Considering the Use of Turnitin

Earlier this week an article from Inside Higher Ed (IHE) caught my eye. Sign with hand and text reading prevent plagiarism. In New Salvo Against Turnitin (June 19, 2017) Nick Roll summarizes an essay by Sean Michael Morris, Instructional Designer in the Office of Digital Learning at Middlebury College, and Jesse Stommel, Executive Director, Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies at the University of Mary Washington. The essay authors argue that faculty should rethink the use of Turnitin, questioning not only “…the control and use of people’s data by corporations…” but “…Turnitin’s entire business model, as well as the effects on academia brought on by its widespread popularity.” Morris and Stommel further contend that those using Turnitin “supplant good teaching with the use of inferior technology” reducing the student-instructor relationship to one where suspicion and mistrust are at the forefront. [Turnitin is a software application used to detect plagiarism, and Morris and Stommel are not the first to decry the company’s business model and practices.]

Although the IHE article provides a fair summary, as well as additional comments by Morris and Stommel, it is worth reading the 3,928 word essay—A Guide for Resisting Edtech: The Case Against Turnitin (Digital Pedagogy Lab, June 15, 2017)—to appreciate the complex argument. I agree with some of the concerns the authors address and feel we should be doing more individually and collectively to school ourselves and our students in the critical evaluation of digital tools, but disagree with what I feel are over-simplifications and unfair assumptions. Morris and Stommel cast faculty who use Turnitin as “surrendering efficiency over complication” by not taking the time and effort to use plagiarism as a teachable moment. Further, they state that Turnitin takes advantage of faculty who are characterized as being, at the core, mistrustful of students.

The assumption that faculty using Turnitin are not actively engaging in conversations around and instruction of ethical behavior, including plagiarism, and are not using other tools and resources in these activities is simply not correct. The assertion that faculty using Turnitin are suspicious teachers who are embracing an easy out via an efficient educational technology is also not accurate.

The reality is that some students will plagiarize, intentionally or not, and the Internet, social media practices, and cultural differences have rendered complicated students’ understanding of intellectual property. I believe that many of our institutions of higher learning, and faculty and library staff therein, make concerted efforts to teach students about academic integrity. This includes the meaning and value of intellectual property, as well as finer points of what constitutes plagiarism and strategies to avoid it.

I believe it is relevant to note that Middlebury College’s website boasts a mean class size of 16, while the University of Mary Washington lists an average class size of 19. Student-faculty ratios are 8 to1 and 14 to 1 respectively.  I cannot help but feel that Morris and Stommel are speaking from a point of privilege working in these two institutions. Instructors who teach at large, underfunded, state universities with classes of hundreds of students, relying on a corps of teaching assistants to grade their essays, are in a different boat.

The authors state: “So, if you’re not worried about paying Turnitin to traffic your students’ intellectual property, and you’re not worried about how the company has glossed a complicated pedagogical issue to offer a simple solution, you might worry about how Turnitin reinforces the divide between teachers and students, short-circuiting the human tools we have to cross that divide.” In fact, we may all be worried about Turnitin’s business model and be seeking a better solution. Yet in this essay nothing more concrete is given us on those human tools and how faculty in less privileged circumstances can realistically and effectively make use of them.

The Innovative Instructor has in the past posted on Teaching Your Students to Avoid Plagiarism (November 5, 2012, Macie Hall), and using Turnitin as a teaching tool: Plagiarism Detection: Moving from “Gotcha” to Teachable Moment (October 9, 2013, Brian Cole and Macie Hall). This articles may be helpful for faculty struggling with the issues at hand.

Yes, we should all be critical thinkers about the pedagogical tools we use; in the real world, sometimes we face hard choices and must fall back on less than ideal solutions.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image source: Microsoft Clip Art edited by Macie Hall

Can We Discourage Violations of Academic Integrity?

It’s been some time since The Innovative Instructor looked at issues of academic integrity [see Discouraging Cheating in the Classroom, November 13, 2012], but a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, In a Fake Online Class With Students Paid to Cheat, Could Professors Catch the Culprits?, December 22, 2015, stimulated discussion among my colleagues. Although this study involved an online class, the implications are far-reaching. Even in face-to-face classes students can avail themselves of these for fee services that supply research papers that will pass through plagiarism detectors and provide answers to other types of assignments. In the face of such egregious practices, what can faculty do to encourage students to be honest?

StudentsCheatingIn smaller classes, where the instructor can to get to know the students as individuals, and course work is centered on in-class discussion, there may be fewer opportunities for violations of academic integrity. In these classes, however, writing often plays a big role and plagiarism, intentional or not, can be an issue. In Designing Activities and Assignments to Discourage Plagiarism, Alice Robison, Bonnie K. Smith suggest some strategies for instructors of writing intensive courses.

For mid-size classes, pedagogical interventions, such as flipping a class (see previous posts here, here, here, and here) can be productive if in-class problem solving, group work, and experiential activities are emphasized. These innovations can be time-consuming for an instructor to implement, however, and if the class size is large, it may not be possible to follow a flipped class or hybrid model.

Large classes can present greater challenges, particularly if testing is the focus for student assessment. There are a number of academic websites with resources for dealing with preventing cheating on tests, for example the Center for Innovation in Teaching & Learning at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, offers a tip sheet on Dealing with Cheating. Stanford’s Tomorrow’s Professor, offers a post on (Cheating) Prevention Techniques for Tests, based on three principles: “1) Affirm the importance of academic integrity; 20 Reduce opportunities to engage in academic dishonesty; and 3) Develop fair and relevant tests (and/or forms of assessment).”

In all cases, the best results come when colleges and universities establish a strong institutional culture of academic integrity.  This was the subject of the 2012 post. It’s worth repeating the citation of the University of North Carolina’s Center for Faculty Excellence’s blog, CFE 100+ Tips for Teaching Large Classes, article Tip #27: Discourage Cheating by Providing Moral Reminders and Logistical Obstacles.

Do you have suggestions for encouraging ethical behavior? As always, we welcome your comments.

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Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image source: Microsoft Clip Art

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

Teaching Your Students to Avoid Plagiarism

As the semester passes the midterm mark and papers and reports come due, we begin to get requests from faculty for ways to teach students how to avoid plagiarism. Most often students plagiarize unintentionally, because they don’t know how to cite sources properly, cut and paste from e-resources, and aren’t skilled in the arts of paraphrase and summary.

Recently a colleague, Lynne Stuart, the MSEL Librarian for Economics, Government, Law, Policy Studies, pointed me to a great web site on plagiarism at Arizona University that addresses this, and is called, appropriately, Accidental Plagiarism. There are two tutorials that provide background information on what plagiarism is and provide examples of how to properly summarize, paraphrase, and quote sources. The first has a sidebar menu for navigating; the second is an interactive tutorial that resembles a series of slides. In both cases students can practice skills and test themselves.

Sign with hand and text reading prevent plagiarism.Google search “plagiarism exercises college” yielded many, many more examples. Here’s an editor’s pick of some of the best.

Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education offers the Principles of Paraphrasing, How to Avoid Inadvertent Plagiarism in Three Easy Modules, which is pretty slick and comprehensive. The format is PowerPoint with audio, worksheets with answer keys and handouts. Exercises are included.

Cornell University’s College of Arts and Sciences recognizing and avoiding plagiarism site is divided into three sections: principles, logistics (how to recognize and check for plagiarism), and exercises. It provides a good overview, plus the exercises (quizzes), which you can take as a guest. The quizzes cover a variety of disciplinary examples.

Indiana University School of Education Understanding Plagiarism site provides an overview, links to real plagiarism cases, plagiarism examples and explanations, self-practice, and a test that is available for non-IU visitors.

The University of Southern Mississippi, University Libraries’ Plagiarism Tutorial has a tutorial adapted from  tutorial was adapted from Robert A. Harris’s The Plagiarism Handbook : Strategies for Preventing, Detecting, and Dealing with Plagiarism (Los Angeles, CA : Pyrczak Publishing, 2001), combined with a true-false pre-test and two interactive quizzes.

WISC-Online [Wisc-Online is a digital library of Web-based learning resources called “learning objects.”] There is a short learning object on plagiarism that provides a basic overview then presents six examples for self-testing.

Purdue University’s OWL [online Writing Lab] is a great general resource for scholarly writing. It includes sections on using research you’ve conducted in your writing: Quoting, Paraphrasing and Summarizing, Paraphrasing, a Paraphrasing Sample Essay, Paraphrase Exercises, and Avoiding Plagiarism. There are some plagiarism exercises; however these are less useful than those found on other sites, as there are no answers or comments provided. These are meant for class discussion.

The Center for Educational Resources also supports Turnitin, a plagiarism prevention application. Find out more about using Turnitin at JHU on the CER website.

And don’t forget the Sheridan Libraries Research Help where you can find information on a variety of topics including proper citation and evaluating materials found on the Internet.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources


Image Source: Microsoft Clip Art edited by Macie Hall