Plagiarism Detection: Moving from “Gotcha” to Teachable Moment

Parts of this post appeared in our The Innovative Instructor print series with the title Turnitin by CER staff member Brian Cole.

A previous The Innovative Instructor post on preventing plagiarism gave links to websites with guides, tutorials, and activities.

Sign with hand and text reading prevent plagiarism.Integrity is a core value for every academic community. Here at Johns Hopkins training students on ethical behavior including plagiarism begins at freshman orientation. However, the importance of proper citation and use of paraphrasing and quotations are not learned in a single session. While our librarians offer ongoing support, both directly to students and by working with faculty in the classroom providing modules on research resources and specific citation standards, improper citation practices and outright plagiarism continue to be a problem at our campus and elsewhere.

Part of the problem is the ease of cutting and pasting that comes along with unparalleled access to online content. Although resources on avoiding plagiarism are available to students, often they do not have a good understanding of proper quotation and paraphrasing techniques or when and how to cite borrowed material. On the other side, it is cumbersome for instructors to check submitted papers for originality against online sources. At a certain point, particularly in courses with large enrollments, the process of checking suspect papers using a Google search becomes unmanageable, and some content will not show up using standard search engines.

Enter plagiarism detection software applications. These applications have gained popularity in the higher education community as easily available online source material has proliferated. Googling for “plagiarism checker” will yield links to a number of applications, including some that are free. At Johns Hopkins, we have a license for the widely-used application known as Turnitin. Turnitin is a web-based service for detecting plagiarism and improper citations in student-submitted work.

Some faculty have been reluctant to turn to a plagiarism detection tool feeling that it creates an atmosphere of distrust in the classroom. But rather than seeing it as a “gotcha” faculty should know that Turnitin’s value goes beyond simply identifying plagiarism in student papers. The reports produced allow instructors to flag misunderstandings as to proper usage of borrowed content and direct students to remedial resources. Turnitin can be an excellent teaching tool.

Turnitin’s Originality Report does not judge whether a student has plagiarized. Rather, it shows what percentage of a paper’s text matches a source and what source it matches. It is then up to the instructor to decide whether the matches are acceptable, whether they are the result of improper citations, or if they constitute inappropriate use of others’ works.

Instructors can decide on several variables for each assignment, such as whether students can see the Originality Report and resubmit papers. Writing classes often use these options to teach proper citation.

It’s worth noting that in the past there have been controversies surrounding the use of Turnitin and similar services. Students have contended that it is illegal for these companies to keep their papers in its database and accused them of improperly deriving profit from student submitted work. Turnitin has weathered these controversies and prevailed in court challenges, mainly because they do not publish the student submissions but only use them for matching.

Knowing that their papers will be checked sends the message to your students that they need to be mindful of proper citation practices. As a best practice, it is recommended that you not single out individual papers for checking as then all students are not subject to the same scrutiny. Rather, all student papers from a given assignment should be submitted for plagiarism detection.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Brian Cole, Senior Information Technologist
Center for Educational Resources


Image Source: Microsoft Clip Art edited by Macie Hall