Originality Software

After having huge problems with plagiarism last year, my university implemented TurnItIn originality software in the first semester this year. All text-based work submitted for marking is run through TurnItIn and is given to the marker complete with originality report. Students are able to submit their work to TurnItIn for checking before submitting it for marking, to make sure that they’ve acknowledged their sources correctly. Around the traps it is being referred to as the “anti-plagiarism software” although those in charge insist (rightly) that it only checks for originality and it is the author’s responsibility to check that the non-original material has been correctly atributed.

As a doctoral candidate, I don’t have to submit work for marking, but I can submit chapters and journal articles to get some idea of whether I’ve acknowledged my sources appropriately. “How useful”, I thought, so I did, because one of the things I worry about in my work is unintentional plagiarism.

On the basis of my (admittedly not very extensive) testing, I am sure that TurnItIn is an excellent tool for making sure that people don’t simply cut and paste from the internet, but it has a number of significant drawbacks for serious researchers in the fields in which I work. I submitted two drafts, each of which contains a significant literature review and it didn’t pick up much, apart from the bibliography. It suggested that I might be quoting from an economics journal and an article on church music, neither of which I had consulted. There are a number of examples similar to “It should be noted, however, that the work of Parry, Lord and Havelock …”, where the words in bold are the non-original words. So, obviously, like everything else, this software needs to be used with common sense.

Of significantly more interest/concern was what happened to the bibliography. Both papers had about 15% of the text as bibliography and footnotes. The paper I’m working on for SBL has a lot of psychology literature and the software was aware of most of it, although there are a couple of journals that it can’t access. Some of the rest, however, it “knows” because the items are listed in reading lists and on-line bibliographies, so the database can’t compare my text with the text of the articles and books I’ve cited. The second is the lit review chapter of my thesis and, as I had suspected, the software simply isn’t aware of about half the literature in the field. The titles don’t even seem to exist in on-line bibliographies or reading lists, let alone there being access to full-text versions. So it seems that, despite assurances to the contrary from the enthusiasts, people working in biblical studies and other somewhat esoteric fields are not in particular danger of having intentional plagiarism picked up by originality software and are not going to find it particularly useful in helping them to avoid unintentional plagiarism.

Do other people have experience with this kind of software? If so, what do you think?

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5 thoughts on “Originality Software

  1. In terms of catching plagiarists among undergraduate biblical studies students, it also checks work against other submitted essays (including those from other institutions or – I think – previous years) so it often catches quotes and near quotes from works that are not themselves in the database.

    it is a help, but by no means a totally automated “solution”.

  2. I have used it as well at Barnard College (where I occasionally TA). We have caught a few plagiarists for whom we found a 70% match with a website. Usually the program just catches inevitable similarities, such as when students block quote a biblical text.

    I think the program’s greatest use is to compare students’ papers with one another, making sure they are not copying off of one another. Or, that they are not just reusing a paper from a previous year (once the program has a multi-year database). It is also nice that I do not have to run an internet search for suspect papers myself.

    I have to say, though, I have caught more cases of plagiarism of students copying off one another through just happening to read those two papers myself rather than through the program. Moreover, they were not word-for-word copies, but one clearly relied on the other; thus, the program probably would not have caught these cases of plagiarism.

    The system is always a step behind the students themselves, I think. We always catch the students who are not good at plagiarism, and only the pros if we are lucky–though, I think, deliberate plagiarism has now become such a advanced and involved skill that is it just easier to do the research oneself!

  3. Jared, I agree with your comment about deliberate plagiarism. It really would seem as though a student who put that amount of effort into researching the assignment would do well. The exception is probably people with poor written expression skills, whether because they are working in a language other than their first or because they plain can’t write well. I guess I can understand why they might be tempted to borrow someone else’s words when they know that their own sometimes simply don’t make sense, even though their grasp on the work is more than adequate.

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