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In defence of TurnItIn – a plagiarism detection system

TurnItIn is a plagiarism detection system that is widely used in the UK , and was subsidised by JISC making it affordable for FE and HE. I personally am a fan of the system, because I used it to great effect in my teaching, with the end result of seriously deterring plagiarism (which is its intentions).

First of all, plagiarism is a huge issue, that isn’t tackled simply by the use of detection software. The detection software is only part of the picture, and only works if used as a deterrent. We need to educate learners about what is acceptable or not acceptable, we need to look at the systems in place to deal with instances (and ensure there is consistency across the institution) and most importantly look at the design of the assessments that we are asking the learners to complete.

Some people are concerned that there are ways to ‘cheat’ the system, and also that it sometimes runs a check that doesn’t detect something that is actually plagiarised, but I still think that as a deterrent it still works. To use an analogy, when I was younger a nearby town invested in boxes for 6 speed safety cameras but only bought one camera which it moved around the 6 boxes. As a driver (not myself being a law abiding citizen, but my friends…) you only had a 16% chance of going through the box with a camera in, and therefore an 84% chance of not getting caught, but you still slowed down for all of the cameras. A similar situation arises with TurnItIn, as long as the learner doesn’t know what is going to get detected it acts as a very powerful deterrent.

When I used to work at a University there were many lecturers who wanted the learners to see the results of the TurnItIn output – which altough I appreciated their view point, I personally prefered them not to see the output, as you were giving them additional opportunites to cheat, as they could keep submitting plagiarised pieces of work, until they found one that wasn’t detected.

Some people argue that because some things slip through and other’s don’t it isn’t a fair system. Again I think it is a fairer system than what we had before. When I taught before this came along, I would look at work, if I thought it was lifted from the Internet (and it was usually quite obvious) I would set about trying to locate the source by doing Google Searches or using Alltheweb.com (another search engine from before the Google days) . If I found the source then great I could then deal with it, if I didn’t then I had to mark the work as if it was the learner’s own – this to me was very frustrating, it was also based on my ability to search, and the amount of time I wanted to spend, and although I tried hard not to do this, it was hard not to prejudice against learners, who you knew had a history of cheating. When TurnItIn came along I ran everything through the system, this saved me huge amounts of time, and took out any element of prejudice. Yes some pieces of work may have slipped through, and if I thought that they were copied then I could still do the Google searches. I would also look at what TurnItIn had actually compared, as many of the cheat tactics that people employ actaully change the text so that it looks normal when printed on paper but it usually has extra invisible characters in it, or large chunks (the copied bits) missing. By looking at the raw text, it was very easy for me as the tutor to identify attempts by the learners to ‘cheat’ the system.

The end result of me using TurnItIn – learners learnt very quickly that trying to cheat me, wasn’t a good idea, and the amount of work handed in that was plagiarised fell from being more than 50% to only a fewinstances.

Some people only submit work that they suspect is copied. Personally I submit all work – if nothing else, once the work has been submitted to the system, this then enters the pool that other work is checked against. This stops the work being handed down to next years students, as well as hopefully reducing the sale of essays on eBay which I blogged about previously. It also means that if someone has copied work from behind a secure system, this won’t be detected by TurnItIn – however the second time that a student copies from the same secure system, TurnItIn should create a match between the 2 pieces of work (even if they werne’t actually copied from each other). I feel that as educators we have a duty to drive plagiarism out, and a major player in this is for people to use TurnItIn wider.


4 Responses

  1. Interesting to hear of your experiences. We are waiting for turnitin rollout where I work (I think work on integration with our VLE is happening).

    On a tangential note is the issue of plagiarism by teachers. Also a big problem and a possible litigation timebomb. A lot of lecture notes are lifted from the web and images and video often used this way too. Much of this happens in the classroom so is not easy to detect (except by students) but when educators put their own work on the web they need to be really careful they have copyright clearance for everything.

  2. Very good point about teachers plagiarising, and from my experience when teaching staff come up with all the excuses under the sun not to use a VLE the real reason they don’t want to is because they know that they have plagiarised.

  3. […] Foord (an external educational consultant) has written an interesting blog post on Turnitin which is a piece of software that can be used to detect plagiarised work. He believes […]

  4. We use Turnitin as an educational device that helps students understand where line between plagiarism and legitimate use of other’s material is located.

    Exerience has shown that many students do not understand what constitutes plaigarism. Much of this is because they dpon’t fully understand the rules of punctuation. Then there are the high schools and FE colleges that either turn a blind eye to students’ cutting & pasting or actively encourage it. (my son was recently required to complete a school project on Martin Luther King using information cut and past from the internet.)

    The suggestion that students will use originality reports to submit successive versions of an essy isn’t strictly correct. Only the first report is generated imediately. Subsequent reports are witheld for 24 hours after submission.

    In my experience, the worst plagiarists are too disorganised to have their draft essay ready for submission several days in advance and alowing time for tweaking. Rather, they hand their essays at five minutes to deadline

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