November 15, 2011

Professors Differ on Effectiveness of Plagiarism Software

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Turnitin, a plagiarism detection software, was adopted by the University this fall to reduce the cases of plagiarism on campus, according to Carol Grumbach ’78 J.D. ’87, associate dean for New Student Programs and director of the Carol Tatkon Center. Three months into using the program, faculty members offered differing opinions as to its effectiveness.

Provost Kent Fuchs supported the adoption of Turnitin in January after the Faculty Senate overwhelmingly voted to pass a resolution calling for a comprehensive approach to academic integrity, and specifically, the adoption of Turnitin, Grumbach said.

“Students submit drafts to Turnitin, and the instructors see the flagged material and check if it is common knowledge or actual plagiarism. It gives the instructors and students more information on their work,” Grumbach said, describing the software’s “originality report.”

She noted that the originality report is one of many tools professors must use to confirm plagiarism. Professors must take initiative to confirm that the flagged material was plagiarized, Grumbach said.

Prof. Peter Katzenstein, government, has used Turnitin since 2008 on an experimental basis. He echoed Grumbach’s sentiments.

“I don’t regard Turnitin as a tool for detecting or monitoring student plagiarism. It is, rather, a tool of great use to professors, graduate students and undergraduates for verifying authenticity and originality of scholarship,” he said.

Katzenstein stressed that plagiarism is not a new problem.

“Plagiarism was very widespread 30 to 40 years ago. When I joined the Cornell faculty, I was shocked to learn that fraternities had file cabinets filled with old term papers,” he said. “If professors did not watch out, they might read a paper from 5 years earlier without knowing.”

Katzenstein said that before Turnitin, he used Google Scholar to detect if students were plagiarizing from published sources. He added, however, that some students succeeded in escaping detection.

“It is like buying beer at Wegman’s. The cashier doesn’t have to make judgment calls and can’t discriminate. It might look like there is a presumption of guilt with Turnitin, but this is wrong. In my course, it is being applied without exception rather than selectively,” Katzenstein said.

Prof. Thomas Owens Ph.D. ’85, plant biology, disagreed with Katzenstein. Owens used Turnitin six years ago and said he found Turnitin ineffective. He has since turned to other methods to prevent plagiarism.

Grumbach said the University is broadening its approach toward plagiarism by encouraging instructors to use the software to both detect plagiarism and educate students about the problem.

“I think the University has the obligation to teach students about academic integrity. One should use Turnitin not just to detect,” she said. “I believe equitable, consistent, uniform enforcement is a part of the solution. One has to develop the perspective that most students want to do the right thing.”

Before the implementation of Turnitin, the program suffered a long delay in the Office of University Counsel due to copyright infringement cases against Turnitin. The major concern was that Turnitin uses students’ submitted papers to form a cumulative database to detect plagiarism in subsequent cases.

Grumbach said the courts ruled that Turnitin does not infringe copyright as the papers will be saved for limited use.

In context of Turnitin, the Educational Policy Committee discussed the definition of plagiarism for various fields and departments, according to Prof. Robert Turgeon, plant biology, a member of the EPC.

“What might be considered plagiarism by the English department may not be what the biology department thinks of plagiarism,” Turgeon said.

Though the University adopted Turnitin, it has not made it mandatory for all instructors to use.

The choice of using Turnitin lies in the hands of the instructor, Grumbach said.

“Some professors have found cases of plagiarism that they believe they couldn’t have detected without Turnitin,” she said.

The Office of New Student Programs will conduct a survey at the end of the year to evaluate professors’ and students’ experiences with Turnitin, Grumbach said.

Original Author: Manu Rathore