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Parenting and Plagiarism Detection Services
by Diane S. Kendall, 03/19/2008

While students seem to have wised up to the fact that most teachers are now capable of doing their own Internet searches to detect plagiarism, finding purloined passages ripped directly from Internet sites or from purchased papers, they still seem to be willing to dare them to do it. Taking up the challenge, many schools are taking out subscriptions with Plagiarism Detection Services (PDS), perhaps the best known of which is Turnitin.com. Certainly these services are great for ferreting out the most obvious transgressions, like wholesale copying of a paper-for-sale, word-for-word cut and paste jobs from web sites, and even papers that have been submitted in the past to the detection service by other students or siblings. But if your child goes to a school that uses one of these services to help teachers detect plagiarism, you may have already discovered that the results from submitting a paper to one of these services is being used as judge, jury and executioner to mete out punishments rather than as a tool to help teachers and students figure out that they need to work together on to improve research and writing skills.

This certainly was the case recently with a friend whose son, a junior in high school, submitted a paper he had done on blood diamonds. He wrote the paper and submitted it to Turnitin.com and the teacher immediately handed him a zero. That's because, his parents were told, his paper came back with a report that he had "plagiarized" 63% of it.  His parents, curious about the situation, asked for a copy of the report that Turnitin.com generated on his writing.

The report was revealing. Ten percent of the so-called plagiarism was when his paper was compared to other students from schools all over the world who wrote on the same topic - ten 1% transgressions. (I'll return to this.) 28% was supposedly copied from a site sponsored by the United Nations on blood diamonds and he had paraphrased materials from that. His biggest faux pas there was forgetting to cite all the information he used, and, in one case, he left off a closing quotation mark at the end of one quote so the computer read it as material he was trying to pass off as his own. The remaining 25% was from a private industry site that quoted the United Nations site verbatim, so essentially he was dinged twice for the same materials he had paraphrased from the United Nations site, even though he had never visited this second site nor would have been able to access it even if he tried. So in reality his plagiarism score should have been about 18%. Still high, but most of it could be explained by the fact that he didn't really understand how to integrate quotations into his writing - not unusual for most high school juniors, forget the rest of the population.

His teacher was rather indignant when his parents pointed out that the report was not quite as damning as first made out to be. It was obvious that she had not really looked at it and was using Turnitin.com as a competent and sole judge of all things plagiarized. She couldn't explain why ten percent (at one percent per) was indicated when compared with other papers on the same topic. (You have to wonder if there were 100 papers in the Turnitin.com database that used the same United Nations source on blood diamonds if he might have gotten back a report of 100% plagiarism as compared to those 100 papers.) She also was not willing to concede that a site containing word-for-word the same material as another site, and not visited by the student because it was a proprietary or "private" industry site, also should not count. Her biggest defense of the zero grade was that as a junior he should know how to integrate quotations into his writing, even though to his recollection (and she did not dispute this), this was the first time it had ever been introduced. Her department chair and the principal backed her up on this.

To my way of thinking, a terrific teaching opportunity was lost here. Learning how to quote, paraphrase, cite and integrate information is an art as well as a science. Once the report came back, the best teaching practice probably would have been to look it over with the student and ask them to rewrite the paper trying to avoid the issues that came up. Using Turnitin.com as a punitive tool, rather than one to help a student learn how to use resources correctly, was counterproductive. In an age where everyone is always complaining that students can't write, this kind of negative use of a plagiarism detection tool probably will result in one of two things. Writer's block for a student who will become afraid to paraphrase or summarize materials for fear of being caught OR reverting to more devious methods to try to get around Turnitin.com - and you only have to search online for advice on how to do that.

Here's how I see it. Using Turnitin.com this way is like letting the detective who arrives first on a murder scene do a cursory examination of all the evidence, immediately declare the culprit, and send them to the electric chair. Forget using a CSI team, talking to witnesses, or even looking for a possible motive. There's no due process- or in this case, learning- at all.

So if your school uses a Plagiarism Detection Service (PDS) like Turnitin.com to screen student papers, you need to:

  • Make sure your teen knows exactly what plagiarism is. It's not just copying. If you and they need help understanding the concept, there are some good sites online and we've taken the topic up in the Parenting with Technology and Computers and Homework section of this site.
  • Find out what your school's policy is on the results of a PDS report. Most schools won't reveal what the magic percentage of plagiarized material is that causes a teacher to question a student's work, but see if you can get a ballpark number. Also try to find out what teacher training, if any, has been done on how to use a PDS service or report.
  • Don't just take the school's word for it that your teen has plagiarized especially if the only reason given is a PDS report.
  • Ask for a copy of the color-coded report from the PDS if your teen is told they have exceeded the plagiarism quota. After all, this report is generated by a computer and we all know they make mistakes. Be sure to check they are not being penalized for sites that contain the same information as other sites or other student papers that might have used similar sources on some esoteric topic
  • Help your teen understand that it would be a good idea to have someone else read their paper before they hand it in. This could be a friend, relative or a parent. NO ONE can edit their own writing and it would be a shame if they ended up failing because they forgot to site something or to put both quotation marks around a quote.
  • Make sure that if they have any questions about how to cite something that they check it out. Does your school use MLA or APA style?
Bottom line: Plagiarism Detection Services are great for detecting lazy kids who want to copy and pass off other people's sites or papers as their own work. Make sure, though, that your school is not using their PDS as a punitive tool directed at students who are trying to do the "right" thing, especially without double checking on what a plagiarism search really found.

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