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In my opinion

Turn it in – for a learning opportunity

Professor uses plagiarism detection software to find troubles at the draft stage

BY ADAM CHAPNICK | NOV 03 2008

Programs such as Turnitin or CopyCatch are mostly used as a deterrent mechanism to ensure academic integrity and to ferret out cases of student plagiarism. But the software has another use, one that is much more important to our role as educators: assisting those students who genuinely wish to improve academically but who, because of poor language skills or for other reasons, still manage to misrepresent another’s work as their own.

Although my course syllabi have included warnings about my right to use Turnitin for years, it was not until the summer of 2007, while teaching outside my own institution, that I required papers to be submitted through this process. In the past, I’ve always briefed my students about plagiarism during the introductory lecture, and my syllabus includes a standard statement on academic misconduct as well as a link to a website that is designed to teach students how not to plagiarize. I also vary assignment questions and require annotated bibliographies. So I had never thought it was necessary to use software like Turnitin.

I have also hesitated in the past because it felt accusatory. Ethical issues about intellectual property aside, my teaching philosophy stresses mutual respect and professionalism, and plagiarism detection programs seem to imply a presumption of guilt that makes me uncomfortable.

Nevertheless, when I met a group of new instructors for a very good orientation meeting last year, the horror stories of student plagiarism that we heard affected me. We were told how easy it would be to use the detection software, so I figured that it was worth a try.

At the end of the course, the software flagged a paper from a student who had struggled throughout the term because of her poor English language skills. This student was not naïve and was committed to improving. In fact, she submitted a draft of the assignment in advance and I had critiqued it. The draft was disastrous, and my suggested modifications to the structure and analysis were kind, but severe. With the benefit of hindsight, it is quite likely that the student, considering my major concerns with the meat of the paper, took the technical comments less seriously.

The analysis in the final submission was improved and passable. Unfortunately, Turnitin pointed out that a significant number of paragraphs in the introductory section corresponded unusually strongly to passages drawn from a variety of Internet sources. As a result, I felt forced to fail the paper, even though I am sure that her misconduct was inadvertent.

I had never thought of asking this student to submit her earlier draft through the detection software. Had I done so, she would have been made aware of exactly which passages in the paper were unacceptable and why, well in advance of her final submission. We could have discussed in detail what constituted plagiarism and how to avoid it, with examples from her own work – how much more helpful this would be than any abstract verbal instructions or even tutorials from a website. Given her commitment to improving, I’m confident that she would have overcome her difficulty in understanding the difference between paraphrase and plagiarize.

Perhaps other instructors have thought of requiring draft assignments to be submitted through programs like Turnitin, especially for students whose first language isn’t English, but I didn’t, nor was I ever briefed to think this way. I also don’t think the idea is typically mentioned in discussions of detection software.

Although I am still in conflict about the ethical consistency between my teaching philosophy and my use of plagiarism detection programs, from now on, any time that I have access to software like Turnitin, I will use it, at the very least when students submit drafts. Denying students who struggle to write in English the opportunity to have their work scanned for problems in advance – particularly when they have demonstrated a sincere effort to improve – does not feel right.

Students still must be made aware that the final responsibility for acceptable academic conduct rests exclusively with them; the software doesn’t catch everything. But it makes little sense not to give those who seek to improve every possible assistance.

Just this summer, Turnitin software was updated to make it easier for instructors to allow students to submit their assignments as drafts, which is what I advocate. Now it is up to educational developers who instruct faculty on how to use the software, and those of us who do use it, to change our attitudes and to begin to promote the value of software detection programs in the draft stage of essay writing.

Dr. Chapnick is deputy director, education and research, at the Canadian Forces College and an assistant professor of defence studies at Royal Military College.

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