The Issue:  It’s 11:30pm, and Tiffany has just remembered that a paper on the war of 1812 is due at 9am tomorrow morning.  She’s tired and needs to get this thing done soon, but she’s left her notes and textbook at school. A Google search shows the usual Wikipedia results, but she also notices a “Sparksnotes” link that mentions essay topics almost identical to hers.  She opens the link, copies the paper, and pastes it into a Word document.  She then takes about 30 minutes to change some of the wording and sentence structure to make it read more like a sophomore’s paper.  She prints it out and submits it the next morning.

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Wherever there is the ability to easily copy and paste text, there is the temptation of plagiarism.  This can be magnified by the high stakes and pressure of many educational environments; students can find themselves in a position where copying and perhaps paraphrasing someone else’s work is the most attractive option under certain circumstances.  Digital text offers so many attractive features that make the manipulation of text so easy, but this ease obviously also enhances the opportunities for abuse.  Fortunately, the search-ability of digital text also makes it easier to detect plagiarism.

The first step towards preventing students from plagiarizing, intentionally or by accident, is engaging them in a discussion around the following points:

  • why is it important that the work you submit is your own and original;
  • what is plagiarism?  Is it copying whole paragraphs, or does it mean reproducing even a couple of words?  Is it OK to rearrange or rewrite someone else’s words?
  • what should you do if you want to quote someone else?

There are numerous case studies from the past few years which could be used as the basis for student presentations on this topic.  For example, follow this link to read an interesting  piece about self-plagiarism in academic research. However, sometimes, informing our students about plagiarism or having them research and present case studies is not enough: they need to have incentives not to plagiarize themselves.  These ‘incentives’ may include the following:

  • an originality grade is built into the assessment rubric;
  • properly citing sources is also part of the students’ grades;
  • the students review of each other’s work includes an originality inspection;
  • there is a consequence to submitting work that has been plagiarized.

There are a number of free and subscription online services that can help with the detection of plagiarism.  The point is not to catch students cheating, of course, but to remind them of the importance of taking responsibility for their own work, giving credit to others, and properly citing sources.

The tool I will focus on here is Turnitin.com not only because it is the most widely used plagiarism service, but also because I have five years of personal experience using it (see the screenshot for an example of a Turnitin report).  According to its website, Turnitin is used in more than 10,000 schools by more than a million instructors working with more than 20 million students.Screen Shot 2012-06-21 at 9.59.06 AM

Teachers can create folders in Turnitin where students submit their writing which is then “checked against 20 billion+ web pages, 220 million+ student papers and 90,ooo+ publications.”  Once a piece of writing has been uploaded, both teachers and students are able to view originality reports which show any matches in the writing with content on the internet.  Strings of words that appear in other publications/websites/papers, etc., are highlighted in colors that match colored boxes naming the individual original sources.  The paper is given a percentage match which describes the proportion of the writing that matches text elsewhere. The overall ‘grade’ is then broken down into the component parts for each source that it matches.  It is a simple tool to show the originality of student writing, but Turnitin also offers a couple of other attractive features:

  • “Grademark” is an application that allows teachers to mark up writing with feedback and comments.  You can choose to insert stock feedback such as “spelling”, “punctuation,” or “run-on sentence” by choosing from a box of tags.  Alternatively, you can insert a textbox anywhere.  There is also a “Peermark” function that allows students to peer evaluate each other’s writing;
  • Turnitin allows you to assign grades to student writing that is then recorded;
  • Turnitin integrates with learning management systems such as Moodle: the submission inboxes can be created directly in Moodle so that the students do not need to sign in to Turnitin.com.

Turnitin, then, is not necessarily a tool to ‘catch’ students plagiarizing, but certainly can act as a deterrent to them doing so.  More than this, however, it can act as a generator of discussions about plagiarism and citation:

  • When the originality check shows up 0% (none of the writing or strings of words matches anything on the internet), the class can take time to discuss the need for quoting from other sources in a piece of writing, particularly if the assignment required some research;
  • When the check shows up say 20% and quotation marks have been used, there is the opportunity to see if each match was correctly cited and punctuated;
  • Students and teachers can discuss direct and indirect quotations.

In using Turnitin for five years, I always found students very interested in their results of the originality reports.  I took the opportunity on many occasions to project originality reports onto a screen (as long as there was no major issue!)  and Turnitin provided a starting point for many interesting conversations about all issues related to plagiarism and citation.  Some years after teaching these students, they would still recall the work we did around this.  One student whom I had taught in seventh grade contacted me as a sophomore in  college to discuss plagiarism and Turnitin with me!

As high profile cases of plagiarism continue to appear in headlines, where the stakes for plagiarism are ever-increasing, and where our students have the tools to copy and paste easily accessible material, we have a duty to guide them through awareness, understanding, and practice of ethical digital writing.

Further Resources

Teaching Copyright is a website that provides information about copyright, public domain, and fair use in addition to lesson plans, quizzes, and handouts to  promote the teaching of copyright in the classroom.

Creative Commons is a nonprofit organization that promotes fair use and the sharing of pictures, video, and other media in the public domain.  It is a useful resource for accessing public domain media as well as copyright licensing your own work.

Creative Commons License
Beyond the Paperless Classroom by David Doherty is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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