Using Turnitin.com to Help Address Student Plagiarism

Mickey HallBy Dr. Mickey Hall, Professor of English

For many of us, plagiarism is a hard topic to deal with. In a practical sense, it can be difficult to define—how many words strung together constitute an act of plagiarism? A paragraph? A sentence? A clause? A phrase? Seven words? Ask three different English teachers, and you’re likely to get five different answers.  

Also, dealing with plagiarism nearly always involves trying to interpret a student’s intent. Of course, students know that copying an entire essay, or even a paragraph is dishonest, and those cases are generally simple enough to deal with, though they can be unpleasant. But what if a student copies a couple of sentences, fails to use quotation marks and/or include an attribution, but does include an entry on the Works Cited page? What is an appropriate penalty for that transgression?

Personally, I’ve always found it difficult to explain why plagiarism is such a problem to students without sounding at least a little judgmental and maybe even vindictive. I say to my class, “There’s a good reason that plagiarism is thought to be one of the worst academic offenses—it erodes the foundation of trust that holds up of all the work we do in college, in business, in medicine, in law, and in nearly every aspect of life.” What I think they hear is “Blah, blah, blah, barking in the distance, blah, blah, blah….” Talking about plagiarism, especially in the abstract, just seems to widen the chasm across which I’m trying to reach.

And, of course, now that we are in full internet mode, plagiarism has gotten extremely easy to commit. You don’t even have to re-type.

I don’t know of any silver bullet to shoot through the heart of plagiarism, but I have found a couple of approaches that seem to help me deal with it. First, I try to keep in mind that most students commit plagiarism out of ignorance rather than an outright attempt to cheat. That’s important because it makes plagiarism an error, not a sin. I’m trained to deal with ignorance; sin is a whole other graduate program.  Second, I try to address plagiarism as it crops up in student writing. That’s not to say I don’t also discuss plagiarism in a general lecture, I do. But I also know that a lecture on plagiarism, without regular follow-up, will wear off quickly.

Paraphrasing and Patch Writing

The single biggest problem I see is students who don’t know how to paraphrase effectively, so they end up replacing two or three words in a sentence and calling it a paraphrase. It’s called patch writing—patching in synonyms for keywords. Below is an example from a research paper I got last fall:

Screenshot of snippet student paper with possible plagiarism flagged and highlighted by Turnitin
Figure 1: Snippet of a student paper with possible plagiarism flagged and highlighted by Turnitin
 

Turnitin.com is useful in helping students see the patchiness in their paraphrases. Since all phrases, clauses, or sentences that are found to be a match are color-coded, students can see exactly how much of their text is actually plagiarized. Below is the original text for the citation identified by Turnitin.com:

Screenshot of the wordnewstrends u internet source text with quoted words highlighted
Figure 2: Original source showing how a student quote might be plagiarized

Essentially, this student has replaced a few words and revised the original text slightly, but not enough. The fact that she did cite a source and quote a portion of the original text directly indicates that she wasn’t trying to cheat. Hence, this becomes a teaching moment.

Checking the Percentage of Direct Quotes

Many of our students have very little, if any, experience writing research-based essays, so they don’t have a built-in sense of how much to quote or how to integrate quotes into their own writing smoothly and effectively. Turnitin.com can be useful here in a couple of ways: First, since the direct quotes are highlighted, it’s easy to have them check each quote for appropriate attributions and signal phrases.  Also, it helps them see what percentage of their submission is direct quotes. I tell them that as a guideline roughly 25% to 40% of their research essay should be direct quotes. If they have much less than 25%, they may not have done enough research; if they have much more than 40%, they may just be stacking up quotes to meet a word count. Again, this is a guideline, not a hard-and-fast rule.

Below is a screenshot of a direct quote that is appropriately cited:

Screenshot of a partial paragraph with a direct quote cited in quotation marks and a source given.
Figure 3: Appropriate citation of a direct quote

When I’m grading papers, especially research-based essays, I can glance through submissions quickly to see if all the matches (highlighted phrases or sentences) are cited, contain quotation marks, etc.  More importantly, however, students can see what percentage of their submission comes up as a match:

Screenshot of a student assignment with 25% originality score shown
Figure 4: Shows a student’s view of their Turnitin originality score in eLearn

Enabling Turnitin.com for rough drafts is especially useful because doing so allows students to check their paraphrases, quotes, and citations before submitting their final draft. A word of caution, however. If you allow Turnitin.com to store the rough draft in their Student Paper Repository, when the student submits her final paper, it will look like she has plagiarized because Turnitin is checking the final draft against the rough draft. To avoid this, in the Submission Settings, select “Do Not Store Student Paper.”

Screenshot of the Turnitin optional settings
Figure 5: Screenshot of the Turnitin optional settings

If you don’t review rough drafts, you can set up an “Originality Check” dropbox in eLearn. Leaving it open all semester allows students to check their drafts at any time.

A Thousand Monkeys

Finally, there are times when students simply cheat. It’s pretty rare in my experience, but occasionally a paper will come up as a 99% match, and the 1% is the student name change. In those cases, Turnitin.com is helpful. Caught red-handed, it becomes the student’s responsibility to explain how this exact sequence of letters, punctuation, and spaces came up twice. It’s another version of a thousand monkeys on a thousand typewriters for a thousand years.


Want to learn more?

Register for an online workshop led by Mickey 4/15/19 – 4/28/19. Two separate workshops are available, each worth 1 credit. Use code ADJPDT to sign up for free. To participate, you MUST already have an active Vol State account. Distributed Education will email you at your Vol State address with participation instructions before the event.

Using Turnitin

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