On Friday 9th Feb, Dundee played host to one of 3 Academic Integrity roadshows run by Turnitin. The day focussed on contract cheating, a phrase coined by Lancaster and Clarke.  There have always been concerns about contract cheating but these have been heightened in recent years by the revelations exposed by scandals such as MyMaster in Australia.  The roadshow provided helpful insights into the world of contract cheating and the work that Turnitin are doing to help equip academics tackle it.

Turnitin (originally the JISC plagiarism service in the UK) has been used extensively to identify sections of work that are similar to others. However, in order to identify ‘contract cheating’, the system needs to identify whether or not the person who submitted it, is likely to be the person who wrote it. It’s this that Turnitin are developing, and formally launched the project at the start of February.

Bill Loller (Turnitin) spoke about their new developments, some of which are small (e.g. more quickmarks), and some of which are much more major, in particular the Authorship Investigation. It’s a complex process, and making use of stylometry and other forensic approaches, to see if a series of items appear to be written by the same person (so clearly not useful in the first submission any student makes). This is an ongoing project, but one they’re hoping to use later in the year. He noted, however, that this isn’t a clear cut “This work wasn’t written by this student” identification, rather an indication that someone may want to look more closely at the work. We already know that for a similarity report, it’s not just a number, the academic has to look at the breakdown of the similar sections, to know the subject, to know what they’d expected given the nature of the work etc. This will, however, take it to another level, and Loller suggested that it may well be that Universities have a few experts to look at suspicious work, both to ensure consistency across an institution, as well as enabling them to develop the necessary expertise to interpret this.

In a related field, they’re also looking at Source Code plagiarism – which is very different from written work as, though we’re still looking at a text file, students are often encouraged to use code libraries etc., so it’s likely they’ll have identical code to others at certain points in a program.

Following Loller’s overview of the new developments, Cath Ellis gave a keynote about the work done in the wake of the My Master scandal. She made a number of points, such as the importance of how institutions handle issues when they arise (as they will, evidence frequently points to between 5 and 10% of students cheating at one point or another during their degree). She also looked at the impact on individual students (e.g. students getting blackmailed if they try to complain about a poor service). However, most of her presentation looked at the research carried out to identify the extent of the issue, and the way that it works.

The key point that she emphasised, however, is that trying to design out contract cheating (e.g. more exams) won’t work; it needs to be education, of both staff ( to raise their awareness of the issues), and students – who often know that others are cheating, but don’t wish to be seen as a sneak reporting it. It’s the whole issue of integrity (academic and personal) that needs to be addressed, and that’s a huge challenge for institutions. We already have a Code of Practice on Plagiarism and Academic Dishonesty , so we need to think about how we can highlight what good practice is, to present good practice to students, as well as alerting them to the implications of committing offences.

So “What should we be doing at Dundee to start to address this issue?” What are your thoughts?

Further reading: 

Shared by TII following the roadshow:

Other resources.