

The hidden side of contract cheating includes the involvement of companies and the operating of individuals.

One case study presented by participants from across Calgary saw discussion of when a father had written versions of an assessment for both of his twin girls. Although written separately, the end results were still similar enough to rise suspicion. This ties in with the research that Tracey Bretag presented, showing that the majority of contract cheating goes through friends and family rather than commercial services.

Roswita Dressler and Sarah Eaton talked about their work on the non-English language side of contract cheating. There has been little attempt to study these sites. They showed one essay mill aimed at the Canadian market which would provide solutions in both English and French. They also showed that essays and academic work could be purchased in a wide variety of languages.

A new business model being used by contract cheating services looking to cut their costs was presented by Corinne Hersey. She found that contract cheating providers were outsourcing work to low cost writing services, not always with English as their first language. The end results were then sent to an editing service to correct the language and improve the arguments. Presumably using this two stage process gave better results and reduced the overall costs, leaving more profit available for contract cheating providers.

 

Note-sharing sites offer future threats – and students do not always see using these as breaching academic integrity

Nancy Chibry and Ebba Kurz delivering a live demo of a note-sharing site

The issue of note-sharing sites (also referred to as “pay to pass”) came up multiple times during the symposium, including in my own presentation. These are the sites set up where students can share notes, assessments and resources from the courses they are studying, often being made to feel that they are part of a community helping other students. As Tracey Bretag’s research suggested, few students think that using these sites, either by sharing material themselves or accessing shared material, is a form of cheating. The whole use of the term “sharing” makes this sound as though it is something positive.

The idea of sharing resources is not new. The old days of university fraternities allegedly saw these groups keeping boxes of previous assessments, designed to help the frat members to succeed with little effort. And many students groups have their own agreements to share materials. But these sites are often breaching copyright and the intellectual property of the people creating the resources, as well as tempting students to cheat by providing access to previous solutions. But it is apparently very hard to get materials taken down once they are placed online.

The viral methods used by note-sharing sites to get content were discussed. This included students being required to upload resources themselves to get access to other resources for a limited time (or alternatively paying a fee, a seemingly less inviting proposition for students). Many students did not seem to realise that their name would often be visible with the resources they uploaded.

Some attendees seemed surprised and unaware that sites like this exist. A live demo for one such individual undertaken during the conference saw 40 documents relating to his course available online, including solutions.

 

We Need To Continue With Our International Work

It is really positive to see the continued work on academic integrity taking place around the world, including in Canada. This post gives just a flavour of the many initiatives that are happening.

Note-sharing sites do offer a threat and we need to continue to make students aware that they shouldn’t be sharing university intellectual property with such sites. They are part of an advanced, always developing and manipulative contract cheating industry, all profiting off by encouraging students to breach academic integrity.