Three things Turnitin can tell you about your writing

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originality
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Our students are just submitting a draft of their Extended Essays to the Turnitin database. Turnitin is a writing tool that we’re beginning to use in our secondary school as a way to support student writers. It includes an easy way to have students peer-review each other’s writing, a nice workflow for teachers to provide feedback and mark work against a rubric, and and originality check tool that flags up passages that match writing on the Internet and past papers submitted to the database.

The aim here is not to catch students cheating. Rather, we believe it’s a very useful way for them to see potential errors in their writing so that they can fix them and learn from the process. Here are the top three things we’re learning from the papers submitted so far.

Unless it’s in quotation marks, we assume those are your words.
When you are writing and you use somebody else’s words directly, you need to quote them.

This is what the Turnitin Originality Report shows us:

In this case, you can see clearly that there are entire sentences used from a source that are direct quotes, but are not enclosed in quotation marks. This is directly plagiarising, or stealing, someone else’s work. The school views this as a serious breach of academic honesty and follows through with serious consequences. (Since this paper is a draft, no consequences are necessary in this case)

Don’t go overboard.

These quotations were not flagged on the Originality Report because you can create a setting to exclude quoted material and bibliographic material. However, Turnitin notifies you in the list of submissions of papers that have more than 30% quoted material.


At the same time, we do expect to see some significant synthesis (this means taking in several sources and combining them to make new meaning). In this case, you see the majority of the writing is just quoted material from other sources. This shows that significant research was done, but doesn’t demonstrate that there was any new learning by the student. There’s no added value to the body of work on this subject.

Attempts to paraphrase can be tricky. 
One of the most difficult things we face when writing an article based on research is that we remember the things we’ve read, seen, and heard. Often, unintentionally even, we bring in phrases from other in our speech and writing. The challenge we have it to recognise this and draw a clear line between material we’re borrowing and things that we’ve synthesised into our own words.

When you paraphrase or write a synthesis of research you’ve read, you need to cite the sources. We follow the MLA style guide when referencing sources.

Here, you can see that the student is attempting to paraphrase a resource they’ve read by changing things like “more prevalent” to “higher.” Turnitin originality check points out these paraphrase attempts to the students so that they can fix them with original writing and phrases. 
Sometimes the items flagged up are actually common phrases that lots of writers would use and in those cases, we’d expect the student to recognise that and not really worry about it, but it’s important for them to know the difference.

Wikipedia is not an appropriate source for academic writing
I actually love Wikipedia. I tell our students to start their search there, but not to end up there. It’s a great way to get acquainted with your topic, learn some of the key terms, and even jump off into the sources cited by the Wikipedia authors as a way to start.

In this case, you can clearly see that Wikipedia is being cited (never appropriate), but at the same time, language directly from the article is used and isn’t quoted (see point 1). Wikipedia is a great way for you to learn who the “major players” on your topic are. You have to look at the references.

Wikipedia, scroll down for references


With tools like this available to our students, we’ve got another way for them to improve their writing. We’re hopeful that it will make a difference.

0 Comments Add yours

  1. Ian Tymms says:

    Really like what you have to say about Wikipedia in this post, Jeff. There is a whole interesting conversation we need to have with students about what "reliability" and "authority" is, and the assumption that a print text is reliable and the internet isn't, is far too simplistic. In a world where the complex webs of meaning and authority are increasingly being made evident and available for scrutiny, Wikipedia reminds us that we need always to see knowledge as a conversation and it is important to follow the individual voices and see where they come from. I, too, am a big fan of Wikipedia and what it represents; we all need to be more careful readers – no matter what media we happen to be reading.

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