Anti-plagiarism software: Not just for cheaters anymore

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Tech Culture

Plagiarism is far from a new problem. But unprecedented access to information online – and the ease of copy and paste – has created new complexities.

And it turns out the real trick to reducing cheating may be in how professors use the software to teach students about plagiarism, not in how they use it to check for plagiarism.

One big problem for students is that it’s often hard to understand exactly what constitutes cheating. Hiring someone to write your whole paper? Sure – that’s cheating. So is using your own work from past papers without expressly getting permission to do so – something most students don’t know.

Understanding the full definition of plagiarism takes work. Additionally, definitions of what is and is not OK may vary from classroom to classroom and professor to professor.

Recognizing this broadens the scope of how anti-cheating software can be used. Turnitin, one of the best known and largest anti-plagiarism companies, offers plagiarism checking software and an extensive database to check against; more than 10,000 schools use the company’s services. However, while it began as plagiarism-detector, it has evolved into more of an education tool.

According to Eric Gibbs of Turnitin, students can upload their papers before turning them in, find out how much of the paper may be “plagiarized,” and then re-examine it – and perhaps go to the instructor with questions or revise errors or sloppiness in citation. In 2009, the software began using more peer review, audio comments from teachers, and online grading tools. The software can facilitate conversations between teachers and students about what is and is not appropriate use. In other words, it becomes a teaching tool.

A 2010 study of University of Kent (England) students published in the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education determined that the faculty thought using “Turnitin and specific in-class support significantly deterred plagiarism.”

The students themselves “supported the use of Turnitin and felt that it helped them understand the actual process of integrating references into their own work.”

David Harrington, Himmelright Professor of Economics at Kenyon College, has questioned how effective the software can be at teaching. “In the hands of a skilled instructor,” he has written, “it might teach students how to paraphrase well. But, I think it is more likely to teach students how to right-click words and scramble phrases to get acceptable scores on Turnitin.” He argues that the software should “be used as a complement to, not a substitute for, instructor investigations” of potentially plagiarized work.

Certainly some companies are offering precisely that human factor in their services. Viper offers editing as well as detection, for example, and Academic Plagiarism offers editing services to authors and businesses as well as students.

Ultimately, the move to focus more on teaching students about plagiarism than catching them is rooted in sound teaching strategies. As professor Rebecca Moore Howard and doctoral student Laura J. Davies have written, “Using sources with integrity is complex. The solution is teaching skills, not vilifying the Internet.”

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