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Turnitin – does it help the learner or the cheater?

MORE than half of the universities in the UK provide students with plagiarism detection software to boost their writing skills. Some academics, however, fear it might aid cheating.

iParadigms is the firm that owns Turnitin, the most used plagiarism software in the UK.

Students can run their essays through Turnitin as many times as they want to check for plagiarism. Turnitin then provides an ‘originality report’ highlighting possible plagiarized areas.

Some universities, such as Reading University, routinely ask students to run work through Turnitin, while others use it only if they suspect an offense has occurred.

According to iParadigms, most universities “use the software as a teaching and learning aid as part of the assessment process.”

An iParadigms spokeswoman said: “This allows students to develop their academic writing skills by analyzing the originality report to identify areas for improvement.”

However, some academies say that this practice is unethical as it allows students to copy chunks of source material and tweak it to avoid detection. Turnitin is, therefore, arming both sides in the war against plagiarism.

Mary Davis, a senior lecturer in English at Oxford Brookes University argues that ‘synonym substitution’, where a few words in a paragraph are changed to try to pass off work as original, did not actually work and was still flagged by Turnitin.

Indeed, plagiarism detection software would help to increase the average essay mark at universities across the country because students are no longer losing up to 60% or their total marks due to plagiarism.

iParadigms said that student access to software is in line with guidance from the advisory body ‘PlagiarismAdvice.org’, which has said it “favoured proactive education rather than detection as a means to catch and punish.”

Mary Davis supports this, and said: “Turnitin helps to explain where the student went wrong. It is better to educate than to punish.”

She added that: “Ghostwriting and essay mills are far more dangerous to academic standards.”

The Quality Assurance Agency’s recent ‘Quality Code’ stated that the identification of cheating “may include the use of electronic submission and software”, so there is no definitive guidance on how universities should use text-matching software to detect plagiarised passages.

Mary Davis also holds tutorials with students that discuss the reports produced by plagiarism detection software. She said: “students have to use sources for academic writing in any case, so these classes inform them how they should include them with proper attribution and their own analysis.”

She added that it was an excellent way to teach students about writing technique and the use of sources, particularly when working with international students who are unfamiliar with the academic referencing system used in UK higher education.

Turnitin allows students to engage with the subject and to see that copying and pasting sources will be penalised. By letting students make mistakes and correct them before hand-in, the site is both flexible and educational.

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