Do Colleges Check Essays Plagiarism

UCLA's Anderson School of Management and Stanford University are among more than 100 colleges using Turnitin's database to detect plagiarism in application essays.

That growth highlights the search for authenticity in college admissions at a time when the Internet offers huge amounts of tempting free material, increasing numbers of private coaches sell admissions advice, and online companies peddle pre-written essays. In addition, the larger numbers of applications from overseas have raised concerns about cheating that may be difficult for U.S. schools to discover unaided.

"The more we can nip unethical behavior in the bud, the better," said Andrew Ainslie, a senior associate dean at UCLA Anderson. "It seems to us nobody ought to be able to buy their way into a business school."

In the school's first review of essays from potential MBA candidates this year, Turnitin found significant plagiarism — beyond borrowing a phrase here and there — in a dozen of the 870 applications, Ainslie said. All 12 were rejected.

Turnitin — as in, "turn it in" — began in the 1990s and became a popular tool at high schools and colleges to help detect copying in academic term papers and research by scanning for similarities in phrases from among billions of Web pages, books and periodicals.

Two years ago, the Oakland-based firm developed a service for admissions decisions, allowing large numbers of essays to be reviewed quickly and creating a database of students' essays. The service shows sections of essays next to the possible source and calculates a percentage of possibly copied material. It is left up to schools to determine whether the plagiarism was minor, accidental or serious enough to reject the applicant.

"If you are a very selective institution, or a very prestigious institution, and you have a huge number of people vying for just a couple of slots, admissions people want to make sure they have all the information to make the fair decision," said Jeff Lorton, Turnitin for Admissions' product and business development manager.

Internal testing of the database, using past essays, showed plagiarism ranging from about 3% to 20% of applicants, Lorton said.

Colleges want "to be proactive in discouraging dishonesty," said Richard Shaw, Stanford's dean of undergraduate admission and financial aid.

So Stanford will test Turnitin on the 7% or so of its 36,000 applicants who make it past other hurdles to be offered admissions, Shaw said. If plagiarism is detected, students will be allowed to respond but probably will face revocation.

Other schools are skeptical about using Turnitin on prospective freshmen, especially since the company charges large campuses several thousands of dollars a year. Rather, plagiarists can be discovered when admissions officers notice mismatches between strong application essays and weak grades, interviews and SAT or ACT writing samples, said David Hawkins, public policy and research director of the National Assn. for College Admission Counseling. Schools also fear wasting time on false positives triggered by cliches and platitudes, he said.

And experts say it can be easy to tell when several applicants repeat the same material or, more glaring, when they don't change electronic typefaces from their sources.

Turnitin's freshman screening could rise sharply, however, if the service is adopted by Common Application, the online service used by 456 college admissions offices. Rob Killion, Common Application executive director, said there is "a very real chance" it will add Turnitin in 2013.

Among current Turnitin for Admissions users are some graduate schools at Johns Hopkins, Brandeis, Northeastern and Iowa State. They pay annual fees that start at $1,500 and rise depending on volume, averaging about a dollar per application, Lorton said. About half the schools explicitly tell applicants about the detection while others warn more vaguely.

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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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