Plagiarism detection service Turnitin spreads to over 4,000 schools worldwide

Thursday, October 20, 2005

In 1996 a group of biophysics and computer science doctoral candidates designed a computer program to detect plagiarism among their students at the University of California, Berkeley. Now this program, called Turnitin, is being used to catch students at over 4,000 institutions.

A study recently released by the Center for Academic Integrity put the number of college students who admit to cheating at 70 percent. A quarter of all students admitted to cheating seriously on a test in the past year and half to cheating seriously on a paper. Plagiarism is one of the biggest problems many schools face because there is easy access to sources on the Internet and students cite sources carelessly.

“It’s pathetic when institutions sit back and let this happen,” said John Barrie, president and CEO of Turnitin. “They don’t value their students enough to do something about it. We couldn’t sit back and let this go on. So we created a system to make sure honest work was being rewarded, and dishonest work was being devalued.”

In the past few years, academic institutions have started to use online programs to find and prevent plagiarism.

When Barrie, a Ph.D. candidate in the Berkeley biophysics department, put the program he helped create to use, he said he was shocked that he caught one out of every three students plagiarizing in their research papers even after they had been told a detection program was going to be used.

“I had to presume that these students had been cheating in such a boldface way for a long time, and that when we told them we were using a detection program, they thought ‘Big deal, I’ve never been caught’, ” Barrie said.

The most popular program Turnitin offers is the Plagiarism Prevention Program, which is licensed by 4,000 colleges and institutions, including George-town University, Dartmouth College, Tulane University, the University of California, Los Angeles, the State University of New York, the United States Military Academy at West Point and many schools in Singapore and the United Kingdom.

Professors who use the program require their students to submit their papers to The program then checks each student’s paper against Turnitin’s database of over 4.5 billion pages, which is made up of material taken from the Internet, newspapers, academic journals, books and other students’ papers. Each paper that is submitted to the database in turn becomes a part of the database, so other students cannot use that paper.

If a student’s paper has more than eight consecutive words in common with another source, these words are highlighted, and the similarity is noted in an “Originality Report” sent back to the teacher or professor. It is then up to the instructor to decide whether a student has plagiarized or not.

Because the professor, and not the computer, decides if a student has plagiarized, there is no risk of incorrectly accusing someone, Barrie said.

Barrie said student plagiarism could be a sign of longer-term dishonesty. “Look at all the unethical bastards at Enron and WorldCom,” he said. “If you let students, our future leaders, cheat themselves into college, into grad school and eventually into positions of power, you will get people like the leaders of Enron.

“The schools that should use (Turnitin) the most, like Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford, where the future leaders of America are, don’t use it. They have the most to lose if they find a lot of kids cheating. There is no reason to believe that Harvard is the bastion of ethics, but for them to use Turnitin would be like having a nuclear bomb go off on their campus,” Barrie said.

Brown does not have an institutional license for Turnitin. However, some Brown students have had experience with the program. “I had to use it for one of my classes in high school, and I guess it served its purpose,” said Michaela Cohen ’09. “But when I used it, it highlighted words in quotations as well, which was irritating and distracting.”

Professor of History Kenneth Sacks agrees that “there is a certain attractiveness for a program that guarantees originality. But at the same time it smacks of Big Brother,” he said, referring to the overbearing government leader in George Orwell’s “1984.”

Many students said they would not object to its use by their professors. “If there are modern techniques to plagiarize, then there should be modern techniques to combat plagiarism,” said Thalia Beaty ’08.

“At a school where students pride themselves on their academic ability, there should be no problem using a program like that,” said Emily Geldwert ’09.

David Ellis ’08 worked at Turnitin’s headquarters in Oakland, Calif. this summer as a development intern. Ellis said he thinks Brown should get an institutional license for Turnitin, because “the service it provides is definitely a benefit to students who actually do the work, and it makes it less uncomfortable for the teacher to confront the plagiarizer.”

Turnitin receives 50,000 student papers each day through the Plagiarism Prevention Program, Barrie said. Because of a 95 percent renewal rate and new licenses with more institutions, he expects 100,000 papers daily in spring 2006.

“These numbers indicate that Turnitin is becoming part of how education works,” Barrie said. “I like to think of it as spell-check for the next generation.”