Student Plagiarism in Philosophy Classes


Do you use Turnitin or SafeAssign in your courses to help deter and catch plagiarism? It turns out such software is not very good, reports Inside Higher Ed. Here are the results of a recent test conducted by Susan E. Schorn, a writing coordinator at the University of Texas at Austin:

Out of a total of 37 sources, the software fully identified 15, partially identified six and missed 16. That test featured some word deletions and sentence reshuffling — common tricks students use to cover up plagiarism.

Such results are consistent with her findings from a study conducted eight years earlier:

Of the 23 sources, used in ways that faculty members would consider inappropriate in an assignment, Turnitin identified only eight, but produced six other matches that found some text, nonoriginal sources or unviewable content. That means the software missed almost two-fifths, or 39.34 percent, of the plagiarized sources.

Schorn comments:

We’re paying instructors less, we’re having larger class sizes, but we’re able to find money for this policing tool that doesn’t actually work. It’s just another measure of false security, like having people take off their shoes at the airport.

My university uses SafeAssign, and I have my undergraduates submit their papers through it as a preliminary screening measure. Sometimes I or my TAs catch passages that the software misses. I usually get a few cases a year, and I doubt I am catching it all.

Like many other professors, I aim for writing prompts that don’t lend themselves to easy plagiarism, but, as the Internet grows, that is getting more and more difficult to do. Comments about how you thwart plagiarism in your own classes would be welcome.

(Once, most of a student’s paper was marked by SafeAssign as plagiarized. I confronted the student with the accusation. He repeatedly and strenuously denied plagiarizing. Further investigation revealed I was mistaken. He hadn’t plagiarized. He had simply bought the paper from someone who had.)

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Yan
Yan
6 years ago

A few potential problems with the study. First, it measures effectiveness in the abstract rather than comparatively. So it caught only 15 of 37 sources. Is that better or worse than the prof would have caught on their own (especially “in the field”, where most of us are in a rush to finish up grading, and are more focused on grading accurately than catching plagiarism, so only the obvious cases stick out)? If it possibly catches more than we would on our own, how does the study obviously lead to the conclusion that it “doesn’t work”?

Other concerns: it doesn’t consider that the nature of the assignment matters. Turnitin works better or worse, depending on how it’s used. I use it in tandem with essay topics or exam questions tailored to make plagiarism more difficult. That means that when they *do* plagiarize, it’s much more obvious, and I find that Turnitin catches these cases pretty well, since they usually involve blocks of slightly modified writing from many different sources. If it had been one occurrence, Turnitin would have highlighted a phrase that could be innocuous, but when they use the same 4 sources over and over, mixed in with original material, Turnitin highlights the patterns very clearly.

Finally, it doesn’t consider the deterrent effect. I’ve quit using Turnitin multiple times, and every time I do, plagiarism goes up and I go back to Turnitin. I think a major reason for this is just knowing about it discourages students who would otherwise try to get away with it.Report

Eva Dadlez
Eva Dadlez
6 years ago

One semester from hell, my intro ethics class had 15 wealthy students from a foreign country which shall remain nameless. At that time, I had a policy in place that allowed the student to replace at least some in class essay exams with a take home paper. Each of the 15, judging from the essay tests, could barely speak the language. The average was 3 sentences in 15 minutes. But each handed in a brilliant, literate paper whenever he had the opportunity. The papers weren’t lifted from online or print sources. They were purchased. They’d hired people to write them, so custom-tailored assignments concerning news items of the day made no difference. My freshman classes now only permit in-class writing.Report

Chris
Chris
Reply to  Eva Dadlez
6 years ago

I’ve had a similar experience. I have a problem dealing with students who purchase ghost-written essays, and TurnItIn is of no use there. So I’ve moved to mostly in-class writing, and most students that intend to cheat this way will drop the course after the first day, although I have caught students trying to use smartphones and even a smartwatch for in-class writing.Report

anonymous
anonymous
6 years ago

This is way better than the TSA is doing! And people rarely try to blow up airplanes. Which may suggest that beating the students over the head with the fact that you will ensure that they get dealt the worst fate possible if you do catch them plagiarizing. And then follow through.Report

Will Behun
Will Behun
6 years ago

I use Turnitin and love it, but it’s not a substitute for careful reading of student papers. I know it doesn’t catch everything, and it often catches things that aren’t plagiarised. Beyond that, I would *never* make an accusation of plagiarism based only on a Turnitin report. In fact, I would never make an accusation if I didn’t have evidence that demonstrated unequivocally that the student had plagiarised. I know perfectly well that this means that there are cases that I won’t catch at all, and cases where I am all but sure that there is plagiarism, but for which I don’t have sufficient evidence to make an accusation. That’s not ideal, but for me it’s better than going on fishing expeditions that could result in an unfair accusation. When I was very young, I was falsely accused of plagiarism, and I remember just how upsetting and demoralising the experience was. I’d rather not inflict that on anyone else.

NB: I consider buying a paper and submitting it as your own a clear case of plagiarism. I have had a nearly identical experience to the one Justin describes, and I certainly considered that plagiarism.Report

P.D.
6 years ago

I didn’t have a well-defined prior as to how well these things ought to work, so I’m not sure if it’s a good or a bad performance. I’m actually more interested in the false-positive rate, which is harder to assess.

anonymous suggests “beating the students over the head with the fact that you will ensure that they get dealt the worst fate possible if you do catch them plagiarizing.”
Unfortunately, many cheaters think there is a zero chance that they will get caught and so do not base their decision on the level of punishment. Once they are caught, however, a “worst fate possible” punishment means that they have to deny to act and follow up every possible appeal.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
6 years ago

Oxford pretty much universally assesses undergraduates through invigilated exams. There are strengths and weaknesses of that assessment method, but it’s pretty plagiarism-proof.Report

Juan M
Juan M
6 years ago

How about making the class relevant for the student, so that the incentive to plagiarize disappears? You have policed students for many years and they still continue to plagiarize. You would be insane if you think you can do the same thing and expect different results. For a guide on how to teach effectively, read Paulo Freire, bell hooks, etc. Good luck.Report

A philosophy professor
A philosophy professor
Reply to  Juan M
6 years ago

The thought that “if you teach better, they won’t plagiarize” is incredibly naive. No matter how good of a teacher you are, if you’ve got a class of 150 18 year-olds at a public university, someone is going to plagiarize. For an actual, real introductory philosophy class, tools like SafeAssign and Turnitin remain useful.Report

Shen-yi Liao
6 years ago

Maybe here is where countercanon / diversified reading list can be useful too. Sure, Peter Singer’s famine article is a classic, but perhaps there are other really good articles in the vicinity that are not so often assigned. Almost every intro class assigns Mill and Kant (or contemporary versions) but much fewer assign Mozi and Xunzi. Just a thought that maybe one way to have prompts that lend itself less to plagiarism is to have prompts about works that fewer instructors assign.Report

DC
DC
6 years ago

“We’re paying instructors less, we’re having larger class sizes, but we’re able to find money for this policing tool that doesn’t actually work.”

Kind of a value judgment but I think her own findings completely contradict that statement. The software catches most plagiarisms; considering the complexity of the task and the speed in which it can do it, a greater than even chance that plagiarism would be caught seems extremely high.Report

sydm
sydm
6 years ago

When I was a TA, I once had seven students plagiarize the same online paper. That was easy to catch. I have caught students plagiarizing in other courses, and the tip-off is usually that the plagiarized text is well-written, and the rest of the paper is not. Just googling a suspicious phrase works surprisingly well. I have only caught one of my own students plagiarizing at my current university. I’m a hearing officer on the university’s Student Conduct Board, and most of our plagiarism/cheating cases seem to come out of computer sciences.Report

Daniel Brunson
Daniel Brunson
6 years ago

I use SafeAssign, and in my experience the vast majority of incidences are due to poor research skills rather than intentional plagiarism (note that SafeAssign will tell you that a sentence matches some source, but cannot see that the sentence is followed by a citation). Accordingly, I require the use of SafeAssign as part of the drafting process — with lessons on proper citing, paraphrasing vs. quoting, etc. — instead of as a plagiarism detector. Yes, there are students who are trying to cheat, but mostly it seems that they aren’t familiar with the standards of scholarly research essays. Instead, they seem to have been taught journalistic standards.Report

Avi Z.
Avi Z.
6 years ago

My institution offers SafeAssign, which I do not use. SafeAssign works too poorly to teach students all that counts as plagiarism, so it’s not useful for that. Additionally, the name “SafeAssign” sounds odious as it suggests something akin to being searched by police while being told “this is for your own safety.” It reflects a surveillance/security frame of mind. I would rather carefully explain what counts as plagiarism, trust students, and then investigate, if necessary. I find that using a mix of non-standard but non-idiosyncratic readings (like Shen-yi Liao recommends) helps tremendously. (I am privileged also in having small classes, marking all student work myself, and having the time to discuss papers with students after they submit them.)Report

Mark
Mark
6 years ago

The Turnitin Originality Check software is a tool, and like most tools, it can get better. It does do a fairly good job of picking up passages that have random words changed or inserted.

That said, the real gem of the Turnitin suite is GradeMark (at this point, Originality Check seems an add on feature to me). It is hard to express how much more efficient it made grading for me. Not only that, it allows you to flip back and forth between current and previous assignments submitted by individual students. It’s nice to see whether students have responded to previously left comments in their more recent assignments.Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
6 years ago

Forcing students to submit their written assignments to Turnitin is both morally a pedagogically dubious. It preemptively treats all students as suspects and forces them to make their own writing available to a third party vendor on terms the students have no control over. One of the biggest challenges in introductory philosophy classes is getting students to abandon bad learning habits picked up in high school so that they can take their own thinking seriously enough to engage meaningfully with the course material. Anything that reinforces the teacher’s role as an institutional (as opposed to epistemic) authority figure works against this.

For the students I’ve taught the most effective anti-plagiarism technique has been requiring students to submit a rough draft that is due a week before the final draft. If the class is too large for me to comment on every student’s draft, I have an in-class workshop which requires the students themselves to go through a revision process with their papers. In addition to making plagiarism more difficult, this helps ensure that most students aren’t writing under the kind of time crunch that sometimes creates the temptation for plagiarism.Report

Jonathan Ichikawa
6 years ago

I am confused. I don’t know what it means for Turnitin to catch plagiarism or fail to catch plagiarism. The way that I’ve used Turnitin—maybe there is a different setting I don’t know about?—it doesn’t identify papers as plagiarized or not; it highlights words and phrases that are close matches to other things in its database, and draws my attention to them so that I can decide whether plagiarism has occurred. (When my students quote passages from other sources, even with appropriate citation, that’s among the kind of thing Turnitin flags.) The turnitin process is basically a kind of spotlight I use while reading, pointing out areas that deserve more plagiarism-related scrutiny.Report

Joshua Miller
6 years ago

The comments here are quite insightful. I think this is a case of an over-reported over-hyped study, and I hope you’ll quote some of the better comments here. (For instance: Yan, Daniel Brunson, Jonathan Ichikawa.)Report

Paul
Paul
6 years ago

“Of the 23 sources, used in ways that faculty members would consider inappropriate in an assignment, Turnitin identified only eight, but produced six other matches that found some text, nonoriginal sources or unviewable content. That means the software missed almost two-fifths, or 39.34 percent, of the plagiarized sources.”
I have to say, I find it hard to believe that this would be a surprise to anyone. Turnitin merely identifies phrases in a text that match phrases in other works, so naturally there are types of plagiarism that it won’t pick up, e.g. where the student uses his own words, but represents another author’s analysis as if its his own (i.e. w/o citing).
As Jonathan Ichikawa says, Turnitin is surely not meant to determine whether a student has plagiarised. It’s just a tool that helps examiners do this.Report

Brian Johnson
6 years ago

In my own experience with plagiarism (in 8 years of teaching philosophy), plagiarizers are driven more by desperation than by cynicism. The desperation is either for a passing grade (in cases where the student is at risk for academic probation) or desperation for a shiny A (in cases where the student has family pressure and / or unrealistic expectations). So, I tend to find that the incidences of plagiarism increase as the semester moves forward when students become more desperate and their wished for grade becomes increasingly remote.

With that in mind, I think the advice about how to break down the writing process for students is most on point. By showing students “the ropes” of writing by drafting and review, their desperation will decrease. Having said that, however, I must admit to some frustration at the trend: it seems that my intro philosophy courses are simply becoming writing courses because my students are coming to college with high grade expectations but without the writing skills to realize those expectations.Report

Lynne Tirrell
Lynne Tirrell
6 years ago

My practice is similar to Daniel Brunson’s and Jonathan Ichikawa’s; I use Safe Assign to show students their patterns of quotations. Most of these do have quotation marks around them, and citations following, but sometimes not. Students can correct. I like the percentage note as a way to see how heavily they are relying on quotes– 40% is obviously too much, and they agree but didn’t notice. Highlighting quotations is something you could ask students to do as part of the drafting process, but this is a pretty efficient way to do it.

I’m having second thoughts about using the tool, though, because the papers go into a large online database (yes, you can say ‘don’t’ but I have doubts) and this strikes me as a violation of privacy.Report

Tom
Tom
6 years ago

Dare I be the first apostate?

I suppose I do. Fact: I don’t put much effort into catching plagiarism. If it’s so blatant I can’t avoid it, then sure, I fail the kid on the spot. In general, though, at the wages I earn, I can’t convince myself to care. And I’m also not convinced anyone is seriously harmed by this. A few people get a few grades in a few classes that they don’t deserve. Maybe they end up with a job they don’t deserve. But then they either do the job well and keep it because they’re capable of doing it, or they don’t and get fired. So the worst-case scenario is some business ends up with a bad employee for a few months. I can live with that.

Summary: I’m not worried about plagiarism. Not because I don’t think it’s happening, but because I don’t *care* that it’s happening.Report

Jonathan Westphal
6 years ago

The _OED_ gives ‘The action or practice of taking someone else’s work, idea, etc., and passing it off as one’s own; literary theft’ under “plagiarism”. So the student who bought someone else’s already plagiarized work and passed it off as his own was guilty of plagiarism just the same. He “took” someone else’s work and passed it off as his own.Report

Ram Neta
Ram Neta
6 years ago

What would it mean for an anti-plagiarism tool to “work well”? I assume that it would be a sufficient condition of its working well that the software significantly increases the proportion of plagiarism that is detected, relative to any other option that doesn’t involve use of that tool. But it can work well, in this sense, even if it falls far short of detecting all plagiarism.Report