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European Network for Academic Integrity tackles contract cheating and AI writing

Verena Kunz-Gehrmann
Verena Kunz-Gehrmann
Director, Advocacy and Partner Marketing






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When generative AI tools launched in November 2022, the disruption was almost as transformational as when the COVID-19 pandemic caused many aspects of life to come to a rapid standstill. The free and anonymous access to AI-generated writing tools, like ChatGPT, provided students with a short-cut for writing assignments, significantly lowering the entry barrier for cheating while at the same time increasing detection challenges for educators.

This change - combined with the continued use of contract cheating - created quite a packed agenda for the European Network for Academic Integrity’s (ENAI) annual European Conference on Ethics and Integrity in Academia (ECEIA). This year’s event brought academic integrity researchers and educators together to discuss these challenges on 12 -14 July at the University of Derby in the U.K.

Observations from ECEIA

Academic integrity has long been an important topic in academia, and it's core to ENAI’s mission. It serves as the bedrock of honesty, trust, and ethical behavior within the educational system. It also encompasses values and principles that are integral to fostering a culture of learning, original thinking, and intellectual growth.

ECEIA attendees’ perspectives were divided on the threats and opportunities AI writing poses for students and research integrity. Nevertheless, from my perspective, those attending seemed to be almost excited to have a new challenge to tackle. The initial shock surrounding the technology’s inception has evaporated, and instead made room for constructive dialogue focusing on the future of AI writing in the classroom.

The conference’s agenda mirrored this, with sessions ranging from pedagogical approaches, how to address publications posing as academic journals that are publishing unsubstantiated research, policy and teaching practice examples, and joint European initiatives for research ethics and integrity.

Different approaches to using AI writing tools in the classroom was also a major topic. Beyond the “to ban or not to ban” discussion, there’s still no general framework available for educators to help them navigate the technology. In many cases, I heard attendees sharing stories about how their institution’s approach varies by department or even instructor.

While a lack of policy framework is not a new challenge for the educational community, AI-generated writing tools emphasize the importance for institutions to establish a uniform approach to address academic integrity. In this particular case, Turnitin has responded to this need by offering educators and institutions guidance and resources on how to navigate these challenges.

ENAI survey results

Two weeks prior to the annual conference, ENAI published a study on existing AI writing detection tools to determine if they can reliably differentiate between human-written text and ChatGPT-generated text.

Alongside 13 other commercial solutions, Turnitin’s capabilities were tested. While some researchers were divided on the role of AI detection tools in an institution's approach to identifying misconduct, educators seemed to agree that an AI writing indication is preferable to a “gut feeling” when reading a student’s assignment.

Again, with a current lack of standard procedures, framework, or approach to addressing the potential of AI-generated writing, institutions are making their own processes for implementing AI detection tools into their workflows.

There were passionate debates during the conference, and some researchers generally expressed resentment towards AI writing detection tools. For them, assessment practices should be adapted rather than rely on technical tools. The argument reminded me of discussions when plagiarism detection solutions were initially developed and launched a few decades ago.

There were opposing opinions too. Some researchers, and especially educators, welcomed the detection technology, viewing it as an opportunity to provide educators with an indication that AI writing might have been used so that they could have an additional discussion with the student regarding their understanding of the material.

Contract cheating and generative AI tools as drivers to unite the global community

What was clear from this year’s conference was that the academic community’s involvement is pivotal in promoting academic integrity. A robust and passionate international academic integrity community should work collectively to fight against the misuse of AI writing tools and against contract cheating services.

In 2022, the English Skills and Post-16 Education Act 2022 in the U.K. made essay mills a criminal offense and punishable by law. Since then, a substantial proportion of companies offering contract cheating services in the U.K. have moved to other global safe havens. This shows that a joint approach to protect academic and students’ integrity is critical. Professor Michael Draper from the University of Swansea passionately called for more joint global actions.

Prominent developments in closer global collaborations between communities include:

These communities serve as powerful advocates for academic integrity and emphasize the need for collaboration to exchange ideas and experiences to strengthen academic integrity protocol.

Another sign that researchers and educators are joining forces to promote the importance of academic integrity, especially in the age of AI writing, is the new International Day of Action for Academic Integrity on 18 October 2023, which replaces the previous International Day of Action Against Contract Cheating.

Furthermore, it is crucial to include students in the conversation about academic integrity. Students are the primary beneficiaries of the educational system and play a central role in upholding its values. Their perspectives, experiences, and insights can provide valuable feedback that helps shape academic policies and practices. To truly foster academic integrity, students must understand its intrinsic value and be committed to maintaining it. Empowering students and actively involving them in discussions and decision-making processes related to academic integrity will amplify its importance and create a culture that prioritizes ethical conduct at every level.

How can educators support academic integrity?

Educators have a crucial role to play. Inclusive policies that consider students’ diverse cultural backgrounds are essential. In a study on inclusivity in academic integrity conducted by U.K. researcher, Mary Davis from the Oxford Brookes University, Davis highlighted the need for policies that value diversity and promote inclusivity. By creating an environment that embraces and respects students' cultural sensitivities and differences, institutions can encourage students to adhere to academic integrity principles while fostering a community that upholds these values.

In addition to these measures, leveraging technology effectively can significantly contribute to addressing the challenges posed by AI writing tools. Higher education institutions should not allow the use of such technologies to go unchecked. Instead, they should establish comprehensive frameworks and guidelines that promote responsible usage of AI writing tools. By incorporating educational initiatives that raise awareness about the ethical implications of AI tools and by providing students with the necessary guidance to utilize these tools appropriately, institutions can ensure that technology is used for learning enhancement rather than a means to compromise academic integrity.