It wasn't that hard for admissions officers for the M.B.A. program at Pennsylvania State University to figure out that they had a plagiarism problem this year. One of the topics for application essays referenced the business school's idea of "principled leadership." Some applicants apparently Googled the term and came up with an article about the concept in a publication of a business school association. Thirty applicants submitted essays that either lifted many passages straight from the article or substantially paraphrased the article without appropriate attribution.
Carrie Marcinkevage, the program's admissions director, said she knew even before the most recent incident that some applicants plagiarized -- often badly. She described receiving essays in the past in which most of the application was in one font, but the essay was not only in a different voice but a different font, as if an applicant couldn't even be troubled to try to hide his dishonesty by changing fonts. This year, because 30 applicants plagiarized using the same essay, it was clear to Penn State that this problem isn't about just a few outliers.
"After this year, we knew the problem was real and we had to do something," said Marcinkevage.
So the Penn State business program has become the first college or university program to go public about using a new admissions essay service offered by Turnitin, the dominant player in the plagiarism detection software for reviewing work submitted by college students. The company recently introduced a new software service for admissions essays, for which it is gathering admissions essays that will go into a database to be checked (along with various other Web resources and student papers).
According to the company, a handful of other admissions offices have also signed up, although those admissions offices don't necessarily want anyone to know. One is a medical school; one is another business school and the others are all graduate and professional schools. Turnitin is also talking to the Common Application about using its services -- raising the possibility that it could soon make inroads into the undergraduate market.
Would this be a good thing?
Some admissions officials, like those at Penn State, welcome the service. They feel that the problem is serious enough that they need help. Others, however, are skeptical, saying that the push by Turnitin will shift the focus away from more serious issues in college admissions and suggests that colleges aren't capable of uncovering plagiarism themselves.
Others worry about due process: Current students accused of plagiarism on the basis of a Turnitin (or a competitor company's) review have whatever rights their colleges give those accused of academic dishonesty. Colleges almost never tell applicants why they are rejected, however, so some fear that this system could lead to some would-be students being rejected on the basis of "false positives" for plagiarism on their admissions essays -- an accusation that they may never know about.
Turnitin is a huge force on campuses: it is currently used at 9,000 high schools and colleges, and has processed more than 100 million papers. Many professors value Turnitin and can be seen at scholarly meetings thanking its representatives in the exhibit hall. These faculty members tend to say that they used to feel helpless to fight plagiarism -- and that they were tired of using Google to try to find proof about work they suspected wasn't original.
In other academic circles, however, Turnitin is controversial. Some have raised intellectual property concerns about its use of students' essays. And many composition experts believe that colleges -- by focusing on scaring students that their plagiarism might be caught -- have missed an opportunity to teach students about issues of writing ethics. Others believe that software detection services produce an unacceptable number of false positives.
The idea that people fake their way into college fascinates many: Witness all the coverage of the recent case of Adam Wheeler, accused of inventing an entire academic record to dupe Harvard University into letting him in.
In its effort to attract business, Turnitin has released a paper outlining how it used a Beta version of its admissions software on more than 450,000 admissions essays and found that 44 percent had some "matching text" with other Web documents or students essays and 36 percent had enough in the way of "significant matching text" to make it reasonable to suspect plagiarism or the use of purchased essays. (If a college wants to detect such matches, the service Turnitin is offering is priced by campus, in the range of $1 per application essay.)
While not everyone agrees with the company's estimates of the magnitude of the problem, clearly many are concerned. Rob Killion, executive director of the Common Application, said that the reason that organization is looking into plagiarism detection services is because many members have asked for the service to be added. (He stressed that no decision is imminent.)
Bruce J. Poch, vice president and dean of admissions at Pomona College, said he wouldn't be surprised to see colleges sign up for Turnitin's service because of frustrations over the plagiarism that is found, and that which is suspected. An admissions reader at Pomona once had a "groundhog day" when she read the same admissions essay three times in a single day, with only the name of the "best friend" described in the essay changed. "This happened three times in one day, from three applicants coming from three different continents," Poch said.
Anyone who can Google can find lots of free essays online, sites offering "editing" help (many with disclaimers saying that they will not actually write essays), and books of "essays that worked" -- again, with disclaimers saying that these essays are for inspiration and example, not to copy. But when Turnitin examined which Web sites produced the most content on the essays with matching text, many of these sites came up on the list, along with predictable sites (Wikipedia) and less predictable sites, such as Love City, a dating site that had material matching 341 application essays.
David Hawkins, director of public policy and research for the National Association for College Admission Counseling, said his association didn't have data on how widespread the problem of plagiarized essays may be and cautioned that "the perception or presence of a problem is in [Turnitin]'s interest." While Hawkins said he hears concerns about the issue from time to time, "I haven't heard the kind of concern about plagiarized essays that would lead me to believe there is a widespread problem."
"We hear more about essays that have been doctored or assisted," he said. "And I'm not sure Turnitin will help identify those cases," since a parent or adviser or hired gun can submit original work (even if it's not the work of the applicant).
Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director for external relations at the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, said he saw Turnitin's new service as "a solution in search of a problem." He said that the new business will encourage "a public conception of the essay that is off the mark," explaining that many people think that the essay has "a certain redemptive value that turns an inadmissible applicant into a winner" -- something that he said rarely happens.
The big challenge for admissions officers, he said, is "authenticity" -- how to find when the essay truly reflects the applicant. But Nassirian said that he doesn't think authenticity is destroyed when a parent or teacher proofreads an essay for typos, and that such a review is entirely appropriate. At a time when college admissions officers need to help applicants understand the difference between that kind of legitimate help and truly inappropriate help, plagiarism detection software creates a misleading view of what's ethical, he said. "The notion that the student sat in a hermetically sealed box and wrote the essay and sent it in was never an illusion of ours," he said. "The question about help is 'How involved?' "
Then there is the issue of due process. Jeff Lorton, product and business development manager of Turnitin for Admissions, said that the company had no intention of telling colleges how to use the information they receive on potentially plagiarized essays. He said he didn't think they would necessarily tell applicants about an essay being flagged. "Some are going to use it just like they use Google or any other tool," he said, noting that admissions officers today try to verify suspicions and don't necessarily tell applicants.
Nassirian said he was bothered by the idea that colleges would be making decisions without knowing all the facts. "This is just another of the example of the ridiculous surveillance world that technology has enabled," he said. Given that admissions decisions are made behind closed doors, he said it was particularly troublesome to add a system that would designate some applicants as questionable -- without their being able to know.
Andrew Flagel, dean of admissions at George Mason University, said he doubted that colleges would set up a system of due process for those whose applications are flagged. "Admissions has been blissfully without due process for years," he said. "Colleges rarely tell applicants why they were denied, so I suspect there would be no effort" if the reason is a plagiarized essay.
Asked about his thoughts on whether a service is needed, Flagel said he had both philosophical and practical issues to consider. He said that he has personally caught only two applicants who plagiarized essays -- one was a particularly obvious case, and in another the passage came from a book that Flagel had recently read. "It seems unlikely" that those are the only two who plagiarized, Flagel said.
He said he suspected many admissions offices would like the service "as a way to authenticate admissions," but he questioned whether it would really do so, since "the reality is that the essays aren't the most important part" of the process at most colleges.
While he would like to know who has plagiarized, he said, "what's the relative cost?" While a college could pass on the $1 fee by raising application fees, Flagel said that colleges set fees in relation to markets and out of sensitivity to applicants. "So to me the question will be the relative value" of running a check on all applicants.
Poch, of Pomona, said that his staff already knows many places to check for plagiarized essays, and does so as needed. Would he welcome additional help from Turnitin? "If their algorithm were good enough not to flag false positives, maybe so," he said, "if it were part of a Common Application package." But he probably would not spend $1 per essay on his own. "I would need really persuasive evidence that the number of plagiarized essays in our candidate pool warranted such a cynical review," he said.
And in saying that, Poch said he doesn't doubt that some applicants plagiarize -- just that human beings can detect it. "We do have tools of good judgment to rely upon," he said. "If a candidate submits an essay which is unusually well-written or thoughtful in a way not supported by teacher references and/or SAT, ACT writing scores and the actual essay submitted don't all fit together, the warning flags do go up," he said. "Holistic reading is close reading."
In a sign that those who try to cheat realize that admissions officers are on the lookout, Poch said that he has "heard some truly cynical independent counselors suggest deliberately inserting typos or slight errors to make the application authentic."
Marcinkevage, of Penn State, said she views the use of Turnitin as allowing admissions officers to get out of the world of constant suspicion. "We don't want to go into the process as cynics, trying to find something wrong," she said. By running the Turnitin check first, she hopes, the admissions team will be able to focus on issues other than plagiarism.
She also said that due process is possible, and cited Penn State's handling of this year's plagiarism outbreak as an example. The 30 applicants who used material from the same essay were part of an applicant pool of 700, of whom 200 were admitted. All but three of the 30 were clear plagiarism, she said, with significant passages straight from the essay. Of those 27, one had already been admitted before the pattern was discovered (and the offer was rescinded), several who had been asked in for interviews had their interviews canceled and were rejected, while others were already in the rejection stack or hadn't been fully evaluated yet when the plagiarism was detected, and were then rejected.
Three cases were ambiguous, within inappropriate paraphrasing, but not quite as bad as the others. she said. So the program did what it will do next year with ambiguous results, and called the three. They were told what happened, and asked to submit new essays. One of these three was admitted.
The new system, Marcinkevage said, offers the same opportunity in that Turnitin will flag essays, but won't reject anyone. "This does not replace human review of the material, by educated admissions staff who are very skilled at reading essays," she said.