U invests in better software to fight against plagiarism

Reports of University plagiarism decreased slightly last year.
February 28, 2012

The University of Minnesota has replaced its anti-plagiarism software to battle against academic dishonesty in the digital age.

The University will make Turnitin, a type of text analysis software, available to instructors by March to help them grade and check assignments for plagiarism.

The University’s Academic Misconduct Policy defines plagiarism as the use of “another person’s ideas, processes, results or words without giving appropriate credit.”

There were about 166 reported cases of plagiarism at the University last academic year, according to Harriet Sands with the Office for Student Conduct and Academic Integrity.

Between 2008 and 2009 there was a jump from 115 reports of academic misconduct to 163.

Nationwide, 55 percent of colleges and universities reported student plagiarism has increased over the last decade, according to 2011 data from the Pew Research Center. About 89 percent said digital technology and the Internet played a “major role” in the upswing, according to the survey.

The University has used the Turnitin software before, but abandoned it in 2008 after a price hike. The school replaced it with Blackboard Inc.’s SafeAssign –– a free service provided by the company.

While some individual colleges and departments have used Turnitin in the past, this is the first campus-wide license, said Chris Ament, a manager at the University’s Office of Information Technology.

The University’s contract with Blackboard expires in August, he said. Turnitin was chosen to replace SafeAssign because of its database, grading and student feedback features.

The software digitally archives uploaded assignments. There are more than 200 million student papers, books and periodicals in its database.

But the software isn’t foolproof, said Jordan Kavoosi, founder of the Minnesota-based Essay Writing Company.

Kavoosi promotes his company as a place where students can cheat on their assignments by paying former teachers and other essayists to write papers.

His company uses a program similar to Turnitin to analyze papers its employees write for students. Turnitin, he said, can’t detect original assignments produced by experts.

This is because companies like Kavoosi’s write original essays, while Turnitin draws from a database compiled from already-published online sources and previous student work.

“Everyone is doing it from scratch,” he said, adding that any quoted information is properly cited by his employees.

Even though the students themselves aren’t directly stealing another’s work, representing the paper as their own still violates University academic honesty policies.

With its current tools, the University won’t be able to effectively detect or stop essay services and savvy plagiarists, Kavoosi said.

The digital revolution presents a challenge when spotting academic dishonesty, said Chris Harrick, vice president of marketing for iParadigms, the developer of Turnitin.

But essay services usually don’t take the time to learn a student’s writing style, he said, something instructors and teaching assistants often become familiar with over the semester.

“We get calls every day from students saying ‘I paid $50 for that paper, how can my score be less than 100 percent original?’” Harrick said.

“It’s a real deal with the devil,” he said.

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