The plagiarism detection software Turnitin will be available to all University of Waterloo instructors as of September 2009. It was piloted in the winter and spring terms of 2008 by the School of Accounting and Finance.
A recent article discussed a study at Texas Tech University that found false positives from plagiarism detection software due to use of jargon or specialized vocabulary. For anyone who has used Turnitin, this isn’t a big surprise.
Essentially, the software flags levels of “non-originality”, but it is up to the instructor to investigate further to determine whether plagiarism has occurred. The software provides information about sources of apparent plagiarism, however the Texas Tech researchers found cases where the source of apparent plagiarism was not correctly identified.
Turnitin could potentially be used to help educate students about what constitutes plagiarism. For instance, students could potentially submit a draft of a paper prior to the deadline and see the originality report for their paper which could allow them to make appropriate modifications before a final draft is submitted. It could potentially help with appropriate citations and encourage good scholarship.
However, another concern is intellectual property. Some students may object to their intellectual property being used for financial gain by a private corporation. At UW, students must be informed if Turnitin will be used and students must be given another option if they do not want their assignment screened by Turnitin.
The bottom line is that there are limitations to services like Turnitin. While it can help flag cases for further investigation, it ultimately requires a human to determine whether plagiarism has occurred. Perhaps more importantly it could be used as a tool to educate about plagiarism rather than simply police for plagiarism.
For more information about Turnitin at UW, including training sessions and guidelines see