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On the Effective and Appropriate Uses of Turnitin

As part of our effort to provide faculty and students with tools that teach research skills while also encouraging academic integrity, Lehigh has obtained a campus-wide license of Turnitin.  Turnitin is a web-based software application, fully integrated into Course Site, that allows students and faculty to check for unoriginal material in papers, homework, lab reports, computer code, etc.  All Lehigh instructors have access to Turnitin and are free to use it if they choose to do so.

It is our hope that Turnitin will be used primarily as an instructional, and not merely a policing, tool, and that it will be one part of a thoughtful approach to fostering academic integrity.  Note that Turnitin is a powerful tool, but it alone will not encourage academic integrity, nor will it deter or detect all acts of plagiarism.  Nevertheless, together with well-designed assignments and effective communications between student and instructor, Turnitin can play a valuable role in educating our students and emphasizing the importance of academic integrity.

How does Turnitin work?

The ideal setup is for instructors to set up a ‘Turnitin Assignment’ in Course Site, making choices for how submitted work will be reviewed and whether students will be able to view their results.  Students then submit their work— in either draft or final form—via this Turnitin Assignment area. Turnitin then generates an Similarity Index and an Similarity Report. At a glance, instructors (or students, if permitted by their instructors) can see the Similarity Index of each submitted assignment and, with a click, can view the detailed Similarity Report that highlights material in the students’ work that matches Turnitin’s database of papers, articles, websites, etc.  Instructors must then judge whether or not the paper contains any inappropriately used material.

Some Caveats:

  • The use of Turnitin without a broad strategy for fostering academic integrity may be counterproductive to achieving that end.   In general, instances of academic dishonesty can be reduced when faculty build trust with students, discuss why academic integrity is important, and announce their plans to deter and detect acts of dishonesty (1). Turnitin can help send a strong message that academic integrity matters and that dishonesty will not be ignored.  However, to avoid undermining trust, instructors are encouraged to give students the help they need to avoid plagiarism, to become familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of Turnitin, to know why they are using it in their classes, and to explain all of this to their students (see the tips below for guidance on these topics).

  • If you submit a student's work without his or her knowledge, you may be in violation of FERPA regulations if the work contains the student's name, student id number, or other personally identifiable information. However, if you create a Turnitin assignment in Course Site then you are not violating student privacy because students will have submitted the work voluntarily (3). It is also recommended that you inform students that you are using Turnitin and why.

  • The use of Turnitin alone is not an adequate strategy for deterring plagiarism.  Instructors are encouraged to clarify plagiarism policies frequently, to choose course materials and design assignments that diminish the likelihood of plagiarism, and to build in frequent opportunities to check students’ progress on their assignments.  For detailed advice on each of these topics, see “Designing Research Paper Assignments: Characteristics of Effective Assignments".

  • Turnitin does not teach students how to use source material appropriately, nor will it teach correct citation conventions or standards of evidence.

  • Turnitin identifies text that matches text found in other documents, but it cannot differentiate between a document that uses source material correctly and one that contains plagiarized material.  A Similarity Index will indicate the percentage of matching text, and Similarity Reports highlight matching text even if the matching text is correctly cited and appropriately used in the submitted assignment.  When viewing a report, you can choose to ‘exclude quoted’ material.  Doing so will calculate a new Similarity Score and Report without text that is surrounded by quotation marks; however, this still will not identify whether the citation is correct. Such decisions require interpretation by the instructor (or, in the case of a draft, by the student).

  • Turnitin will not detect all instances of plagiarism.  For example, it cannot match text that is found only in print documents and it cannot detect an original work that was not authored by the student who submits it (e.g., if student X submits an original paper that was written by student Y, Turnitin would report it as original work).  Similarly, the software scans text, not ideas, so a paper that expresses a plagiarized idea using original language will not result in a match.  

  • Turnitin is not the only tool available for detecting plagiarism.  For advice on other strategies, consult with a Lehigh librarian.

  • Experiences at Lehigh and at other universities show that, when used appropriately, students perceive Turnitin as a tool that encourages responsible use of materials, improves fairness, and helps prevent inadvertent acts of plagiarism.   However, when used inappropriately, students perceive it as an expression of distrust and an intrusion of privacy.  Read on for additional help using Turnitin.

How to Use Turnitin Effectively and Appropriately:

First, decide…

…whether or not Turnitin is the correct tool for your class.  Perhaps you want another way to help students become aware of the causes and consequences of plagiarism; perhaps you have seen instances of plagiarism in the past and have reason to think there are other undetected instances; perhaps you simply cannot avoid repeating assignments used in the past.  If so, Turnitin may be the tool for you.

…which of the databases your students’ assignments will be compared against (you may select any or all of the following databases: current and archived internet material; student papers in Turnitin’s database; and an archive of journals, periodicals, and publications).

…whether your students’ work will be added to Turnitin’s database.  Note that if you elect not to submit your students’ work to their database, you will not be able to compare your students’ work against this database.

Second, make a plan for how Turnitin will be used as part of your course

  1. Plan to teach students about proper research practices and the consequences of academic dishonesty. (Use the Academic Integrity Vignettes for conversation starters)

  2. Choose materials and design assignments that encourage original writing and teach the appropriate use of others’ work.  (See "Designing Research Paper Assignments: Characteristics of Effective Assignments" for ideas.)

  3. Allow students to submit a draft and read their Similarity Report before you look at their paper.  Doing so requires that you budget enough time for turnaround, that you teach students how to interpret the Report; and that you inform them what to do if their Report reveals uncited material.

  4. Invite students to approach you if they have any questions concerning their papers or their Reports.

Third, let your students know that you are using Turnitin and why.   Include a statement in your syllabus and/or as part of each assignment. Here is an example of what you may wish to say:

“Academic writers have long faced the challenge of how to build on the work of others without inadvertently plagiarizing.  Given the ready access to vast resources on the internet, you face even greater challenges.  It is not difficult to find material on the web that will be useful to you as you compose your papers.  However, I expect your work to be your own and want to help you make sure any borrowed material is used appropriately and cited correctly.  As we work on papers for this class, I will help you learn how to do these things.  Part of this learning process will include the use of a software program called Turnitin, a web-based resource that allows both of us to check for the presence of unoriginal material in your work and thereby ensure that all material is used appropriately and cited correctly. When you submit your paper, it will be immediately analyzed by Turnitin.com. You will be allowed to view Turnitin's analysis of your paper, which should be available shortly after you submit it. Turnitin detects unoriginal work by checking the content of your paper against internet resources, journal databases, and an archive of student work. Although your work will also be added to Turnitin's archive of student papers, your paper will not be accessible to anyone else besides me and you. ” (2)

Fourth, strive for a tone of respect and fairness in your class. If you play cat and mouse with you students, you will likely create ever more clever mice.  However, if you treat all students equally and fairly, and let them be a part of the process, you will obtain better results and achieve the ends of academic integrity we all want to foster.  For example, it is unfair to expect students to possess writing skills or understand standards that they have never had an opportunity to learn.

Last, if you discover something that looks like plagiarism, be quick to investigate but slow to judge.  You may wish to ask for help from your colleagues, from your college’s librarians, from the Office of Student Conduct, or from the director of CITL in interpreting the results before confronting a student.

Having reviewed this document, if you decide Turnitin is the right tool for you, you can find instructions on the Instructional Technology website.

As we gather experience with the use of this tool at Lehigh, I hope you will ask questions when you have them and share your thoughts with your colleagues about what approaches work best.  Feel free to contact the director of CITL or a member of your college's IT support team, your college's librarian if you have questions or need help.  In this way, we can join our students in cultivating a spirit of academic integrity across our campus.

Greg Reihman
Vice Provost for Library and Technology Services
Director, Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning
Adj. Professor of Philosophy

orig. 11/23/2005 (updated 10/2017)


(1) See Don McCabe and Gary Pavella's "Ten (Updated) Principles of Academic Integrity" online at <http://www.jstor.org/stable/40177967>.

(2) This sample was written by the author; readers should feel free to use it as a model for their own syllabi.   Also helpful is Bill Taylor's "Academic Integrity: A Letter to My Students" online at http://www.oakton.edu/user/4/pboisver/NewFaculty/LetterTaylor.htm

(3) Information presented here is based on the Family Policy Compliance Office (FPCO) letter to St. Thomas Aquinas College (106 LRP 31577, 2006)