To Turnitin or Not to Turnitin

March 13, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston, scourge of plagiarizing students, might be just a little bit too picky. And those student claims of innocence might just be true.

Inside Higher Ed
reports on a study of Turnitin and SafeAssign (a part of Blackboard I didn’t know about) done at Texas Tech. The researchers submitted 400 papers to both services. Turnitin pointed its accusing finger 2-3 times as often as did SafeAssign.

The big problem is that Turnitin is just too damned suspicious.

Thanks Ed (Inside Higher Ed and I are on a last-name basis), but I figured this out by myself a couple of weeks ago. We don’t have Turnitin at Montclair, but one of our adjuncts uses it, and he failed a student for plagiarizing a paper. She protested. So the matter was referred to the department chair – me. The teacher sent me the Turnitin report, and there it was in black and white: Her 1400-word paper on Filipino Americans had a “similarity index” of 69%.
(Click on the image for a larger view.)

I’d never seen a Turnitin report, so I checked out some of the sources. The first flagged item was the following.
The Philippines is located in the southeastern portion of Asia. Her neighbor on the north is the republic of China (Taiwan of Formosa), while on the west is Communist Vietnam.
I entered the URL of the source (#2 in the summary sheet in the picture above. In case the print is too small for you to read, it’s Turnitin was hot on the scent, and I followed. This was the first screen I found.

Not wanting to let a clear case of plagiarism slip by, I had to click on Enter. I found myself with this menu.

I won’t bore you with the details of my further searches for the sources of plagiarism offered by this menu except to say that Trekkie Monster from “Avenue Q” was right.

The other sources listed by Turnitin were equally non-inculpatory though not nearly so interesting. If you write in your paper that the area of Mindanao is 36,670 square miles, and someone else put that fact in their paper or on their website, you’re toast in Turnitin’s book. It even flagged passages the student had put in quotation marks.

To quote Ed again, “All of the members of the Texas Tech team said that they emerged from their study with serious reservations about using the services.”

So did I.


Anonymous said...

Strange Turnitin story: I have a semi-photographic memory and, therefore, I'm particularly susceptible to picking up others' particular phrasings -- even whole sentences -- in my own writing. As a precaution, I usually run my own academic articles through Turnitin. Well, I once found a sentence that was word-for-word the same as a sentence in an existing journal article. That article, it turns out, was one I had never read, but was written by my mentor. I guess I accidentally became good at aping him style of prose.

newsocprof said...

same here re: andrew's comment, my advisor is a much better writer but i sure can imitate it on my good days!

i use turnitin and like it -- the problem, i think, is people who view it as a tool to make less work for themselves. for every paper with a high report (say, over 50% or so), i or my TAs go through and make a judgment call on intentional plagiarism. this cuts down on the amount of internet searching we'd have to do on our own but likely increases the number of papers we examine in detail for academic misconduct -- it's either a wash or ends up as being more work for us. still, i'm appalled by the standards students seem to be hitting in terms of citation -- this is why i use it. at least it lets them know i really do care about it.

oddly, i've found that the worst papers have less than 10% overlap with other sources and the best are around 20-30%.

Jay Livingston said...

Andy, the déjà écrit phenomenon is really interesting. Or was it a fairly statement with just not many ways of phrasing it -- like the "My Sweet Lord" "He's So Fine" copyright problem (a simple three-note phrase repeated -- similar enough that Harrison lost the lawsuit, but without any conscious copying)?

NSP -- We don't have Turnitin, but my one experience showed me that, as you say, you have to go beyond the on summary statistic and check the passages that were flagged.

Anonymous said...

Newsocprof is right. I have used it in the past and it has helped immensely. But you can't just rely on the reports. They flag the ones that you need to look at more closely. Basically, what you were doing is something that teacher should have done before reporting anyone for plagiarism. It's just a tool to help you, not a machine that's going to do your job for you.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the headsup, Jay. Beyond these problems, and I think they are correctable with mindful use, I don't like Turnitin because it installs another layer of institutional surveillance designed to create docile bodies through discipline and punishment; and foregrounds the dishonorable to the inconvenience and anxiety of the honorable.

As I've written elsewhere, I find there are ways to teach and design assignments that both enable honorable and useful work and disable most plagiarism. What's left is not worth the fuss.