Monday, 8 August 2016

TurnItIn: a tool for academic writing

My institution uses the plagiarism webware TurnItIn (TII), and the Business School I work in limits students' allowable TII score to 9%. That means that up to 9% of their work may have been 'copied' from other sources. This allows for headings to be reused, and short word strings to be similar to source documents they have used.

Students have coaching on appropriate APA citing and allowable - honourable - use of other's work by library staff, by mentors, and in first year papers. This means they are able develop sound academic writing skills over the course of their degrees. 

When using TII, students can review their own submissions any number of times before they submit their work (so they self-lead). I also work hard to model the way to students by always citing on my lecture materials appropriately to show where my ideas have come from, and providing a complete bibliography.

We should lead the way in showing students how to demonstrate their understanding by paraphrasing more than 90% of others' work. They can then season that with a maximum of 10% of others' exact words by using quote marks for key, salient points that they couldn't put better themselves. 

In TurnItIn, when our students get between a 10-24% similarity, they are penalised whatever their score is, which is subtracted from their assignment mark.

If their work reaches 25%, they (a) zero graded and (b) are in the Head of School's office having a plagiarism review meeting which is then reported on at the Academic Committee, and is (c) entered on the student's academic record. Very high similarities may see them (after a hearing) fired from the course, or expelled from the programme, depending on seriousness.

I recently read a LinkedIn post on the Higher Education Teaching and Learning group, where the poster asked about plagiarism services, and "I'm curious about the views of other higher education professionals on the ethics of using these services, and whether others have found particular services to be useful" (13 April 2016).

One poster said that they allow students a 25% similarity score! That means that their institution accepts that up to a quarter of the student's work doesn't have to be their own creation. I was astounded by that level of 'acceptability'.

I work in a business school: a sector in which - according to McCabe, Butterfield & Trevino (2006) - there is apparently the greatest level of dishonesty of all tertiary study. While following up on dishonesty takes time, I liken it to puppy training. Easy at the beginning: MUCH harder if ignored, and it then moves into the work environment... and we end up with another Enron.

Like many other commenters on that LinkedIn post, the lecturers in the school that I teach in get to know our learner's voices, and we go looking if something doesn't ring true. TII doesn't always flag similarity, and we should not assume that a clean score means that a student has not purchased a paper from a paper mill (this is sometimes called 'ghosting' - as in ghost-writing). 

If we spot this, we will commence a viva process where students have to defend their work orally, to be sure that what they have submitted is their work. Our institution is apparently getting quite a reputation for not being an 'easy' pass. 

And I am happy about that. That means our graduates know their job, and can deliver for their future employers.

I feel that an academic's job is to clearly show what is acceptable, and what is not: and be able to explain WHY.  

We must show students how to honour the contribution that others' make to their work by clearly showing an understandable and HONEST map back to their sources.


  • McCabe, D. L., Butterfield, K. D., & Trevino, L. K. (2006). Academic dishonesty in graduate business programs: Prevalence, causes, and proposed action. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 5(3), 294-305.
  • Slack, Kristen (13 April 2016). An updated conversation on services that check for plagiarism. Retrieved 18 April 2016 from 


  1. Hi Sam
    A trick I have encountered in my marking last semester - students using online "synonymisers" to evade Turnitin - just cut and paste a block of text, and it automatically goes through and changes enough words to get you under the Turnitin score. (eg see Some of the paid tools also allow you to put in a similarity level to meet, apparently.
    Fortunately for teachers, most students who choose an option like this are also too lazy to reread the resulting text and so don't notice all of the terrible substitutions that have been used, so I got some great phrases which made it very clear what had taken place - mobile devices became "portable apparatuses"; we were "taking a gander at how individuals cogitate" instead of looking at how people think; organisations became "coteries"; students turned into "understudies." This was a particularly poor example of course, and I did later identify some more skilled and less obvious cases that did the same thing but more effectively.

    It's so depressing that using a tool like Turnitin to support and improve academic integrity instead spawns new ways to cheat...


  2. Ha, ha: yes! This happens in our neck of the woods too. I apply the term "goobledygook" liberally when marking and alert our in-house mentors :-) One other thing I have been trying to do is to get all my students to complete is the FutureLearn MOOC on Academic Integrity at It started last week and only takes about 4 hours: but really lifts undergraduate practices - international students in particular.


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