Monday, July 20, 2009

Should We Ask Students to Turn it in Through Turnitin?

According to, Education Week reported that in a national poll 54% of students admitted to using the internet to plagiarize and in the year preceding the poll 74% admitted that had been involved in "serious" cheating (iParadigms LLC, 2009). Plagiarism and academic dishonesty erode the integrity of our educational system and unfortunately these statistics show that they are also widespread. If you asked any educator they would, of course, denounce plagiarism, but the issue is much more complex than simply condemning or permitting this behavior. Underlying the issue of plagiarism remain deeper questions on how do we teach students to express their ideas through writing, how do we alert students to the pitfalls of plagiarism, and lastly how do we detect and prevent plagiarism in the classroom.
Most students know that they cannot simply take someone’s words and represent them as their own original thoughts or ideas; yet when probed deeper many do not know the precise definition of plagiarism. Plagiarism is the act of using another’s thoughts, ideas, or concepts and presenting them as new or original ideas or without properly citing the original source (iParadigms LLC, 2009). The second part of the definition is where many students find themselves in hot water. There is a lack of emphasis on teaching students how to properly research and cite evidence to support their own personal opinions and ideas. Especially in the age of the internet students need to be taught to understand the guidelines for citing sources and acceptable use of outside sources. I have personally observed the lack of student awareness to plagiarism. I have watched students take internet sources and a thesaurus to change key words while keeping everything else, including the meaning and sentence structure exactly the same. When questioned, these students were oblivious to the fact that they are engaging in plagiarism. In order to support the development of solid writing skills teachers need to give concrete examples of plagiarism. Often teachers overlook addressing the question of how much secondary information can be incorporated into student papers before their work blurs the line between original thought and regurgitation. Another reason plagiarism has become a serious issue to combat is availability of information on the internet. This information has the potential to seriously undermine the integrity of the ideas expressed in student papers because much of the information available on the internet is not checked for validity. Students who incorporate thoughts and ideas into their papers without checking the quality of the source compromise the quality of their own work. Some teachers have even taken the extreme stance of not allowing students to incorporate internet research into their work (ERIC). Assuming the internet in the source of our nation’s plagiarism epidemic is misguided. When students properly cite their sources, this can prompt them to evaluate the validity of the source itself. The simple act of properly citing sources may deter students from incorporating suspect information in their papers.
iParadigms, a bay-area based IT company, set out to tackle the question of how to detect plagiarism in student work in 1996. This company created Turnitin, an anti-plagiarism computer program, as their response. Turnitin uses computer programs to scan student papers and both compare them to its database for possible plagiarism and also check for proper citation use and formatting. Turnitin has amassed a substantial paper database through the logging of student papers turned in for review, as well as scanning and logging written work in web pages and other print resources. When a paper is submitted for analysis, Turnitin produces a report that highlights any passages that are potentially plagiarized and supplies the original sources for the instructor to compare and evaluate for themselves. Turnitin, as well as a few other anti-plagiarism software programs, has become widely used at the collegiate level. Spotting plagiarizers is not the only benefit for educators to use an anti-plagiarism program like Turnitin. According to Mark Sheldon, Assistant Dean of Northwestern University's Weinberg College of Arts and Science, "One of the real values from my point of view is that it serves as a deterrent. It lets students know that their papers will be checked. It's not about catching students” (Pilon,2006).
Not all individuals are sold on the idea of schools using anti-plagiarism software to police the work of their students. Four high school students objected so strongly to their teachers’ insistence that they submit work via Turnitin that they filed a copyright infringement case against iParadigms asserting that iParadigms should not be allowed to archive their original student work without their permission. In 2008, The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled in favor of iParadigms, stating that the archival of student papers was to be considered “fair use.”(Higgins, 2009) Another criticism of anti-plagiarism software is papers that rely heavily on research, even when the research is properly cited and ideas heavily elaborated upon, can be red-flagged for a high probability of plagiarism. Also, anti-plagiarism software cannot detect falsified citations or fabricated research.
So the question remains, is anti-plagiarism software an effective and fair method in preventing plagiarism? I believe that it can be a useful tool in an educator’s classroom. Letting students know that they will be held accountable for their work and that their work will be carefully analyzed for proper citations and originality of ideas is a great motivator for some students to raise the quality of their work. However, one must keep in mind that anti-plagiarism software is not a method for determining the quality of a paper. Instructors cannot mistake a low probability of plagiarism on a paper for a high quality writing sample. Once the paper’s authenticity has been verified it is then the instructor’s task to evaluate the work within the parameters of the assignment guidelines. My faith in the usefulness of anti-plagiarism software also hinges on the principle that all teachers must teach their students what quality of work is expected of them and more importantly how to achieve that goal. There are many resources available to educators and students on avoiding plagiarism. The OWL at Purdue is just one university run website that is available for use by anyone that has a large collection of writing guidelines, tips, and suggestions. There is a specific section on this site for avoiding plagiarism. Teachers must take the time to show how to incorporate resources like the OWL into their classroom, show students how to properly cite their work and the parameters for using outside ideas.
The greater goal of assigning written work is not to produce immaculate papers but to produce students who are skilled and thoughtful writers and give students a forum for expressing their ideas. Anti-plagiarism software cannot and will not ever be a substitute for emphasizing the fundamentals of valuable writing. If used properly in addition to a curriculum grounded in the writing process it can ensure the originality of student work. As long as expectations are clearly communicated it is certainly fair to use any and all methods possible to ensure that students are meeting and hopefully exceeding those expectations.
Higgins, Brian (2009). Fourth Circuit: Turnitin's Anti-Plagiarism Service a Fair Use . Retrieved July 18, 2009, from Maryland Intellectual Property Law Blog Web site:
Howard, Rebecca Moore (2009). Plagiarism in the Internet Age. Educational Leadership, 66(6), 64-67. (ERIC Document, ED EJ834080). Retrieved from
iParadigms LLC, (2009). What is Plagiarism?. Retrieved July 18, 2009, from Web site:
Pilon, Mary (2006, May 22). USA Today. Retrieved July 20, 2009, from Anti-plagiarism Programs Look Over Students' Work Web site:

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