|Three years ago, many members of our department started using the Turnitin software purchased by the university. Turnitin is an information technology-based resource faculty members can use to try to combat plagiarism. Undergraduate plagiarism entered a new and more challenging phase with the spread of the Internet. Downloading anything from small passages to entire papers became effortless, and to many very tempting. In my own experience with Turnitin, I have found it to be useful in doing three important things: categorically exposing crude and massive plagiarism; providing a graphic illustration of general student practices regarding the use of sources and the composition of research essays and providing a graphic teaching aid to instruct students on the problem of cut and paste. All three capabilities make Turnitin an important tool, and let me add a fourth: the general signal it sends about plagiarism, academic culture and responsibilities.
Turnitin seeks out word matches between the paper submitted to its database and anything else already in that database. It then ‘paints’ them on the screen for you by colour-coding the word matches according to the source matched. A paper can have dozens of different sources showing up as word matches (e.g. if you include a bibliography in the paper, it will show up in the Turnitin report). You can tell at a glance whether the student has made an honest effort to compose rather than compile his/her analysis just by noting the extent to which word matches are reported and the distribution of those matches. This takes care of the simplistic ‘wikipedia’ type of web plagiarism, some of which I have encountered through using Turnitin. The software allows us to deal with such basic plagiarism quickly and effectively as we can move right to the problem (i.e. what are we going to do about this?), cutting out the annoying interval of students’ heated denial followed by time-consuming library search.
Not having collected any data, my impression is that the widespread use of Turnitin has already reduced such crude plagiarism by providing a credible deterrent. Turnitin can only search its own database, but this grows steadily and will be more useful in the future. Turnitin also helps you better understand the norms, habits and trends among students when they submit the same assignment through the application. Comparing all their reports provides us with a picture of students’ varying skills and approaches towards the use of sources in the group. For example, if the majority of students are turning up too many word matches because they are footnoting but quoting verbatim without quotation marks, then you know you have a teaching task at hand. If only a few do this, then the problem lies with the few individuals.
Beyond this useful feature, Turnitin can also be helpful in training students to understand the difference between compiling work by cutting and pasting from their sources and composing work by drawing facts, arguments and inspiration from their sources in order to formulate their own argument. We all tell them they must do the latter, but explaining this in concrete terms is very difficult. In my experience, Turnitin can help with the very students who most need to know (i.e. those who are not willfully plagiarising but have never learnt or been taught how to analyse rather than cut and paste). It is again the vividly coloured word matches that do this. When all the main points in a particular paper are all expressed in passages that Turnitin indicates come from the sources, not from the student, you can use this to take him/her through the paper and give the student a practicum in going beyond cut and paste.
I am neither suggesting that Turnitin is a ‘magic bullet’ solution to plagiarism, nor am I going to argue technology will solve our problem. But technology provides us with this useful tool, as well as makes our problem worse. Using Turnitin does no harm, and can do much good. Beyond the three specific issues discussed above, requiring your students to submit their work through the application sends the right kind of message
—plagiarism is wrong and we will not tolerate it. Students are here to learn, not to regurgitate. Turnitin has helped me most in teaching students, not punishing them. A picture is indeed worth a thousand words, and using a concrete and graphic example to explore the relationship between compiling and composing has helped me train students to go beyond churning out C-grade (or weaker) work to composing papers that are worth reading, because the application forces students to confront their own capabilities without hiding behind the superior prose of others. Since downloading material from the Internet is a trend that is here to stay, applications like Turnitin needs to be part of our pedagogy from now on, not only to deal with that fact, but also to help us teach this visually- and IT-oriented generation how to recognise and pursue enduring standards.