Do Colleges Check Essays Plagiarism

Starting in the 2012-2013 cycle, admissions officers might not be the only ones reading applications to Columbia. The Common Application, which Columbia is now using, is considering a service being marketed by Turnitin.com to check for plagiarism on college application essays. Rob Killion, executive director for the Common Application, said that the Common App's board of directors is still researching the possibility and will not reach a decision for at least another year. "My Board of Directors has made no decision to implement this program since they are still researching the issues involved," Killion wrote in an email. "Were they to implement such a feature, it would not be for the next admission cycle starting this summer." Killion added that it has not been determined whether the Turnitin product would become a mandatory element for schools using the Common App. That has implications for Columbia, which had been the last Ivy League school to exclusively use its own application but switched to the Common App this past admissions cycle. A University spokesperson said he could not comment for the admissions department. Jeff Lorton, product and business development manager for Turnitin for Admissions, said that Turnitin started hearing about the need for this type of product in 2003. "An anesthesiology program contacted us because they had three personal statements that were exactly the same," he said. In a survey of application essays from around the country, Turnitin found that 36 percent of essays had significant matching text, meaning that more than 10 percent of their text matched other text that was not their own. Penn State University's MBA program, which currently uses Turnitin, found that 29 of its 368 applicants had significant matching text in their admissions essays, which Lorton called a "plagiarism perfect storm." "During that same time, Brigham and Women's Hospital, the teaching hospital for Harvard, contacted us. In their outside research, they found two identical paragraphs in different personal statements," Lorton said of the program's beta testing, which started in 2007. "They were, of course, shocked and never thought it would be a problem with residency programs." But some outside observers are skeptical about the need for this type of product. Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director for external relations at the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, believes that it could become a discriminatory tool. "The software can't tell who is stepping forward in their own voice. It cannot register when people are getting significant help from experts and parents," Nassirian said. "A poor inner-city kid might have misappropriated a quote which gets picked up by the program, and a kid paying for expert advice is less likely to get picked up because the student is receiving help that is an entirely private transaction." David Hawkins, director of public policy and research for the National Association for College Admission Counseling, questioned whether the Turnitin program is even necessary. "I am skeptical whether plagiarism is actually a problem in college essays," Hawkins said. "Admissions' concern is more of whether it is of high quality and has merit. Plagiarism doesn't seem to be the primary concern of admissions officers, and the questions to ask about the quality of the work are much broader than plagiarism." Hawkins added that the program could give false positives if applicants quote other sources in their essays, a thought Tom Caruso, CC '13, agreed with. "To be perfectly honest, I don't think Turnitin actually really does anything," Caruso said. "The website suspected a friend of cheating due to his use of the phrase 'In William Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing.' And even if it did, in the admissions process, it would seem to me that anyone who would plagiarize an admissions essay would either not be smart enough to actually get in or be plagiarizing from a more untraceable source." But Lorton maintained that Turnitin does not attempt to diagnose plagiarism definitively. "A big misconception is that we identify plagiarism, which we don't," Lorton said. "We review a document and then compare it to everything in our database. We then look for matches and see where those matches come from. However, you make a decision yourself if the matches are a problem." Still, some questions remain unanswered. "You don't know that you're catching the one who plagiarized. There is no chain of custody of original content," Nassirian said. "Second, the whole notion of authenticity is quite false. In this process, there is a set-up of a business opportunity in which a need does not exist. Personal essay is the least important aspect of the application." He added that the financial consequences of the Turnitin need to be considered as well. "This isn't a free service," Nassirian said. "Using Turnitin adds to the cost of the application process." constance.boozer@columbiaspectator.com

Professor Randy Reddick, chairman for the Texas Tech Department of Journalism, said he heard during a 2003 journalism convention that 70 percent of college graduates admitted to plagiarizing at least once during their college career.

Reddick said another panelist followed the statistic with, “Yes, and the other 30 percent were lying.”

Plagiarism is a growing problem among college students and the Internet nowadays, Reddick said. However, one website is helping cut out some of the copying.

Turnitin.com, a branch of plagiarism.org, is a site where users can upload their work and receive an originality score. If the user has plagiarized, the questionable part of the paper will be highlighted.

Liz Gardner, an assistant professor of public relations, said she mainly knows about the site from being a teacher.

“Basically, it is a site where people submit original work and what the site does is it has a database of all the work that’s been submitted to it,” she said, “but it also crawls the web — things like academic journals, newspaper reports, even web pages — basically any public, available, searchable content. And so, when you submit your own original content, it compares that to the universe of content that already exists, and that way if you have something that’s not original — that you have pulled from somebody — it will highlight it and you’ll know.”

Gardner uses turnitin.com in the two classes she teaches, PR Campaigns and a graduate advertising class.

She said she uses the site as a prevention tool, rather than a catching device.

“To be honest, the biggest reason I use it is to encourage people to be honest on their own,” Gardner said. “As I explain in class, I don’t use it to catch people. I don’t use it so much as a policing tool, I use it as a prevention tool.”

Gardner uses the site for her own research, she said, because “people don’t always know they’re plagiarizing intentionally.”

“It’s not always malicious,” she said. “Sometimes we make mistakes. I use it not just in the classroom, but I use it for my research as well.”

Gardner said she is not reinventing the wheel every time she writes, so she uses turnitn.com to check herself.

“I’m using the same definitions, even the same set-up for an experiment, and it’s really easy to plagiarize yourself,” she said. “But, what I don’t want to do is publish the exact same paragraphs in multiple articles. So, what I do is every time I’m going to submit a paper to a conference or a journal, I upload it to Turn It In to check myself.”

Gardner has never had any student copy an entire paper before, she said. But, when she does catch plagiarism, she deals with it on a case-by-case basis.

Reddick said with using turnitin.com, he has caught students who plagiarized entire papers or documents.

“Oh, yes,” he said about seeing entire papers copied. “The funny part about it is in the classes that I’ve used it in — which have been primarily the law class — I go through the process of describing to them what’s going on, why we’re doing this, and we would talk about plagiarism and what it is and why it’s important.

“We go through this whole thing and then I have a very clear statement of, ‘This is what you need to do.’ And I set it up so they can turn it in and find out what their similarity rating is and I say, ‘You can turn it in as many times as you need to, if you have a hard time figuring that out.’ And I still have students (who plagiarize). I guess the most egregious example was a paper lifted in its entirety from the University of Illinois.”

Both Gardner and Reddick said plagiarizing is easier with the Internet. Reddick blames students plagiarizing partly because of the way professors teach.

“Teaching to the test is a prime example,” he said about flaws in the education system. “I’ve literally had students ask me for the test questions ahead of time, so they know what the test is. And I try to explain to them, ‘I’m sorry. The idea is we want you to learn the material.’ I see students who don’t understand the concept that they’re supposed to learn something and be able to apply it and this is just a product of some of how we’re teaching things today.

“I think that process and the idea that it’s real easy to clip something here and paste it there and everything. I think we are really doing a disservice to our students.”

Hailey Meyer, a junior education major from Hawley, said she used turnitin.com for her introduction to cinema class.

“I thought it was easy to use,” she said. “(Our professor) showed us the first day how words would highlight if they were plagiarized — if they came up on the Internet —and so, I never plagiarize, but I was like, ‘I hope nothing is ever similar or hope nothing is ever in question.’ Because, I didn’t know if it took it word-for-word or just ideas, but after just using it, it was easy to use and I never had any problems with it.”

After submitting a paper, Meyer’s professor had it set up where the students could not see their originality score. Meyer said that worried her.

“I was kind of a little bit paranoid because I didn’t know if you did research, I didn’t know if anything would show up, like similar ideas, even if it’s worded differently, but I never got called in for anything,” she said.

Gardner said she applauds students who are able to resist the temptation of plagiarizing.

“It’s not that I think there’s a whole bunch of bad, terrible cheaters out in this world,” she said. “It’s that students have a lot of pressure to produce these days and somewhere in that pressure, I think it becomes easier to make mistakes. I use turnitin.com to prevent those mistakes and to help students learn to prevent themselves.”

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