OU release Moodle tool to aid referencing

One of my areas of work is that of plagiarism deterrence, in particular when using TurnItIn (software that helps a tutor detect matches between a piece of students work against the Internet and other students work). Dealing with plagiarism isn’t about just detecting copying – but it is a much wider issue looking at educating the learners, designing plagiarism out through assessment design, and then using the detecting tools as a deterrent not a rat catcher.

One part of the whole process is about referencing, and this in itself is a thorny issue. I have worked with staff who are sticklers for correct referencing and if a student has missed a comma out, or cited the wrong year of publication or something they have then treated the work as plagiarised, whereas the tutor down the corridor may not even bother to check the references. What is interesting to note, is that plagiarism is the act of passing something off as your own, which isn’t – so if you put down any form of reference (e.g. ‘I stole this from a Google Search’ ) – even if it is an awful reference – then you cannot treat that as plagiarism – you need to treat it as bad referencing, or bad academia, but not plagiarism.

The other issue is then about the importance of referencing styles – again some are sticklers for getting the (usually Harvard) referencing system absolutely spot on, whereas others (like me) recognise that the purpose of referencing is so that the writer, or any reader can easily locate the source of information.

Color-coded bookcase

Originally uploaded by juhansonin

I will admit that I hate referencing – I found it tedious, I didn’t fully understand the rules and sometimes even omitted a source from a piece of work, just to save me having to think about how to reference it, and it is with that, that the recent release from the OU excites, me – it will do the tedious hard work for me, allowing me to concentrate on the more important aspect of evaluating and analysing the work that I am creating.

For more information on the OU referencing tool go to


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.