April 4, 2012

Students, Faculty Doubt Efficacy of Plagiarism Software

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Correction appended

One year after the Faculty Senate passed a resolution adopting Turnitin.com as a strategy to reduce plagiarism on campus, the Judicial Codes Counselor Office — which represents students accused of Code of Conduct violations — has yet to see a case in which the software detected plagiarism. However, several students and administrators said they doubted whether this indicated a decline in the number of students actually plagiarizing their work.

In a 2010 poll conducted by a Cornell organization, 30 percent of 227 Cornell undergraduates surveyed admitted to some form of cheating. Carol Grumbach, associate dean of students, said the real percentages are likely even higher, because not all students will admit to cheating. She added that the lack of cases involving Turnitin that have been seen by the JCC does not necessarily mean Turnitin is not working. Students accused of plagiarism may have not used the JCC to represent them.

Last spring, the Faculty Senate voted to pass a resolution adopting Tunitin.com as part of a broader approach to reducing plagiarism at Cornell, according to Grumbach. Turnitin is an optional tool professors can use to detect plagiarism by electronically running papers through a database that compares documents with web content, publications and papers that have previously been submitted.

The software will create an “originality report” — a percentage that indicates how much of a submitted paper was copied from an outside source. It also highlights those sections. However, it is at the discretion of the instructor to determine whether there was any actual plagiarism in the paper, according to Grumbach.

While Cornell is using Turnitin to reduce plagiarism campus-wide, some students do not believe that Turnitin is targeting the assignments where plagiarism is most rampant.

“I don’t think the issue is really with papers, it is more prevalent in the sciences where you are supposed to have the same answers as other people,” Christina Hardin ’15 said. “I don’t think they’re looking at the right area. Turnitin only looks at the arts, it doesn’t look at anything” science-related.

Tobi Simon ’15 agreed, saying that she doubted Turnitin will have an impact on the amount of plagiarism on campus because she thinks the number of professors who actually use Turnitin is low. She also noted the difficulty of plagiarizing an essay versus a problem set.

“I don’t know too many people who plagiarized essays … you can’t really copy what other people think when you’re writing about what you feel, whereas problem sets are really basic answers,” Simon said. “Math and science is definitely easier to copy. I don’t think using Turnitin.com will help plagiarism at all.”

Clifford Roberts grad teaches a Freshman Writing Seminar and uses Turnitin in his class. Roberts uses Turnitin not for its primary purpose of detecting plagiarism, but rather for its secondary features such as online grading and commenting.

“Insofar as it’s a plagiarism detection software, I haven’t found it especially useful. I actually find it more useful for the non-plagiarism stuff, like the comments and the fact that it’s incorporated into Blackboard so you can submit your papers through it,” Roberts said. “I find all of the non-plagiarism stuff much more useful and I think those on their own make it worthwhile.”

Kyle Hogan, law, and a Judicial Codes Counselor appointed by President Skorton, said he believes that he will see an increase in the number of students caught plagiarizing in as a result of Turnitin. However, he said he has not seen any cases arise this year as a result of the program.

Hogan explained that if a student is found guilty of plagiarizing, the student’s punishment can range from a grade reduction to a failing mark on the assignment to failing grade in the class.

Hogan said he typically sees about 100 cases of academic integrity violations each year involving both graduate and undergraduate students. He noted that a number of these cases involve students accidentally plagiarizing written assignments.

“We see cases where students are doing research online and they sort of internalize things that become their ideas in a sense,” Hogan said. “They don’t remember where they originated from and they incorporate them into their paper and they look way too much like the source, which is problematic because they’re not intending to cheat. It’s just in a sense a way that the mind works.”

Although many students doubt that Turnitin will have an impact on plagiarism, many staff and faculty said they are hopeful about the potential of the program.

Tracy Mitrano J.D. ’95, director of information technology policy and David Faulkner, acting director of First Year Writing Seminars, said they hope Turnitin will be an encouraging teaching tool for students.

However, Faulkner noted that it is students’ responsibility to inform themselves about what academic integrity violations entail.

“Cheaters should be punished,” he said. “If more cheaters are caught by Turnitin, that’s good.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly implied that because the Judicial Codes Counselor Office has yet to see a case involving Turnitin, the online service has not performed satisfactorily. In fact, according to Carol Grumbach, associate dean of students, Turnitin has detected plagiarism that likely would not have been discovered otherwise. The students involved in those cases apparently have not gone to the JCC for representation.

Original Author: Margaret Yoder