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Professors use online program Turnitin to catch student cheating

At least one student has been caught plagiarizing using an Internet-based tool called, said Tim Terpstra, director of the Academic Integrity Office.

Turnitin is an online detection device used by high schools and colleges around the country. Individual professors, departments or entire schools can subscribe to the program, which requires students to upload their papers onto Turnitin’s database.

“This professor wouldn’t have caught it except for the fact that he used,” said Terpstra about the case, which occurred earlier this month after a student used another student’s work from a previous semester.

Students’ papers are cross-referenced against other student papers in the database, current and archived Internet papers, journal articles and periodicals, according to the Turnitin Web site.

It is uncertain how many GW professors are using Turnitin, but Terpstra estimated that about five to 10 percent of the University’s faculty uses the program.

Most professors catch students plagiarizing by doing a Google search with questionable portions of the paper, he added.

“I think most of our faculty when they check for plagiarism they see some phraseology that is a little too polished,” he said.

The advantage to using Turnitin, Terpstra said, is that it will check student papers against other unpublished student papers. A Google search is only able to review papers on the Internet.

GW has not adopted Turnitin on a University-wide level for several reasons, which includes concerns about intellectual property raised when professors require students to post their papers on a database, Terpstra said.

University Writing Program Director Mark Mullen, who once used a similar detection device, but stopped because it didn’t work, is opposed to the concept of using Turnitin.

“This kind of software seems like the last refuge of bad teachers, it seems to me, and a sad indictment of the entire educational system,” wrote Mullen in an e-mail.

For Mullen, detection devices like Turnitin, create the illusion of a cheating “epidemic” that has little supporting evidence. According to Mullen, when students are caught cheating, it is not entirely their fault.

“Students plagiarize for all kinds of reasons, but teachers bear a measure of responsibility for creating the conditions that allow plagiarism to flourish,” Mullen added.

Terpstra also said that Turnitin can create an unfriendly learning environment.

“Sometimes people complain that by using such a tool … it’s a presumption of guilt on professor and university,” he said.

Terpstra said about three quarters of the cases brought before the Academic Integrity Council, composed of a rotating group of students and faculty members, are related to plagiarizing.

“Most of the examples that we see are taken from various Web sites and are not attributed or not attributed properly,” Terpstra said.

Punishment for plagiarizing does differ among cases, but in most situations, professors give the student a failing grade on the assignment if they do not have any prior offenses on their record, Terpstra said. Depending on the class, the professor, and the student’s previous history, some offenders could possibly receive a failing grade in the course, suspension or expulsion.

At Georgetown University, 20 percent of the faculty use Turnitin, said Sonia Jacobson, director of the Honor Council in the Provost Office.

“We think if you use it fairly it is a good tool,” she said.

Jacobson said Georgetown University met with lawyers before adopting the program.

“We just wanted to make sure our faculty used it equitably,” said Jacobson, who mentioned that one concern was that professors would only ask students who they perceived as dishonest to post papers on Turnitin.

At McLean High School in Virginia, students recently circulated a petition against Turnitin because they did not want their papers posted automatically on the Web site, according to a Washington Post article earlier this month. The students were not successful in banning the detection device, but McLean did decide to phase in the program instead of automatically adopting it.

Turnitin was created in 1996 by a group of University of California Berkeley researchers to detect papers that were being recycled in large undergraduate classes, according to the Turnitin Web site. They started the world’s first Internet-based plagiarism detection device, calling it, until the name was changed in 1998 to Turnitin. Representatives from Turnitin did not return The Hatchet’s phone calls.

According to the Washington Post, Turnitin is used by 6,000 academic institutions in 90 countries.

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