Turnitin – Plagiarism Catcher vs. Originality Checker


Following up on April’s themes of controversial topics in library land…

When I attended my first AISL conference in Baltimore, I remember being surprised when a casual conversation between calm librarians heated up quickly.  The culprit?

Turnitin, the iParadigms software that reviews student work for plagiarism.

I don’t have any records of how many independent schools use Turnitin, though overall the website claims…

I inherited administration of Turnitin when I started at my current school, and I knew little of the service beyond its scary reputation. (Admit it, how many of you are happy to have graduated before the age of information overload and originality algorithms?) The students called it the “cheating program,” and from what I could tell, the purpose of Turnitin did indeed seem to be ferreting out plagiarism. I doubt my students were some of the 30 million who “trusted’ the program. In the past few years though, I’ve been very impressed with Turnitin’s services.

We are now very conscientious about the ways that we refer to it with students, most particularly in calling it an “originality checker.” Teachers set up assignments to allow for multiple submissions until the deadline so students can check their own work. I’ve heard fear from others that this will lead to students figuring out how to change just enough of their work not to be caught. But, our hope for a synthesis paper is incorporating other’s ideas, and it’s something we are trying to teach them to do effectively while citing their sources. Why not make the process a bit more transparent to students who are just learning? In my experience on my school’s Honor Council, students generally cheat out of laziness. Thus anything that gets them to spend more time interacting with the source texts and their own writing is a benefit.

For our school, here are the positives:

-Turnitin provides a visual representation of synthesis. We ask students to review their own work and to look for color mixing rather than color blocks. This gives them a way to scan their own material and see if they are integrating sources effectively or writing a series of article reviews. It’s also helpful for research-based papers for students to see the green-yellow-red marking of the similarity index. If they are at a blue 0% match, they probably haven’t done enough research to prove that experts agree with their argument. If they are above 20%, they probably haven’t done the hard work of translating the experts’ research into their own paper.

-The ways that Turnitin lets readers offer feedback on assignments are fabulous. We don’t even regularly use all of the features, like the grammar checker or the rubrics, though I hope that use increases more next year with our integration (see below.) Students love hearing voice comments from their teachers. Tone carries better in verbal communication, and teachers are forced to comment on the papers as a whole, rather than specific grammar issues. Students can also review each other’s papers, and this works well for an entire grade to receive peer review that can be completed electronically, anonymously, and outside of class. The extra time spent revising shows the importance of writing as a process and improves the overall product.

-Turnitin relieves pressure from teachers, especially in fields outside of History and English, to know when plagiarism has occurred. All papers are submitted to Turnitin, and so teachers don’t get the reputation of being “easy” or “tough” on plagiarism. It is a part of the school culture and standardized across departments.

-Finally, on cases when plagiarism is suspected and students are sent to Honor Council, the Turnitin report is a valuable tool in showing the student what he did wrong. Honor Council representatives have this report to validate their assessment of the case and can use it as a teaching tool for the inevitable revision that will occur in the weeks following the case.

On the other side, not everything has gone well.

-The customer service relies on an antiquated email ticket system. It can take days to communicate back and forth to solve seemingly minor issues.

-With no apparent pattern, Turnitin has occasionally flagged student work as plagiarized from an earlier version of the same assignment. This has not happened frequently but causes student panic when it does.

-Students tend to forget the email that they used in middle school to sign up for the account, and the site asks asinine questions to authenticate the account. How would the “you” from eighteen months ago have answered some of these?

-The filter features for turnitin are unreasonably blunt. While the site claims that you can filter by quotation and by number of words, I haven’t found that these work particularly well. Even worse, my Tech team can’t figure out how Turnitin decides where to place the origin of words that appear on multiple sites on the web. Think of cases where something is printed in a magazine article, copied to Wikipedia and then used in many student papers. How does Turnitin decide which particular source to list, and why can’t it list all the sources?

Our next step:

Turnitin has finally created integration software for our course management system. We used to have this integration with Schoology, but they didn’t offer it for our current platform. Starting next fall, teachers will be able to create assignments that students will submit to Turnitin straight from SSESonline. I can’t wait!

Please continue the conversation below. Do you use Turnitin or some similar software? How does it work for your school community? Do you have suggestions for how to use it better? 

4 thoughts on “Turnitin – Plagiarism Catcher vs. Originality Checker

  1. I used Turnitin with one school many years ago, so things may have changed. At that time, however, it caught many instances of “plagiarism” that were, in fact, properly cited quotations from sources. Conversely, the two instances of plagiarism we suspected were not caught by Turnitin but by me and the teachers. The data bank they drew from didn’t include many websites, nor does it preclude buying a paper or having the tutor/parent do most of the work for the student.

    Beyond that, the question of them profiting from using our students’ intellectual property still hasn’t been properly resolved. At AISL in NOLA, someone commented that you could essentially wall off your school’s submissions – but that then defeats much of the purpose because the pool of papers they can compare something to is extremely limited.

    YMMV, but I’m on the “no, thanks” side of this question.

    • Thanks for your feedback and for sharing your experiences. In the last five years, I feel that they have gotten much better at offering filtering options for reviewing material and have sourced more widely. Because much of the use at our school is more formative and transparent to the students, teachers’ reading of student work is still a better tool for determining if they have learned what was expected about the topic at hand. This is one tool for teachers, not a definitive statement on plagiarism. I agree with you about the intellectual ownership question, and it’s something we discuss in our digital citizenship classes with the students. I’m often surprised at what they’re willing to share and their thoughts on privacy. In our case, over the last ten years, we’ve had two cases of high matches with other schools. In the case where the school is in the next county, we investigated more closely than in the case where we later learned that both our student and a student in California had worked too closely from a webpage that was available online. I don’t think that it’s the right solution for every school. That’s the beauty of independent schools and knowing the culture of each. 🙂

  2. Many excellent points here, Christina. Something that’s always surprised me is that there really isn’t a competing product – there are companies that claim to help students write papers more successfully or use language more effectively but they really don’t do what Turnitin does. I suspect it’s the now-giant database of written papers that serves as an index for comparanda – that would be hard to replicate by any other company trying to get a foot in the same door. It’s a shame because I think Turnitin’s customer service department would be forced to rise to a new level if there were competition. Customer service really is dismal, and I can only assume it’s because there’s no pressure to improve.

    • When you get past the ticket system to a human, it gets better. Until that point…good luck! I would love to see a company hot on their heels so they were forced to address some of these issues.

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