More than half of UK universities supply students with plagiarism detection software to boost their writing skills, despite fears it may aid cheating.
According to iParadigms, the firm that owns Turnitin, the most-used plagiarism software in the UK, most universities “use the software as a teaching and learning aid as part of the assessment process”.
Students can run essays through Turnitin’s plagiarism checker on a number of occasions before submitting their work for marking.
“This allows students to develop their academic writing skills by…analysing the originality report to identify areas for improvement,” an iParadigms spokeswoman said.
However, some academics say that this practice is unethical as it allows students to copy chunks of source material and tweak it to avoid detection, meaning Turnitin is arming both sides in the plagiarism war.
But iParadigms said student access to the software is in line with guidance from the advisory body PlagiarismAdvice.org, which has said it “favoured proactive education rather than detection as a means to catch and punish”.
There is no definitive guidance on how universities should use text-matching software, with the Quality Assurance Agency’s recent Quality Code stating only that identification of cheating “may include the use of electronic submission and software” to detect plagiarised passages.
Some universities routinely ask students to run work through Turnitin, while others use it only if they suspect an offence has occurred.
Mary Davis, senior lecturer in English for academic purposes at Oxford Brookes University, said discussing the reports produced by plagiarism detection software was an excellent way to teach students about writing technique and use of sources, particularly when working with international students who are unfamiliar with the academic referencing used in UK higher education.
“It is very visual and immediate,” said Ms Davis, who has researched the pedagogic use of Turnitin.
She said tutorials with students showed how “synonym substitution”, in which a few words in a paragraph are changed to try to pass off work as original, did not work and was flagged by Turnitin.
“Students have to use sources for academic writing in any case, so these classes inform them how they should include them with proper attribution and their own analysis,” she added.
Not many students tried to beat the system using Turnitin, Ms Davis said. “Ghostwriting and essay mills are far more dangerous to academic standards,” she added.
“It is better if students copy and paste than turn to ghostwriting because they are at least attempting to engage with the subject, albeit in the wrong way,” she said. “You can then explain where they are going wrong. It’s better to educate than to punish.”