I’m Pissed – Academic Integrity and the Essay Database

Well, this is a weird one to have a sudden spike in views in the middle of October. Drop something in the comments box; let me know where you’re all coming from.

I’ll kick this off by saying the following: I won’t link to the website I’m about to discuss (you might be able to deduce it if you’re aware of it), I will not name names, and I won’t even name chemicals – lest it contribute to the problem in question.

Recently I was made aware of a particular site that hosts student essays. It masquerades as a “database” but it reality all it does is take content of what people have written and hosts them. There’s very little to it, it just hosts the words as taken straight from a file, and puts them up there. There are authors, identified by a combination of apparently real names, first-names only and pseudonyms, but no profiles or hyperlinks to link similar authors together. It’s actually stupidly basic – not even tags or categories or anything remotely organisational. It is literally just a repository of HTML files.

And on this site you can find not one, but three different pieces of extended written work that I and colleagues have set for students.

This isn’t just “here’s one essay about polymolyacrylmethylethylamide” or “here are some facts about polymolyacrylmethylethylamide” – that is shit you can find literally anywhere – it is the very exact same piece of work that is set. It is “here is the exact synthesis of polymolyacrylmethylethylamide we use” and “here are the properties tests of polymolyacrylmethylethylamide we use complete with the exact same reagents and quantities” and “here are the functionalisations of polymolyacrylmethylethylamide we set”. And the three sets of work, that each match up with work set across three separate lab courses, are submitted by the same user.

It doesn’t take Sherlock Fucking Holmes to come to the conclusion that these are reports submitted sometime last year by one of our own students.


Figure 1: Structure of polymolyacrylmethylethylamide, which is totally a real chemical and not at all made up just for illustrative purposes.

Naturally, I am pissed off with this revelation. I am pretty livid, and not in the humorously-annoyed way that I was when some idiot tried to dox me and utterly failed at doing so. I’m pissed for several reasons, and I don’t have a particular order to them, so I’ll drop them in bullet-point form and see if it makes sense by the end:

  • I’m pissed because someone has profited from this. The site in question pays people to upload content – their business model works on donations and adverts from what I can tell, and hosting non-dynamic content can’t be too pricey, so I assume this is just leftover profit to entice content creators. It’s like a slightly more insipidly flavoured predatory O.A. journal. But it’s not just student work that has gone into this. There are years upon years of scientific development that has gone into this polymolyacrylmethylethylamide as a chemical entity. And there are further years upon years of development expertise that has gone into turning it into a feasible lab experiment for undergraduates. It’s not all their work – post-graduates, teaching fellows, lecturers, markers and years of student experience have come together to make this a reality and someone at the end of the chain got cash for it. One might call it “enterprising”, and, sure, I’ll take that on the chin if you insist, but no matter how you want to spin it this is an obnoxious dick-move, at best, on the part of the uploading student.
  • I’m pissed because it’s a complete piece of work. It replicates everything we set. Just because it’s online doesn’t mean it’s any different to printing off a copy and handing it around to everyone saying “hey, copy this and get an A!”.
  • I’m pissed because using it defies the fucking point. One of the reasons you set undergrads extended projects is so that they can research around the topic. I don’t particularly care if they stick polymolyacrylmethylethylamide into Google or into Web of Knowledge (well, actually, I’d prefer the latter, but I take what I can get) but they should be looking around and synthesising information. It’s a skill that needs to be learned. Where you have source A and B and C and put them together. That’s the point. With this out there, it’s suddenly a one-stop-shop. I’m pissed that this even exists just to tempt students into it.
  • I’m pissed – super-pissed – that some of the information contained in this hosted report is incorrect. It’s laughably wrong in places. Yet it’s out there in the wild now. We have to track it down like one of the infamous errors we’re all aware of that persist in textbooks. Because it’s out there, I have to issue lengthy corrections to dozens of separate people, or paste it up online for all to see again.
  • I’m pissed with students who cite and copy it uncritically (I’ll avoid the details, but it’s on par with saying “2+2=4, therefore 4=3”) and so I want to do blue-fucking-murder upon them. I want to take every single one that has cited it without thinking and hug them tightly around the neck until they stop squirming on a permanent basis – but I’m still pissed that it exists and presented in such a way that people might mistake it for reliable in the first place.
  • I’m pissed that people read it, copy the “4=3” mistake alluded to above, but then don’t even bother to cite it at all. It took me the best part of a semester to figure out where this shit was coming from because of that.
  • I’m pissed because this makes citing Wikipedia look positively sane. You know, there’s nothing wrong with Wikipedia as a starting point – no sensible academic denies that. But this is not the same thing. It’s not a factual repository, it’s an exact copy of what you’re supposed to submit.
  • I’m pissed that this site ultimately exploits students. Not just robbing them of research experience and teaching them that Dr. Google will make it all better, but that they will ultimately be turning a profit. Their hosting will be cheap, but their visits will determine their advertising revenue. Because if you’re not paying for it, you’re the product – and without AdBlock, oh my is the site utterly riddled with some dodgy adverts. Someone, somewhere is getting a tiny little drip-drip-drip of income off of the efforts of students who wrote the content and of those naive enough to search it out and copy it down.
  • I’m pissed at the complete lack of academic integrity shown by both the students that upload their work here and the ones that use it. This is not responsibly publishing your work Open Access, this is facilitating outright plagiarism.

It’s difficult to exactly express why I’m that pissed at it in succinct terms. And I’m sure countless people will say to get over it because it’s simply a sign of the times. Across the country and across the world there are set standard experiments that we do to teach undergraduates how to perform in a lab. The information is freely available – and it’s widely distributed because it’s reliable, works and does what we need it to with utmost efficiency. So it stands to reason that this will “leak” onto the internet and ultimately we will have to deal with that.

And at the end of the day I suppose I’m really fucking pissed that this will necessitate me sending an email about academic integrity and plagiarism to a lot of undergraduates who should damn-well know better.

10 Things To Remember Before Seeing ‘Age of Ultron’

Just a quick list, saved from a Facebook post.

Suppose you have never seen a Marvel film until now, but your Significant Other (or person you met online and are having a first date with – you know who you are) has decided that Age of Ultron would make for an excellent date night. What do you do?

Well, here’s what you need to know so far in order not to be confused by the whole thing from the off.


1) There’s Captain America. Originally a small, weedy and – let’s be honest here – limp-dicked idiot who was recruited by Tommy Lee Jones to become a super-soldier thanks to a magic serum of magic that pumped him up to the size of a medium-sized elephant. Played by a buff-as-fuck Chris Evans whom you’ll know from various awkward incest-and-whipped-cream-flavoured moments in Not Another Teen Movie, Cap’ is the leader of the bunch with all the smart game plans. He once fell in love with Hayley Atwell, but fucked that up when he made the completely inexplicable decision to crash a Giant Sci-fi-Powered Death Plane into the Arctic rather than do something more sensible – you know, like “land it” or “nose-dive and bail out” or “just leave it, all the bombs were destroyed anyway” – and ended up frozen, to be thawed out sometime closer to the present day. Presumably he just did this for Reasons. She got her own series doing Stuff, he got lumbered with becoming Nick Fury’s bitch.

Chris Evans is buff, but he’s not Rob-Liefeld-buff.

2) There’s also Iron Man, an eccentric, quasi-alcoholic billionaire named Tony Stark in an implausibly shiny flying armoured suit with lots of fun toys attached. Think “less dour Batman” but also quite open about being a superhero – in contrast to a few of the comics plotlines where he’s open about owning the Iron Man armour, but claims the man in the suit is just a security/bodyguard who works for him. Stark was a weapons developer until he was captured in Afghanistan by Beardsley McTurbanhead and vowed to switch to clean energy instead. Suffered PTSD after he flew a nuclear warhead through a portal into an alien spacecraft and then fell back to earth and nearly died. Played by Robert Downey Jr. off of the ’90s.

3) There’s Natasha Romanov, aka Black Widow, who has made it this far into the Marvel franchise without her own film, which is an utter travesty. Has a dark past, etc. etc. etc. involving mass slaughter of innocents etc. etc.. Deadly assassin and spy who does Stuff and once beat up an unsuspecting Jon Favreau in a boxing ring for Reasons. Played by Scarlett Johannson whom you’ll know from the sheer quantities of drool and the vacant, lustful expressions generated when you say the words “Scarlett” and “Johannson” in close proximity to anyone who identifies as being sexually attracted to women. Yes, that Scarlett Johannson. Scarlett “Wait, isn’t she, like, a serious actress? What’s she doing in this shit?” Johannson.

Oh gods, I’d watch the shit out of this…

4) The Hulk is a giant, ripped, raging green id-monster played by an actor called C.G. Images. He occasionally turns into this weird guy called “Bruce Banner” but no one really cares about that bit. Banner is played by Mark Ruffalo from “Where the hell do I know Mark Ruffalo from?!?” and “Whoa, they recast Edward Norton… wow… oh, wait, this is actually better…”

5) There’s also Hawkeye, who, despite promises made by the Hawkeye Initiative, has never got his ass out and pointed it at the camera. Many people are upset about this because we all want to see Jeremy Renner’s ass for Reasons. Despite living in a world where a dude has a flying mech suit with nearly infinite energy reserves to shoot beams of pure phlebotinum and slice through and destroy anything, Hawkeye’s weapon of choice is… a bow and arrow. Really. But he did once shoot down a flying aircraft carrier with it despite having fuck-awful bow technique.

6) And then there’s Thor, played by James T Kirk’s dad. He’s an alien. Or a god. Or an alien god. From a place called Asgard but they’re never abundantly clear if that’s just a planet or literally a parallel dimension. No, really, the movies do a piss-poor job of clearing that up because there are huge star empires and planets but only Nine Realms and in Thor there’s a weird Stargate-like sequence that takes you to Asgard and there’s something of a city that falls off a cliff into a massive galaxy and… and I’d recommend just not thinking too hard about it. You will recognise Thor as the tall one with abs the diameter of the average person’s head. Not that anyone cares, people only watch his films for Tom Hiddleston anyway because he’s fabulous.

Thankfully, everything has moved on since back in the day…


7) SHIELD is some secret organisation that’s so Top Secret that no one knows who they are… but simultaneously everyone knows who they are. They kept all this Stuff secret until aliens (invited down by Tom Hiddleston for what can only be described as Reasons) invaded and beat the living shit out of New York, so they couldn’t keep it secret any more. They got their own series. But then they fucked that one up by having a mini civil war between themselves and a secret society, called Hydra, that had been infiltrating them since the second world war – all because Captain America (as alluded to above) decided to crash his plane and freeze himself into suspended animation rather than deal with Hydra properly. Also look out for one of their top agents; Maria Hill played by Ted Mosby’s Beinaheleidenschaftsgegenstand (or his Lebenslangerschicksalsschatz… I dunno, that metaphor kinda died in the finale), and Clark Gregg who plays Sir Not Appearing In This Film – since he kinda got stabbed in the last one but didn’t die because Samuel L. Jackson had a total man-crush on him and brought him back to life using a combination of alien magic DNA blood serum stuff (Reasons) and a device that literally rebuilt his brain from scratch while making him think he was just on holiday in Tahiti – Marvel takes itself very seriously.

8) All that stuff in Guardians of the Galaxy about Thanos and the Plot Coupons of Power probably won’t make an appearance here. They’re saving that for the next eleventy billion films they have lined up. But the short version of this is: Thanos is a hulking galactic dictator of sorts that spends all day sitting on a throne craving death and disappointment (and yet they didn’t cast a Brit for that position…) and seeks these “Infinity Gems” that do Stuff for Reasons. And he seeks them so he can control the world, again, for Reasons. But for now, the main bad guy they have lined up for Age of Ultron is, as the title cleverly suggests, Ultron – a mad AI robot that wants to do Stuff for more Reasons.

They decided to turn Scarlett Witch’s “hex bolt” power into something more grounded…

9) Overall, Marvel’s Cinematic Universe films are based on “science”. Not “science” in a way that won’t make someone with a degree in physics shudder and throw up, but “science” in the way that’s Not Magic. Bruce Banner turns into the Hulk and Skinny Steve turns into Captain America thanks to Vita Rays and Serums and research but not by incantations and spells. It always has a scientific explanation, even if that scientific explanation makes Star Trek’s wibble-babble look hard sci-fi. BUT, they are blurring the line a little now. Thor had a silly hand-wavy “magic and science are one-and-the-same” thing going on (applied Clarke’s Third Law) and some hints to “the age of miracles” have been dropped – implying that the presence of the Scarlet Witch (played by the Olsen who isn’t a twin) may be bending the “science” thing a little further. I.e., prepare for this plot to make no fucking sense whatsoever.

10) There’s definitely no post-credits sequence, so you can leave early.

Digital Painting Advice

This will be slightly off-topic for this blog’s normal theme, not that it has one, so feel free to ignore. Here are some generic tips for digital painting that no-one asked for – as bullshit-free as I can get them.

1) Get your tutorials from CG Society, not DeviantART

You’d think that the idea of a tutorial would be to teach a technique to someone, and to raise their ability a certain degree. Oh, my sweet summer child how wrong you are! The real aim of a tutorial – and I do mean this with the utmost offence to those people who do it – is for the artist in question to show off how good they are! At least, this appears to be the point if you flip through DA’s tutorial section. Because, of course, “then add the shading” and “now I scribble in the detail” followed by “I hope you found this useful” means I should have the right to stab you in the eyeball with a stylus. Check out CG Society instead, it is literally meant for professionals.

2) Learn colour relativity

Colour theory is one thing artists like to bang on about because it makes it look as if they’ve actually learned to some something complicated and that it might just be science, or at least difficult. But it really is useful – no sarcasm, it really is. If you put down something that’s grey, and it looks really dark, it won’t look dark once you’ve put in every other area that’s dark – in fact, it’ll look like some washed out middling grey. The same goes for colours, things that will look blue might actually be purple, or a bit red, or green, or really de-saturated (particularly true with eyes). There’s no real trick to solving this, just be aware of it and correct as you go.

See that dark-brown square in the middle of the top face and the light-yellow square in the middle of the front face? Look again, closely…

3) The paint-in-black-and-white-first trick is bollocks, sort-of…

There’s a technique in digital painting where you paint entirely in monochrome first, and then you pop in another layer, set the blend mode to “colour” and then colourise it. The theory is that this way you can establish the value – the range of black to white – first and get it right. This is important because if the value is off, it just won’t look right. In my experience this sort of works, but does effectively double your workload and really screws with your choice of colour, keeping it a little flat as you end up colourising one whole area with one tone. To compensate for this, change the colour frequently to get a more varied hue… but then you end up effectively painting it all again anyway, so it’s arguably pointless. If it sounds like too much work, simply pick a program that lets your display the image in black and white monochrome, and use that to check the value.

4) Photoshop is kinda overrated, too

There’s no need to hand your hard earned cash to Adobe. Or even torrent the thing, to be honest. Unless you’re doing high-concept and slightly abstract art that requires the textured brushes, there’s no real need for Photoshop. Simpler programs like MyPaint don’t have textured or shaped brushes, but they’re really not essential – and even if you do, Krita is free/open-source and has them. But to be frank, once you play with something as stripped back as MyPaint you might just find all the excess tools Photoshop and other image-manipulation programs come with are just distractions that get in the way. Stripping it back to just the simple tools actually teaches you to paint.

Free, and with an installer under 10Mb – which gives you a lot of bang for your byte.

5) Flip the image

Seriously, mirror the image. There are two reasons for this. One, you can check that it looks okay. If you’re drawing a face, for example, it might look okay and then suddenly, in a mirror image, you scream “holy shit what is that monstrosity!” Drawing inverted refreshes your perspective and lets you check symmetry, and the final product will be much better for it. Secondly, it helps you draw curves better. If you’re, for example, right handed, you’ll draw a curve the way your wrist moves (the top left arc of a circle) easier than the opposite. Flipping the image lets you more easily work on curves. This isn’t entirely as lazy and absurd as it sounds, when drawing on paper people do this instinctively.

I'm spotting a few things I didn't catch first time on the flipped image...

I’m spotting a few things I didn’t catch first time on the flipped image…

6) You don’t really need expensive kit

I’ve basically used entry-level graphics tablets since I started digital painting. There’s really no need for expensive ones – ignore the people saying otherwise. This is especially true if you’re not getting paid daily for this. You need half decent pressure sensitivity and that’s it. You don’t need a large tablet area, your hand-eye coordination and muscle memory will adjust pretty quickly to all sizes, the touch and feel (whether the stylus is more scratchy or slippy) you’ll also adjust to, and you certainly don’t need to donate your life savings to Wacom. These things are tools, and while a better tool might make you feel a little better about yourself (and I won’t deny that I actually like my Bamboo), they won’t actually contribute any significant improvement.

7) Don’t be afraid to trace

Seriously, you’re working digital, you can add layers, just put your source image in the background and scribble over it. Purists might say it’s cheating, but I say there’s no point in wasting your time if it transpires that your actual aim is to replicate what you see.

8) Layers are not always your friend

Layers? Yes or no? To be frank they are a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they’re great for keeping elements separate. On the other, they can get confusing – and if you’re not paying attention you will simply end up drawing into Layer A what you meant to put into Layer B and vice versa, and five minutes of that without noticing will leave you with a horrid mess and you have to go through to clean up. Generally I tend to keep to 3-4 layers these days: a background, just to keep it isolated from the subject as edges get tricky sometimes; the subject, for the same reason; any effects on top; and a sketchy outline on top of all that. Hair I tend to do in multiple layers but that’s for good reasons – see the CG Society tutorial on realistic hair for that.

9) Watch people

If I’m in a room with a strong light source, I have this weird tendency to watch how the light actually moves around the contours of their face. How it goes in a bit around the chin and lips, or over a slight ridge over their eyebrow… I’m not sure if it actually helps, and it might just make me come across as creepy when I’m really just doing research, but it’s certainly worth being aware of exactly what goes on with shadows and highlights and how they contour around people.

File:Low key Nina.jpg

Low-key lighting is good for picking out contours. Understanding that does require getting to grips with the concept of a three-light setup – do some 3D modelling or photography for that.

10) If you want realism, think shadows

The human mind and eye takes into account dozens of separate cues to build up a picture of the world around us and infer their 3D structure. Without that ability, we’d be pretty much incapable of surviving in the wild. As a result, if you want to do anything resembling a “trompe-l’œil” you don’t need pixel-perfect brush strokes nor an atomic level of detail, you need to figure out how things cast shadows and interact with each other. Suppose you’re drawing someone in a baseball cap, it might look staggeringly brilliant, but until you pen in the shadow the brim will cast across their face, there will be something wrong with it – and you might just not be able to figure out what unless you’re looking for it!

What we have here is a series of leather straps holding objects against a wall. Take a close look at where things are stuffed into the straps and how the shadow bows downward a bit where the strap is pulled from the wall. A less subtle version of this point can be found here.

11) Sample carefully

You’re working digitally, and you have an image that you want to use as a reference, clearly the best way to get the right colour is to take your colour picker and… well, yes and no. Certainly, it will be the fastest and most efficient way to get the colour you want to use, but be aware of the following two technical limitations:

  • Compression – if your sample image is a JPEG file, or any file with a “lossy” compression method, the colour you sample might not be the right one. When you zoom out of an image, you might see the right colour, but when you zoom in to the point where you can see individual pixels, you might see a grey-ish one there, a blue one here, a green one there, and then when you zoom out it’s orange. This is perfectly normal for image compression (and also as part of colour-relativity). There are a few ways around this. You could smudge/blend your source image to get rid of the compression and get the colour you want. You could sample more frequently. Or you could use the colour-picker to get an idea of what the colour is. I.e., select it, and drag the picker over the image in question, and watch the coordinates on your colour wheel or colour triangle (or which ever tool you have available) jump about. Then you’ll see what shades and tones are on the image, and can select accordingly.
  • If you have a brush tool that has a non-100% or pressure-sensitive opacity, or a blend function built into it, then the colour you put down will depend on the sample you picked and the existing colour underneath it. If that underlying colour is black or white, then the colour you draw will look washed out (see below). As a result, you might want to pick the colour, then from your colour wheel/tool add a slight and tasteful boost to the saturation of the colour in question.

Also keep in mind that colours are often the result of underlying texture – especially in skin and hair – so any samples you do take won’t look right until you put in the detail/texture. Sorry, there is no way around that, you’ll just have to put in the work!

What looks like one colour far away will look like something different close up - so you probably can't get away with just sampling single pixels with a tool to get the tone you want. It may require actual work.

What looks like one colour far away will look like something different close up – so you probably can’t get away with just sampling single pixels with a tool to get the tone you want. It may require actual work.

12) Don’t highlight with just white

If you’re using a digital brush with a slight blend or blur option built in (a mixer brush), or something with a slightly lower opacity, the way it mixes with the underlying colour becomes quite important. Because the software has to interpolate between RGB or HSV values to mix your new “paint” with the “paint” below it, white will have a strong tendency to just blur out any of the hue. This is especially true if you’re highlighting over a dark object – the dark colour will have low saturation, and the software doesn’t know you want it to highlight straight to, say, red. It’ll just end up treating it as you highlighting something very nearly black with something that is simply very very light grey. So it’ll produce grey. Instead, if you need to, highlight sequentially through progressively lighter colours if you need to highlight from a much darker colour.

13) Just practice

Yeah, really, just do it more. Everyone has a set number of really crap drawings inside them, and the faster you get them out of the way the faster you can get to the good ones.