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By now, most educators know about Turnitin, and many of us have used it to scare our students out of submitting work written by someone else, whether that writer was a friend, an internet entrepreneur or even (in the most obvious cases) Wikipedia. The first time I used it to check for plagiarism, I have to admit that it was purely for the fear factor, as I hadn’t learned much about the benefits the resource has to offer. I just looked at the similarity percentages to see how high they were, warning students that they would be penalized if they had plagiarized.

It took me a while to understand how Turnitin can also be useful to students if they are taught how to take advantage of it as a tool.

As a teacher and writer, I loathe plagiarism and want to ensure I am never guilty of an offense. When we ask students to write with sources, we expect that they have already learned what plagiarism is and how to avoid it. After all, they’ve been pulling information from texts for years. They know it’s cheating if they find an essay online and try to pass it off as their own, but they struggle with patch writing, appropriately using quotations to support their ideas, and documentation. Countless times, I’ve heard students say, “But do I really have to document it even if I didn’t take a direct quote?” Yes, yes, 1,000 times yes! While this comes so naturally to us as educators, we need to constantly remind them.

The intentionally plagiarized papers are easy to spot, of course, as nearly the whole document ends up highlighted by Turnitin. Students who have merely cut and pasted have been warned of the dangers and have chosen to commit an act of plagiarism on the off chance that the professor isn’t really looking too closely. For those papers and those students, Turnitin is merely a policing device. It can be used for far more, though.

Here’s how I tell students to use Turnitin to check their papers. First, I set it up on my end so that they can submit multiple times and see their similarity percentages. Students have told me sometimes their other professors won’t allow this, which might be to further discourage plagiarism attempts by preventing students from knowing whether they need to make changes, but I feel that this restricts a powerful teachable moment.

Next, when students have polished their drafts to a point where they think they’re finished, they submit and wait for the percentage. Obviously, a high percentage is less than ideal, but that alone won’t provide everything they need to know. Plagiarism is still possible with a low score, so I then have them click “markup document” and the originality tab. A truer originality percentage will show up if they use the filter, located on the right-hand side, to exclude any quotes they have used, as those will obviously come directly from sources. I also tell them to click “exclude bibliography,” as titles of sources they have used will also come up highlighted. Any other writing that is too close to a source will be marked in various colors. This is a good check to see where they may need to make some tweaks.

I take them through this process so they can see how it works. After securing permission from a student to use their example in front of the class, I click the appropriate tabs and filters to show them the highlighted areas. Highlighting doesn’t always equate to plagiarism, however; I remember one student wrote a paper on teenage pregnancy, and all but two words of her title, “Teen Pregnancy: Problem in Today’s Society,” came up as highlighted. Now, certainly this title isn’t the most original, but these words are common enough, and the issue at hand is highly recognized, so I would not consider it a case of unintentional plagiarism.

I find Turnitin most helpful as a student tool to help protect against patch writing. For example, a student used the following sentence in her essay on animal testing, and Turnitin highlighted as such:

Many companies will test their products by forcing animals to breathe in poisonous chemicals while also having lethal substances poured in their eyes and rubbed in their skin (Cole, 2015).

While she cited appropriately in APA fashion, thus attributing the content to its original source, highlights show that her attempts at paraphrasing are a little too close for comfort. What’s really helpful for students is to go back to the original source to see how this is too close. So, if I have the student’s permission ahead of time, I can access the source itself to show the similarity. Here’s the original sentence, written by Natacha Cole in her 2015 article "It Is Time Canada Banned Cosmetic Animal Testing":

It is awful that some companies still test their new products and ingredients by forcing rabbits, hamsters, guinea pigs and rodents to suffer through horrific practices such as breathing in poisonous fumes or having lethal chemicals rubbed onto their skin. (para. 13)

When comparing the student paper to the original source, it is easy to tell why Turnitin highlighted as it did. Once patch writing has been detected, students need tools to alter their wording. This is a good time for reviewing quote integration, paraphrasing and summarizing. Using the example and discussing what went wrong, I ask students what they could do instead. Showcasing one or two responses on the board allows them to compare and contrast the plagiarized writing, the original source and the new, better-researched writing.

The time I’ve spent in class going over Turnitin has paid off in terms of the papers I’ve received. In the past, after providing no guidelines on how to use it, I received frantic emails from students who swore that they weren’t trying to plagiarize but received high percentages of similarity anyway. Now, students no longer agonize over the consequences of accidental plagiarism, as they have tools for handling it if and when it occurs. It’s time to let students learn to help themselves and further their understanding when writing with sources.

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