Copy right or copy wrong

Sometimes it takes technology to fix a problem that technology has made worse. John Monin of Massey University's management and international business school at Albany, has found his trial of a plagiarism-detection system "excellent" and will be keen to extend the one-year licence his school has taken up.

Sometimes it takes technology to fix a problem that technology has made worse.

John Monin (pictured), associate professor at Massey University’s management and international business school at Albany, has found his six-month trial of the US plagiarism-detection system “excellent” and will be keen to extend the one-year licence his school has taken up.

His wish is likely to be granted.

Massey students handing in assignments on March 31 nationwide will be taking part in a large-scale trial of Turnitin. Across three campuses and five colleges, students submit their essays to a central drop-off point., possibly the largest provider of online plagiarism-detection systems, checks the essays for dubious amounts of copying by comparing it to its massive database of submitted essays and scouring the internet.

Monin, like many other academics and administrators, notes that such systems are as much a tool for deterrence and education as detection and “hard evidence”. Several other New Zealand’s universities are already using or trialling them.

Massey’s students aren’t entirely defenceless lab rats. The university’s management and international business college in Albany, north of Auckland, has been trialling Turnitin for six months. As well, most of the country’s tertiary institutions are testing or implementing such systems, and as many as 10 of Australia’s universities are doing the same. Students have been consulted, they say, and at least one local student association has no problem with anything that catches cheats.

In a world of increasingly heavily guarded “intellectual property”, protecting the expression of original ideas becomes a competitive, and financial, imperative. The internet’s ability to produce instant, near-perfect digital copies of those expressions — software, images, text — makes it a deadly threat to that imperative. On the other hand, technology in general, and the internet in particular, also makes it hugely easier to catch illicit reproduction.

It is particularly that way with plagiarism.

While plagiarism is not a crime, the reproduction of large sections of other people’s work without attribution is frowned upon in polite society, and flagrant abuse might get you kicked out of a university course. If you copy large chunks of software code, such “plagiarism” could even see you face a copyright suit.

IT has long had the ability to pick up excessive copying in software programs, notes Canterbury computer lecturer Tim Bell. Tools like SIM and MOSS pick up similarities at the syntactic level, he says. While developers creating programs using the same tools and languages could be expected to produce perhaps a quarter of similar code, a comparison which found 90% similarity would be highly suspicious. But technology is still dumb; potential breaches of university policies need a human check before any action is taken.

One of the problems with text-based plagiarism-detection systems such as Turnitin is that they don’t usually differentiate between legitimately annotated quotes and those directly lifted from online texts into an essay — reports, too, need an academic eye to ascertain what has been fairly used and what has been either overquoted or blatantly borrowed without attribution.

Monin says Turnitin’s system grades the amount of potential plagiarism. Those with high levels of seemingly unoriginal writing will be checked. Albany has an administrator keenly attuned to the nuances of plagiarism, says Monin, something he thinks is very useful. He cites the case of several students who came up with identical diagrams and citations; but they had studied a problem together and made an honest mistake.

The student union is happy, says Monin, and staff are relieved to have another tool for the task. “I don’t want to be a policeman.”

The national student union hadn’t heard of the issue, and neither had some of the campus unions, but Otago’s representative, Andrew Cushen, had no problem in principle with plagiarism checks as students “are supposed to be there to study”. Cushen wasn’t specifically aware of Turnitin, but knew suspiciously fluid phrases could easily be checked on Google. Such systems, he says, are unfortunate but necessary, given that there is plenty of opportunity to cheat (cheat sites and “paper mills” are not hard to find on the internet).

Wendy Bussen (pictured), AUT’s executive director of IT services, says its student union was part of the decision-making body to purchase the service and encouraged AUT to proceed with it.

Malcolm Rees, Massey’s academic quality manager, suggests that the value of using Turnitin rises if other universities here are also employing it, as it can track collusion between students at different institutions. AUT, Auckland, Victoria, Canterbury and Waikato are among those using or considering it. Canterbury academic administration manager Isobel Phillips says it is looking this month at a report that investigates options.

David Tippin, Auckland’s quality co-ordinator, says there have been informal talks between universities. Turnitin has a facility through which other administrators can be contacted, who may be at another university, he says. Auckland’s individual staff members have had access to Turnitin since 2002 and a wider trial was done last year.

But all is not plain sailing. Students at Montreal’s McGill University last September protested at having to prove their innocence of plagiarism. The students, who had to submit papers to Turnitin, were also concerned at having their papers in an online database. One who refused to submit his paper eventually won the right to have it graded manually. He got Bs and Cs. Other overseas students worried about security and complained that such systems use their copyright material to make money.

Administrators say the systems become part of the guidelines every tertiary institution sets down on acceptable behaviour and their processes of justice. Waikato’s pro vice-chancellor for staff and students, associate professor David Swain, says it comes back to the contractual basis of the relationship and the regulations students sign up to.

Rees says that any issues that arise will be worked through, including the problem of students without computers, but students probably won’t have the option of not submitting essays to Turnitin. As for security, Turnitin offers password protection and an individual environment for each class.

He doesn’t know of research to suggest plagiarism is increasing, though he accepts that some administrators think it is. But he agrees it is now also easier to detect. In fact, no one Computerworld spoke to who administrated such detection systems would declare definitively that, yes, plagiarism was increasing. They spoke about pressure on students to produce, different ethical practices — more reliance on rote learning and exact copying of earlier experts — being acceptable among immigrant or overseas students, and the internet greatly easing copying. Waikato’s Swain, who suggests the number of offenders might be clearer once the university moves to a centralised tracking system, talks of a “hidden problem coming to the surface”.

Other academic sources did suggest that plagiarism is increasing. They also noted there is some tradition overseas of wealthier students getting others to write essays for them.

Bill Williams, public relations officer at the University of Auckland, says in a trial last year 80% of staff who tested Turnitin were satisfied or very satisfied using it for deterring plagiarism from electronic sources. Students generally were also supportive of attempts to ensure a “level playing field” by detecting those in the class who used electronic sources without attribution, he says.

Computerworld was told of homegrown systems, either here or in Australia, but we were unable to confirm any (please contact the writer if you are developing one). Some suggested that regular price hikes by the large providers were pushing universities into considering building their own.

AUT looked at alternatives 12 months ago before buying a licence, so has no plans to change or build its own. AUT’s Bussen says about 10% of AUT staff use Turnitin for selected assignments.

Massey’s Rees says the first results of the trial will be known at the end of the first semester — the beginning of June.

How works

1. A “digital fingerprint” is made of submitted documents using algorithms.

2. The document’s fingerprint is cross-referenced against a database containing hundreds of thousands of papers.

3. Automated web crawlers are released to scour rest of internet for matches.

4. A custom, colour-coded originality report is created, with source links, for each paper.

Source: (run by

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