Preparing for College

The Search for College Plagiarists

Have you ever had a fleeting (or more serious) thought about claiming another person's work for yourself? It happens a lot, not just in college but also in the professional world.

I recall clearly an incident from my own 6th grade. Our history teacher, Mrs. Ammerman, wanted us to write an essay about the subject of "Americanism." For those of you who don't know what that is, here's a definition: "the qualities regarded as definitive of America or Americans."


While most of us struggled to come up with even a short paragraph that spoke to this broad topic, one of my neighborhood buddies showed up in class with a two-page, hand-printed response. We were all in awe of this guy because prior to this massively intellectual accomplishment, he was lucky to attend class on a regular basis.

Anyway, we all handed in our miserable analyses at the end of class and shuddered to think of how badly Mrs. A would trounce us the next day about the vapid quality of our writings. However, my buddy, the fast-emerging scholar, seemed proud of his accomplishment and was puzzled at our collective angst. We all wondered why he was so self-assured. The answer came the next day.

As we all settled into our seats at the start of Mrs. A's class, a sense of dread overspread us, but not my buddy, who seemed eager to reap his reward. Mrs. A entered the classroom and appeared curious about the absence of the usual clamor. We all noticed that she was carrying our compositions. The feared hour had arrived.

 

She sat down and assumed her usual imperious demeanor. Her scowl this time, though, seemed especially ominous. "Perhaps I didn't explain my assignment in enough detail," she began. "Many of you were in the right ballpark but didn't have your proper seat [one of her favorite sports-related metaphors]. However, I would like to call your attention to one response that deserves special note." Of course, we all knew which one that was -- my buddy's.

"Ken [my buddy], you went well beyond the call with your work," Mrs. A began. Ken sat up straight and tried to look humble. "Your two-page essay was four-to-six times longer than what your other classmates wrote." By this time, the buttons on Ken's shirt were having a hard time keeping his chest contained. "Unfortunately, you wrote about Americanization instead of Americanism." Ken's chest began to deflate.

"The bad news," Mrs. A continued ominously, "is that not only did you write about the wrong thing, you also copied your essay word-for-word from an article in the World Book encyclopedia. I know this for a fact because I checked!" Ken slid slowly under his desk. "You will get a zero for this assignment while I give the rest of the class a second chance to do it." And then she stood up, shook her fist, and spoke loudly the words I shall never forget:

"I will not tolerate plagiarism!!!"

Plagiarism. Let's define our terms:

the practice of taking someone else's work or ideas and passing them off as one's own

Okay, so you're either in college or headed there. So why am I dredging up an ancient anecdote and making a big deal about plagiarism? Answer: Turnitin (and other anti-plagiarism software) lurk behind those ivy walls.

Is this something you should be worried about, as you deal with the avalanche of writing assignments in college, grad school, and beyond? Here are some comments that might help you decide:

Turnitin And The Debate Over Anti-Plagiarism Software

Students are heading back to campus. And when they finish writing that first paper of the year, a growing number will have to do something their parents never did: run their work through anti-plagiarism software.

One company behind it is called Turnitin. And the database it uses to screen for potential plagiarism is big. Really, really big.

Chris Harrick, Turnitin's vice president of marketing, describes it this way: "Automatically, that paper gets checked against about 45 billion web pages; 110 million content items from publishers, scientific journals, et cetera; and 400 million student papers to provide an originality report."

Harrick says the company is now used by more than half of all higher ed institutions in the U.S. and by roughly a quarter of all high schools. Turnitin isn't the only company doing this, but it is the biggest.

How It Works

Here's how it works: A student submits a paper through Turnitin's website. The company's algorithms then compare strings of text against its massive database. And, as Harrick said, it doesn't just check the Internet. Most of the papers, once they've been run through the system and scrubbed of student names, actually stay in the system.

When all the comparing is done, the teacher gets a report that gives the percentage of the paper that matched other sources. The report never says: This is plagiarism. Just: This is similar.

One complaint is that the filter turns up false positives. The report color-codes suspect passages and gives links to the material they matched, so a teacher can decide for herself. Instead of the old way ...

"I would basically have to do Google searches," says Jennifer Schroeder, an associate professor of biology at Millikin University, in Decatur, Ill. She has embraced Turnitin in a big way — and not just to save time.

"I saw a lot of cases of students that just simply didn't know what to do," Schroeder says. They didn't understand the rules of proper citation. ...

Penn State University is one of the schools that uses Turnitin. Here are some comments from a professor about that:

Instructor Discusses Turnitin for Paperless Grading

Margaret Christian, an associate professor of English, at Penn State Lehigh Valley talks about her experiences using Turnitin to facilitate paperless grading.

Christian, who has been using GradeMark [GradeMark is a commenting tool instructors may use when grading papers in Desire2Learn. The tool exists through Turnitin, which is a plagiarism protection tool used with Dropbox submissions] since last February, said the one great thing about the tool is that it allows her students to go right to the paper feedback folder and view and respond to her feedback. With GradeMark, there is no extra clicking for uploading feedback files, Christian said. Turnitin allows the instructor to save feedback in the same place the student uploaded the writing assignment, and there is an audio record function within the tool.

According to Christian, the rubric function is great as well. “It makes it very easy to grade; you don’t have to sit there and ponder, eh, is it a C or a C+?” Christian said. “Because you’ve quantified everything, and the students have a much clearer idea of where they need to focus their efforts.”

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Turnitin. GradeMark. Desire2Learn.

Encountering all this automated software reminded me of what Stephen Hawking said:

"The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race." ... “Computers will overtake humans with AI [artificial intelligence] at some point within the next 100 years. When that happens, we need to make sure the computers have goals aligned with ours.”

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Things are looking up, eh? [That's pure sarcasm, in case you missed it.] Well, here's the point, for current and future college students: Be warned that ever-increasing AI software is watching your work. Don't take the easy way out and copy from existing sources. Be original!

Privacy is the final frontier and, in my opinion, the incursions made into our deepening dependence on the Internet and social media, along with the tangled tendrils therein, leave us more and more exposed to the inquiring minds of those who will judge (and grade) us.

So, remember Mrs. Ammerman's admonition. Don't be a copycat!

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Be sure to see my other college-related articles on College Confidential.