Use of Turnitin Plagiarism Detection Software

The University’s approach to Academic Integrity takes plagiarism very seriously and makes use of the Turnitin plagiarism detection software, accessed via the virtual learning environment.

Upon enrolment students must agree to the following statement: ‘‘I acknowledge that any work submitted electronically during the period of my enrolment at Swansea University may also be submitted via electronic plagiarism detection software.” It is acknowledged that Turnitin may not be suitable for some types of assignment, but wherever possible most assessments should be submitted online.

Use of Turnitin as a Learning Tool on Avoiding Plagiarism
Turnitin may be used as a learning tool for formative assessments only. Normally, this should be restricted to students who have recently commenced their programme of study at Swansea. Where it is used as a learning tool guidance should be offered to students about the interpretation of originality reports, with particular reference to any errors that the student may have made. Where the student is clearly struggling with the principles and practice of appropriate attribution of sources, it is recommended that they are referred to their subject librarian for specific guidance. Academics should also consider referring students to the Centre for Academic Success for more targeted support.

Academics should also be aware of the limitations of the Turnitin software – most importantly that the Turnitin database which acts as a cross-reference is not fully comprehensive and that subject staff may well need to use other means of providing evidence in cases of alleged plagiarism. Also that the use of compulsory inclusions (such as declarations), the inclusion or exclusion of references, the inclusion of assignment titles etcetera may affect the overall Similarity Index, (the percentage that matches to published sources). Thus, each script will require knowledge of the assessment, and may require an individualised interpretation of the similarity index.

Marking Assignments and When to Look at the Turnitin Originality Reports

All assignments should be marked anonymously before any reference is made to the  percentage match within the Similarity Index. If marking is being undertaken through Grademark, this information is made available to the marker at the time of marking, who may refer to and scrutinise the percentage match once marking is complete.

There is an optional facility which allows the user identification to be anonymous in Turnitin until after a set “post date” (generally the post date should be the date on which first marking is completed). If anonymity is used then it is not possible to match a plagiarism report to a paper until after the set post date. Exceptionally, an instructor or administrator can reveal a report’s identity but will be required to give their identity, and reason for doing so, to provide an audit trail should it be needed later.

Once the assignment is marked, the marker (if using Grademark) or module convenor (for other modes of submission to Turnitin) should then check the percentage indicated within the Similarity Index. As stated previously, a level of interpretation is required – it is not sufficient to only look at the identified percentage match. For example a match of 3% in a dissertation of 20,000 words equates to 600 words, which may be unacceptable.

Interpretation of the Originality Reports

The originality reports are not straightforward to interpret. A particular phrase may be highlighted as plagiarised, but on inspection by subject staff, it is clear that there are very limited ways in which one could describe a particular piece of equipment/research finding for example. False positives also include repeat wording of assignments, quoted material, references to URLs. The matched sources may also change according to the reports chosen. It may not always be possible to discard 1% matches as these could also be found in other sources.

Above all, it must be academic subject staff who do the interpretation and not administrative staff. Subject staff are best placed to determine if the work in question is indeed plagiarised, poorly referenced or poorly paraphrased. Subject staff can also detect whether a piece of work has been plagiarised, in part or whole, based on their own experience, even if the Turnitin report indicates otherwise. (This is because of the limited data source of the software). Above all, it must be emphasised that the academic judgment of staff with the relevant subject expertise must be paramount in cases of alleged unfair practice.

Examples of interpretation and further guidance can be found on the Turnitin User Group area of the BlackBoard platform.

Further guidance is available to staff on the interpretation of Originality Reports resulting from the use of Turnitin software. In the first instance, please contact your College/School Academic Misconduct representative.

Determining an Acceptable Level of Originality

It is extremely difficult to determine an acceptable level of originality. Turnitin uses a traffic light system with 0-24% as green, indicating limited amounts of matched text detected. It is suggested that  as a guideline Colleges/Schools should examine work above this threshold, as well as a random sample below the threshold. Some Colleges/Schools may wish to apply lower thresholds and the exact percentage used as a threshold for further investigation should be at the discretion of the Board of Studies, e.g. taking into account issues such as the level of study, the type of question set etc. Review of originality report results should only be done after marking of the assignments.

As noted above, the Turnitin database is not infallible. It will only cross-reference submitted work against work already in its database, or work which it can access through collaborative agreements. An originality report may therefore be misleading and those with low percentage levels may still contain elements that are indeed plagiarised from other sources. It is therefore crucial that subject staff mark assignments anonymously first and only then cross-reference to the Originality Report. Staff may also want to discuss their suspicions with colleagues or examine other sources if they suspect plagiarism, e.g. simple ‘Google’ searches may reveal relevant work.

Administrative Issues arising from using Turnitin

Turnitin provides administrative help in that receipts for submission of work are issued and that staff know exactly when work is submitted and can therefore apply penalties for late submission (extenuating circumstances of course being taken into consideration according to College/School procedures). In some Colleges/Schools, hard-copy versions of assignments are mandatory, yet no receipt is issued for hard copy since the electronic receipt upon submission of the assignment via Turnitin is deemed acceptable evidence. Caution should be taken to ensure that students are fully aware of the procedures for electronic submission, since there have been cases where errors have occurred and that while the student received a ‘receipt’ it was simply to acknowledge the ‘storage’ of their assignment and not its actual ‘submission’.

Where marking is done using hard copy paper submissions random checks should be made to ensure that the paper a student has submitted to Turnitin is the same as the marked paper copy.

Where Turnitin is being used as the main means of submission then Colleges/Schools must download the assignment documents by the end of each academic year. Tools are provided by Turnitin to download all the papers in a single zip file). These electronic documents must be securely stored in the same way and for the same length of time as paper copies would have been.

It is also worth noting that as most HEIs in the UK subscribe to the JISC Plagiarism Advisory Service, then those HEIs will also be using Turnitin, as this is the platform provided through the Service. This enables the academic to request information from other HEIs should matches exist to work submitted by students in other HEIs.

As with other cases of student misconduct, it is important that Swansea University has consistently applied penalties for plagiarism across all Colleges/Schools. Reference should be made to the Academic Integrity and Academic Misconduct regulations and any advice should be sought from the Student Services team in Academic Services.

Guides on Avoiding Plagiarism

The Student Handbook provides guidance to students on academic integrity, avoiding plagiarism and proper referencing. This ideally, should be supplemented by inclusion in study skills modules and in student induction. Extra advice and support for students is provided through the subject librarians, or from the Centre for Academic Success.


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