Originality checkers and plagiarism detection tools search publicly available resources or private repositories to look for documents with matching language. Due to their robust search-and-compare capabilities, we often consider the use of originality checkers or plagiarism detection tools with two goals in mind: deterring students from engaging in intentional academic misconduct and identifying instances when students may have engaged, inadvertently, in plagiarism.
Except in the most egregious of cases, we may be unable to determine the cause or motive for academic dishonesty or mistakes in attribution and citation. Because of this, it is most useful to approach the use of originality checkers or plagiarism detection tools from a pedagogical perspective rather than a surveillant or punitive one. At their best, such tools can assist students in learning practices of source use in our various disciplines and attending to ethical source use in their writing processes.
To use plagiarism detection tools such as Turnitin, available through Canvas integration, in ways that support effective teaching, we offer the following tips.
- Introduce Turnitin or other text matching software as a tool for text analysis, not a “plagiarism checker.”
- Identify and categorize students' uses of source material and use authentic student documents to illustrate citation practices in the field.
- Remind students that a similarity score is not a metric for the assessment of quality of writing.
- Make effective use of PeerMark and the Feedback Studio to encourage students to share their work and receive feedback.
- Respect students’ choices and offer alternatives to students who prefer to abstain from Turnitin.
- For any technology tool you decide to implement, inform and educate students about its use.
Introduce Turnitin or other text matching software as a tool for text analysis, not a “plagiarism checker.”
Rather than acting as a gatekeeping tool at the end of the writing process, Turnitin can be used more proactively as a means for students to examine their own writing and to think about their practices of attribution.
By adjusting Turnitin assignment settings, you can allow students to self-check their work by submitting an assignment more than one time, and reviewing their own Similarity Reports after each submission. Do this when creating your Turnitin Assignment in Canvas; under the “Similarity Report”, choose "Generate reports immediately (student can resubmit until due date)” and “Allow students to view Similarity Reports”. (Note that Turnitin offers a tool for students to self-check their work, Turnitin Draft Coach, but this functionality is not currently available at UMN.)
Be sure to let students know how to use the Turnitin reports to identify common constructions around a topic and to see how other sources have communicated the same information.
The Turnitin Similarity Report will indicate instances where students have paraphrased source material or used indirect citation and may need in text attribution.
Identify and categorize students' uses of source material and use authentic student documents to illustrate citation practices in the field.
Students will incorporate summary, paraphrase, indirect and direct quotation in their writing, regardless of their discipline. However, disciplinary conventions and style sheets often call for different strategies. Students in their language courses may use direct quotations from literature marked off by quotation marks or a block quote. The same student in their psychology course may use indirect quotation with parenthetical citation, while their chemistry class requires a superscript footnote and a numbered reference list.
When setting up a Turnitin assignment, the default Turnitin setting is to ignore quotations and citations; however, it is perhaps best to enable these settings in order to highlight both effective attribution practices and examples that need refinement. By examining real-world documents and authentic student samples, students will become familiar with when, how, and why attribution practices in your field look the way they do. To allow Turnitin to check quotations and citations, adjust assignment Turnitin Similarity Settings, under “Exclude from Similarity Report”, uncheck “Quotes” and “Bibliography”.
Another great way to help students better grasp the discipline-specific conventions around source use and attribution is to provide them with effective models. Models of effective writing can increase students’ awareness of the ways experts and practitioners organize and present knowledge in their fields and disciplines. You can read more about ways to use annotated models to support student writing on this Teaching with Writing resource page.
Remind students that a similarity score is not a metric for the assessment of quality of writing.
Perhaps the most misunderstood and misused features of Turnitin is the comprehensive “similarity” score, a number that indicates how much of a text is borrowed from other sources.
- An extremely high number, 90% or above, can indicate that the student text can be attributed to another source. In some cases, this additional source is the student themselves (if they have submitted the document for another purpose).
- At the lowest end of the scale, 0% indicates that none of the students' writing can be attributed to another source. However, this score may simply indicate that the material in question was taken from a source that is not publicly available or scannable.
No discipline has a magic number of appropriate “originality” and most programs would do well to avoid attaching a fixed number to the allowable percentage of originality. When students reflect on their course readings or incorporate materials and methods from their lab notebooks, their scores may be high, especially in shorter documents. As long as those materials are referenced in a way recommended by the instructor, this should not be an indication of an error. Providing a threshold number can inadvertently encourage students to borrow liberally and engage in games with word choice to reduce the appearance of text borrowing.
Make effective use of PeerMark and the Feedback Studio to encourage students to share their work and receive feedback.
The Turnitin Suite offers the PeerMark tool which allows students to respond to each other’s works in progress. Integrating a peer response platform into your assignment (whether in Canvas, through Turnitin, or another vendor), can provide a number of benefits:
- it breaks a writing assignment into a sequence of steps that allow students to revise their work, including addressing issues of attribution and citation;
- it provides students who are reading other peers’ papers to think more deliberately about their own writing;
- it provides instructors with an opportunity to identify and address writing issues while students are still drafting their papers.
As with the use of any peer review tools, it is helpful for instructors to provide guidelines for effective paper response. These two resources from the Teaching with Writing website will provide you with an overview of the benefits of peer response, along with practical suggestions for developing effective protocols and procedures for peer response in your course.
Respect students’ choices and offer alternatives to students who prefer to abstain from Turnitin.
Plagiarism detection softwares is not without controversy. Research from Texas Tech University in their first year writing courses identified that the use of Turnitin can have a chilling effect on student writing, especially for novice writers. Similarly, the use of Turnitin and other classroom surveillance tools can also introduce increased stereotype threat among students from historically marginalized populations. Turnitin has also generated some controversy among writing professionals, particularly for its use of students’ intellectual property in its comparison databases. Courts consider the originality checking platform an example of fair use and maintain that individual students still retain the copyright to their written work.
Because Turnitin and similar programs have been around for many years, some students will be aware of these ethical concerns and may prefer alternatives. Asking students to submit their works in progress, to collect electronic copies of the source materials they use, or asking students to link to their cited material can allow students to demonstrate their writing processes and ensure their appropriate use of sources. Instructors who identify text that appears to be missing attribution can also use a Google search to look for textual similarities.
For any technology tool you decide to implement, inform and educate students about its use.
Because technology tools may be used in a variety of ways across academic courses, it’s important to let students know what tools you are using, and why those tools are important to their learning. When they encounter the tool, provide clear instructions and guidelines to maintain a focus on learning.
Writing with originality and entering into an academic conversation with other scholars and practitioners takes many years of practice. Although such tools can support effective teaching, plagiarism detection tools will not prevent, detect, or eliminate unethical source use. Along with the suggestions above, we encourage instructors to consider ways to approach the teaching of writing with sources in ways that are affirming and through the design and sequencing of authentic and transparent writing assignments.
A more complete set of resources for teaching writing with sources and preventing plagiarism is available on the Writing Across the Curriculum’s Teaching With Writing Resources website and its Teaching with Writing Blog.