Developing Students as Academic Integrity Researchers


At the International Center for Academic Integrity Conference 2021, I delivered a presentation entitled “Developing an Academic Integrity Research Module for Undergraduate Students”. This detailed my experiences developing and delivering a new academic integrity module for students at Imperial College London.

I’ve advocated for a long time that we need to think of students as our academic integrity partners, not just as people we lecture to about what is right and wrong and how to avoid plagiarism. So, to me, encouraging students to not just champion academic integrity but also to actively conduct research, seems like a natural progression.

The new module I developed ran in its pilot form in Autumn (Fall) 2020. For the first year, it was open only to students on a small number of courses. Next year, it will be available as a credit bearing option across almost all courses at Imperial College London.

Developing a new module of this type is not without its challenges. Putting aside those caused by online delivery and the pandemic, one area I hadn’t fully planned for would be the wide range of academic disciplines, student backgrounds and engagement levels involved. Some students had previously studied ethics and thought this might be an advanced version of their previous subject specific module. None of the students had really looked at research methods before. In general, the students had only considered academic integrity as being the set of rules they had to follow during their academic careers, but had never had the discussion that academic integrity extends much more widely across the educational community (and beyond).

The diverse range of student backgrounds also proved to be a strength, meaning that we could bring in different perspectives and have engaging class discussions. I encouraged students to become reflective practitioners and think about how the ideas we considered applied to their own context. I also made sure we were operating within an environment that was not judgemental.

One thing I discovered is that there is a lot of academic integrity research out there. Even as a researcher in this field, there was more research than I ever expected, with hundreds of papers that had never been cited. It was a useful experience for me to put findings into context and to make sense of everything. I tried to use an examples and case study led approach wherever possible. But there is so much interesting material that this just wouldn’t all fit within a single academic integrity research module.

I was fortunate in that I was able to bring in Dr Irene Glendinning from Coventry University for a guest session, where Irene talked about her own career as an academic integrity researcher and the wider lessons she’d discovered. I had also previously generated internal funding from StudentShapers and the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Programme, so I had been able to partner with students to develop academic integrity research examples. The panel with existing student researchers turned out to be one of the highlights of the module and helped to inspire the new groups to conduct their own research.

In the end, I was very impressed with the research studies produced by the student groups. The students really engaged with the materials. I saw a difference in their views and reflection as the module went on. We ended the module with a group of students seemingly much more willing to act with courage when addressing academic integrity challenges. I also saw my views develop as well. I already know our students are capable of being active members of our community, but I now know they can be valued research partners as well.

I’m already looking forward to delivering this module next year. I have some material updates planned, some more content I’d like to include and the difficult question to consider, what do I take out? I encourage other academics and educational institutions to consider developing an academic integrity research module in partnership with their students.

About the Author
Dr Thomas Lancaster is a Senior Teaching Fellow in Computing at Imperial College London, UK, with responsibility for student support. He is an experienced academic integrity researcher and international speaker, with publications dating back to 2000. He completed his PhD in 2003, where he developed plagiarism detection technology intended to be more intuitive for users. Thomas collaborated with international colleagues for the Council of Europe South East European Project on Academic Integrity (SEEPPAI) research. With Robert Clarke, he published the first research on contract cheating, an area he continues to discuss regularly in the media. His recent work has focused on the writers and providers behind contract cheating, the reasons students commit contract cheating and the opportunities to work with student partners to reduce contract cheating ( All views presented are those of the author.