CALL-EJ, 14(2), 2-22
Plagiarism: Shall We Turn to Turnitin?
Edwina R. Bensal (email@example.com), Edna S. Miraflores
(firstname.lastname@example.org) and Neslie Carol C. Tan (email@example.com)
De La Salle University, Manila, Philippines
This article explores the use of one of the most popular Plagiarism Detection Software
(PDS), Turnitin, to address the problem of plagiarism in the academe, specifically in the
context of a private university in the Philippines. To investigate the possible benefits and
limitations of the PDS as well as the students’ attitudes towards the software, this paper
used the argumentative essays (checked via Turnitin) of 31 students in two introductory
ESL writing classes along with their responses to two sets of self-reflection surveys. The
results of the study reaffirmed certain laudable benefits claimed by Turnitin, while these
also revealed a few limitations in the software’s promise of detecting plagiarism,
especially in the common instances of misuse of the PDS and blurred lines between the
concepts of originality and plagiarism. The use of Turnitin was found to engender
conflicting attitudes among the students towards avoiding this academic offense. Hence,
this paper strongly recommends the careful guidance of stakeholders (teachers and
students alike) in the proper use of the promising PDS as well as the re-evaluation of the
plagiarism policy or approach of the institution in order to “educate-to-avoid” instead of
promoting “detect-to-punish” measures (Starr & Graham-Matheson, 2011b, p. 5) in
upholding academic integrity.
Keywords: Turnitin, plagiarism, plagiarism detection software, originality, academic
Plagiarism is an act of accidental, reckless or deliberate imitation or use of somebody else's
work for one's benefits without proper acknowledgment of the original author (Kennedy,
2006; Logue, 2003; Moore, 2000). Because copying somebody's work may always be an
easier and a convenient option, plagiarism is becoming more rampant in almost all institutions
especially in the academe. Weber-Wulff (2008, cited in Vergano, 2011) firmly stated in his
study that "plagiarism is a social problem, we need better education on how to properly write
and research” (para. 3).
Having said this, it is true that the detection of plagiarism is one of the challenges teachers
face in a writing class. Prior to the innovations of Plagiarism Detection Software (PDS),
teachers tended to rely more on note cards (submitted or prepared by students), perform
manual cross-checking of students’ works side by side against references, depend on the their
familiarity of the students’ writing styles and/or execute internet search (via Google or other
search engines) to find the sources of suspected plagiarized passages. The process is
subjective, unsystematic, and also quite tedious. This problem is compounded in the context
of English writing course catering to ESL learners. These students’ linguistic competence
may exhibit near native ability. Thus, it makes the detection of plagiarism in their written
outputs more difficult for teachers.
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Fortunately, the advent of technology has led to the development of software systems that
help teachers detect plagiarism (Weber-Wulff, 2010). These PDS are indeed welcome
innovation especially for the ESL writing course teachers who have long struggled with
detecting plagiarism in the students’ output. Smarty (2008) listed the top five online
plagiarism prevention software: Copyscape, Doc Cop, Plagiarism Detect, Reprint Writers’
Tool and Copyright spot. Aside from these software, there are about 49 online services that
are available for teachers to check their students' works (Vergano, 2011). With these
increasing number of PDS, there have been some scholars like Bull, Colins, Coughlin and
Sharp (2000), Carroll and Appleton (2001), and Chester (2001) who have studied the use of
these systems for teachers and students. Martin (2005) stated that these PDS have become
very useful tools in the academe to lessen instances of plagiarism.
What Is It?
Among these PDS, Turnitin claims to be “the leading academic plagiarism detector utilized
by teachers and students to avoid plagiarism and ensure academic integrity” (Turnitin.com,
2011, para.1). To support this claim, Turnitin boasts of having ten thousand institutions in
126 countries and over a million teachers around the world who are actively using its software
(Turnitin.com, 2011). Additionally, it has received much accolades from various studies:
Scaife (2007) presented in his study that Turnitin ranked first out of the eleven PDS that he
evaluated; Starr and Graham-Matheson (2011a, para. 10) claimed that Turnitin “includes an
excellent analysis of survey statistics”; also, Martin (2005) stated that Turnitin “performed
flawlessly and met all expectations” (p. 151). In fact, Turnitin is endorsed as “the global
leader in plagiarism prevention” designed mainly for instructors across all disciplines that
require written work (iParadigms LLC, 2013) as it offers three main tools: OriginalityCheck
which ascertains original work by comparing submitted works against the documents in the
vast repository of the PDS, GradeMark which enhances feedback through online grading with
the use of standard and customized marks, and PeerMark which allows greater student
engagement and collaboration via structured and anonymous peer evaluation process. But for
the purposes of this current study, the focus shall only be on the OriginalityCheck tool.
How Does It Work?
To use the Turnitin software, teachers will have to request for an individual account through
their university’s library or any other office designated to manage the Turnitin subscription.
After logging in to the main website, http://www.turnitin.com/, the teachers are now ready to
create their own individual class accounts in their own instructor homepages. The class
accounts can then be created using the “Add Class” option featured in the instructor
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Figure 1. Instructor homepage
From the class homepage, the teachers can then create assignments using the “Add
Figure 2. Class homepage
In this section, the teachers enter an assignment title, (i.e., “Argumentative Paper”) and
indicate the start and due dates for the assignment. The teacher may also assign a description
for each assignment.
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Figure 3. Update paper assignment page
It is in this section that one may adjust the settings for the Originality Report by clicking first
the Optional settings button. Then the adjustment options will appear that include the
following: excluding bibliographic materials or quoted materials or even small matches from
Similarity Index for all papers; allowing students to see Originality Reports; submitting
papers to varied storage locations (usually the standard paper repository); and choosing search
options (e.g., student paper repository, current and archived internet, and/or periodicals,
journals, & publications).
Figure 4. Assignment optional settings
After the assignment settings are fixed, the teachers can now proceed to the individual
uploading of student papers. This includes a simple 3-step process: first, fill-in the basic
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details of the submission (e.g., submission method, author type, author name, and submission
title) as well as attaching the document.
Figure 5. Submit paper step 1: File upload page
Second, Turnitin will generate a preview of the paper for confirmation, then one may click the
submit button at the bottom part.
Figure 6. Submit paper step 2: Preview paper page
Lastly, the software will display the submitted paper title, author, and ID number, and present
two options: go to inbox or submit another paper.
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Figure 7. Submit paper step 3: Successful submission page
All the successfully submitted papers will be listed in the inbox that features the names, titles,
similarity index, paper ID numbers, and date of submission.
Figure 8. Assignment inbox
The teachers can now review the students’ work individually by clicking on a particular
student’s work. The student’s paper can be viewed on the left side of the screen and the
matched sources are presented on the right side of the screen. Both document and list of
matched sources are color-coded, thus facilitating easy tracing of non-original works that are
similar to the files in the Turnitin database.
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Figure 9. Document viewer with match overview
The Similarity Index rating is indicated in the box displayed at the upper right corner of the
document viewer. This rating is important because it shows how much of the student’s paper
content matches with the documents in the database of Turnitin. The matched items give the
teachers a clue which part of the paper may have been plagiarized. This feature therefore
eliminates the need to execute Internet search (i.e., Google) and manually cross-check
passages against generated references. However, high Similarity Index does not automatically
translate to a plagiarized paper. The exact sources that the document matched with must be
scrutinized for they may include the student’s own draft submitted prior to the final paper.
Additionally, to avoid making a sweeping judgment by outrightly saying the paper is
plagiarized due to its high similarity rating, teachers may use the Filters & Settings option to
screen and/or limit the bibliographic, quoted or small match sizes.
Figure 10. Document viewer with filters & settings options
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Technically, students may create their own Turnitin accounts to upload and check their own
papers. However, due to time constraints the researchers managed the entire process – from
creating the account to sending the generated Originality Report via email. To learn more
about the process, features and exact functions of this software, the readers may visit this
What Do Studies Say?
Even though some studies (e.g., Martin, 2005; Scaife, 2007; Starr & Graham-Matheson,
2011a) describedTurnitin as a “perfect” tool, other research investigations presented a more
realistic assessment of the PDS by acknowledging both its advantages and disadvantages
(Arnott, 2009; Chew & Price, 2010; Davis & Carroll, 2009; Koshy, 2009). They recognized
that saving time, deterring plagiarism, and promoting ethical writing are three of the many
advantages of Turnitin. Badge and Scott (2009), Jocoy and DiBiase (2006) and Williams
(2007) emphasized that by using Turnitin, teachers could save time cross-referencing their
students’ works with the cited and uncited parts of their papers. Students likewise became
more careful in writing citations and were discouraged to just simply copy-and-paste
information knowing that teachers use Turnitin.
However, some drawbacks of the use of Turnitin include the limited sources, distrust issue
and expensive cost. Teachers cannot solely rely on Turnitin because of the limited sources
that it has (Locke, 2002). Some parts of the students’ works may not be highlighted as
plagiarized because their sources may not have been digitalized yet. Noteworthily, Skinner
(2010) pointed out in his paper that tables, figures and images were not recognized by
Turnitin. Another disadvantage is that some students may be given an impression that
teachers do not trust them and that there was already a presumption that they would cheat or
copy some parts without proper citation (York University, 2012). Lastly, unlike other PDS
that are readily available online, Turntitin is quite an expensive software because its license
needs to be renewed annually. Hafner (2001) cited in her article that Turnitin can cost about
$2000 for colleges to avail its services.
Perhaps this may be one of the reasons why in the Philippines, there are only ten high schools
and five universities that have already availed of this PDS (Turnitin.com, 2011). Among these
five universities is De La Salle University (DLSU), Manila. Despite the cost entailed in
subscribing to Turnitin, DLSU has been availing of this PDS since 2010. This subscription is
in line with the university’s thrust to promote academic honesty and integrity by providing
opportunities for teaching and learning proper citation.
In the pursuit to determine if Turnitin can be a useful tool in upholding academic integrity in
the written outputs of college students, this paper addressed the following research questions:
1. How does Turnitin address the persistent problem of plagiarism in an introductory
ESL writing class?
2. What are the possible limitations of Turnitin as a plagiarism detection software?
3. How does Turnitin affect students’ attitudes towards plagiarism and towards the
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The study used both soft and hard copies of the students’ Argumentative Essay drafts. The
Argumentative Essay was chosen in particular since this essay requires gathering of sources
to support claims. The integration of sources usually poses a challenge on the students’
summarizing, paraphrasing, and documenting skills. The softcopy was for checking via
Turnitin software for possible plagiarized content and the hardcopy was for the professor’s
manual checking. Two self-reflection surveys filled out by the students were also used for the
The originality rating generated by the Turnitin software on the students’ draft, the revised
essay as well as responses from the two self-reflection surveys were the bases of the analysis
of the results for this study. The first self-reflection survey was given after the first drafts
were submitted, while the second self-reflection survey was distributed right after the
submission of the final paper.
The participants were 31 students from two English 1 (ENGLCOM – English
Communication) classes in DLSU. This course is a general education course that aims to
develop the academic reading and writing competencies of freshman students in the
university. Each class had an average of 20 students and had a mix of male and female
students from different colleges. However, 9 students were not able to comply with the
requirements (e.g., very late submission, incomplete forms, and other forms of non-
compliance), so their works were not included in this study.
The students were instructed to submit online their Argumentative essay drafts to be checked
via Turnitin software for possible plagiarized content. Simultaneously, they submitted a hard
copy of the same draft to their professor for checking. While waiting for the Originality
Report from Turnitin, the students accomplished the first self-reflection survey on the
difficulties they had encountered and the documentation strategies they had applied in writing
their drafts. The students were informed via email of the originality rating of their drafts as
generated by the Turnitin software. Likewise the professor returned the hardcopy drafts with
general comments, emphasizing the students’ use of quality sources (or lack thereof), and
their proper integration and documentation within the draft. The students then revised their
works and submitted them to their professor. After this, they answered the second self-
reflection by reflecting on their awareness of the plagiarism checker software as well as their
own plagiarism tendencies. They also assessed their revision strategies and evaluated the
general usefulness of the software in alerting them of plagiarism in their writing tasks.
To answer the first question of whether Turnitin addresses the problem of plagiarism in an
introductory ESL writing class, the results from the originality rating generated by the
Turnitin software were compared with and analyzed vis-a-vis the professor’s general
comments on the students’ drafts. The students’ responses in their first self-reflection survey
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(about the difficulties encountered and the documentation strategies used in writing their
drafts) then served as further qualitative reinforcements to the researchers’ analyses.
To answer the second and third questions about the possible limitations of Turnitin as a PDS
and how it affected the students’ attitudes towards plagiarism and the software, respectively,
the results from the Originality Report generated by the Turnitin software were analyzed and
data from the second self-reflection survey were noted. This was done to find out how the
students assessed the usefulness and effectiveness of Turnitin. The second reflection survey
also gave insights on how the students assessed their own writing and revision strategies after
receiving the Originality Report and teacher feedback. It also gave an assessment of the
software’s general usefulness in alerting students of plagiarism in their writing.
RESULTS AND DISCUSSION
Addressing the Persistent Problem of Plagiarism in an Introductory English Writing
Subjecting the students’ argumentative essay draft for checking via Turnitin clearly gave the
students feedback about the content of their essay. The students were alerted on the sections
where they were not mindful about acknowledging the source of their information. This, in
turn, made the students more vigilant about acknowledging sources. These findings were
validated by some students’ comments:
S1: It will give discipline to students to not copy their work which would make
S2: It helps us practice academic honesty
S25: They get to correct their essays before they turn it [sic] in to their professors.
Likewise, this awareness compelled the students to revise their essays more thoroughly and
responsibly in order to reduce or eliminate plagiarism. This has similar feedback with Zeman,
Steen, and Zeman’s (2011) study. Some of the students’ comments that this study received
S7: It helps students improve and see their mistakes. It not only saves time, but it
can point out certain texts wherein there is plagiarism.
S13: It helps the students be more careful in documenting sources.
S22: They will be disciplined enough to do their work properly.
The students’ attempts at eliminating plagiarism were basically focused on the proper citation
of sources and the paraphrasing or summarizing of sources. Apparently, these for them, are
what constitute plagiarism. Thus, the students resorted to ways through which they could
S7: cited sources; paraphrased some texts; used in-text citations and direct quotes
while acknowledging the source
S13: cited as much sources as I could; formulated my own ideas and wordings
before looking for sources
S16: looked for more sources; used in-text citations
S17: outlined based on schema; looked for sources
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S18: reread everything; recheck the source to see if I've forgotten to cite some
S24: teacher consultations; correct mistakes one by one
S29: I made sure I understood the texts; interpret them without using the same
words; cited the source
For the teachers, having the students’ drafts subjected to Turnitin checking facilitated the
detection of possible plagiarized sections in the students’ drafts. Likewise, Turnitin also
validated teacher’s feedback by enabling the students to trace original source documents. This
process helped the students view the teacher’s feedback about their essay as probably more
objective, thus validating the following teacher’s (T) comments:
T to S1: He did not follow APA format in his reference list and in-text citation;
the sources he has in his in-text citation are not in his reference list; he
mentioned facts/ideas/claims without citation.
T to S2: Almost 100% of his work is QUOTED.
T to S4: Spelling of the authors’ names and years do not tally; he mentioned
facts/ideas/claims without citation;
T to S5: He did not provide a reference list; he only cited two sources in his
essay; three paragraphs should be cited or else credibility of the
discussion is questionable.
T to S10: He did not follow APA format in his reference list; the sources he has
in his in-text citation are entirely different from his reference list.
Through the preliminary use of Turnitin in an introductory ESL writing class, the students
became more aware of the value of proper acknowledgment and citation. Additionally,
students could easily identify which parts of the essay should be revised. Meanwhile, the
teacher was made aware of problem areas that need to be addressed in a writing class so that
the students could be helped in their efforts to avoid plagiarism.
Possible Limitations as a PDS
Despite all the commendable efforts of this software in addressing plagiarism in an
introductory ESL writing class, it also poses a number of limitations. The first weakness
noted is the inability of the software to check citation formats (e.g., APA, MLA, IEEE, and
other citation styles). The second weakness is its inability to challenge students to provide
sources for ideas or claims that need proof to be considered credible. Turnitin basically just
finds passages that match the files in their database. When comparing the software feedback
and the teacher’s feedback of the argumentative essay drafts – as in the case of S23 (see
Figures 11 and 12 below) – one may easily identify comments from the teacher that were not
asked or questioned by the software.
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Figure 11. Sample Turnitin feedback Figure 12. Sample teacher feedback
The Turnitin Originality Report on the left side merely highlighted one passage that is similar
to one of the documents in its repository. Meanwhile, the teacher’s comments on the right
side challenged the inaccurate and inconsistent documentation (parenthetical citations) of the
student as well as prompted proper citations for claims that were not merely “stock
knowledge” material. This latter limitation thus reaffirms the idea that the software is just a
tool (Wright, Owens, & Nigel, 2008), but the teacher is still very much at the helm of the
writing class since the former is not programmed to “think” in as sophisticated a manner as a
real writing teacher. Hence, the teacher must still carefully screen and evaluate the drafts
guided by the alerts raised by the software. Even students recognize the need for teachers to
monitor the results generated by Turnitin. One student (S28) remarked: “The teacher should
also read it personally so that it wouldn’t be unfair for the student who worked hard on it.”
This reminder is also emphasized in the James, McInnis, and Devlin (2002) survey on the
effectiveness of the various popular PDS used in various universities.
A third limitation of the software is technically not its own weakness per se, but the lack of
proper training of its users. There have been criticisms on the “flawed” detection of
plagiarism (mostly overdoing it) by Turnitin that were confirmed in the initial phases of this
study. James et al. (2002), in their evaluation of various PDS, warn to users carefully check
the report generated in Turnitin since “the software detects correctly-cited material as well as
plagiarised material” (p. 3). This observation was echoed by a number of students in this
study. One student evaluated the software thus:
S4: It's useful for both students and teachers. But it's not all that effective
sometimes because it flagged my direct quotations as plagiarized material
and sometimes it's better to proofread the work to effectively know if it's
Another study by Koshy (2009) likewise revealed common cases of miscommunication in the
implementation of Turnitin by students of a Western University in the Middle East. A number
of negative comments from students were received claiming that the matched texts reported
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by the software were their own or that the generated websites and other sources were not even
familiar to the students. These are familiar comments that also appeared in the surveys given
to the respondents in this study.
However, it must be realized that these complaints are only some examples of probable
misuse of Turnitin – not necessarily the limitations of the software itself. The misuse of this
software has also plagued the initial phases of this research, whereby the teacher-researchers
overlooked certain options available in the software upon checking the student drafts. A
number of entries resulted in questionably high text matching rates (implying very low level
Conversely, upon proper exploration and application of the Filter & Settings option offered
by the software (filtering out quoted, bibliographic, and small match sizes), the researchers
were able to discover the more accurate ratings: the drafts with 99% or 98% Similarity Index
ratings went down significantly to more realistic and reasonable 5% or even lower similarity
ratings. These filter options could have likewise been explored by previous studies that had
raised these seeming “glitches” in the Turnitin software.
These cases highlight the need for thorough teacher (and even student) orientation and
training to properly maximize the benefits that this software can offer. Otherwise, it may only
cause anxiety and even confusion among the students, as manifested in one strongly-worded
evaluation of the software:
S21: It was not helpful at all. I was dismayed with the result of the software. How
come all of my words was [sic] highlighted. It was impossible. I even add
some of my experiences before and it was still plagiarized.
Also, these cases and complaints may have only arisen because of the students’ confusion
about the concepts of originality and plagiarism – the fourth limitation of Turnitin realized in
this study. In his 2009 study on the miscommunications as obstacles to the effective
implementation of Turnitin in a Western University in the Middle East, Koshy already
exposed the wrong notion of the students: they equated text matching as the same as
plagiarism. With this misconception, students’ efforts turned towards measures of preventing
text matching through tricky and flawed means such as literal paraphrasing and poor
summarizing, instead of concentrating on the real message they are trying to convey while
maintaining true academic honesty and integrity.
This same confusion appeared in the comments of the students included in this study. Upon
receiving a high percentage in the Similarity Index of the Originality Report, one student
(S20) wrote: “I really had no intention of plagiarizing; I got low percentage of plagiarism.” In
this case, it is quite clear that in the student’s mind, Similarity Index or text matching is the
same as plagiarism.
In line with this limitation, Arnott (2009) also had the same misconception as he enumerated
the advantages and disadvantages of Turnitin in his online article. Moreover, some teachers
who already used Turnitin posted on the enotes.com the same sentiment or notion. One of
them wrote that “it red flags anything that’s directly quoted – even those passages that are
corrected [sic] cited” (Mrerick, 2008, Msg 2).
However, it must be realized that in the Training page (both for the students as well as the
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instructors) of Turnitin.com (iParadigms LLC, 2012), it is clearly explained how the
Originality Report and Similarity Index work:
The Originality Report icon shows a percentage and a corresponding color indicating
on an index where this percentage falls in terms of matching content. This percentage
is the Similarity Index. The higher the percentage, the greater the amount of text in
the submission that came up as matching against information in Turnitin’s
repositories. The percentage range runs from 0% to 100%. The percentage is
generated by the amount of similar or matching text compared to the number of
words in the submission in total. (para. 2)
It further cautioned:
These indices in no way reflect Turnitin’s assessment of whether a paper contains
plagiarized material or improperly used material. The Originality Report provides
instructors with a tool to more easily locate matching or similar text within the text of
a submitted work. The determination and adjudication of proper citation and
plagiarism are left solely to the instructor and institution to which the work was
submitted. Any questions regarding the definition of plagiarism used at your
institution should be directed to the instructor of the class or an appropriate
institutional staff member. (para. 3)
This warning specifically delineates the ideas of similarity or originality versus plagiarism.
These are not to be treated interchangeably, and careful scrutiny and guidance from the
instructor are advised.
Unfortunately, armed with the wrong perception of how the Originality Report works, most of
the students in this study, like those in Koshy’s (2009) study, scrambled to avoid producing
texts similar to any text from the database as much as possible. Their revision efforts (and
their reflections about it) born out of this misguided notion of plagiarism were thus the
S2: I no longer saw block quotations in my paper and also only a few words are
only quoted directly.
S3: I don’t know if the summarized version I did still has the same idea as how it
was supposed to be.
S14: I have paraphrased many times; one thing I am worried about is maybe there
are also some others who has [sic] the same thought as I have.
S26: I'm not completely sure if I should still paraphrase the parts that involves [sic]
It may be noticed in the above students’ comments that their efforts were geared towards
avoiding any form of similarity with source texts to the point of doubting whether their
resulting summarized version still presented the idea they were supposed to present.
There was one student who took the initiative to clarify the blurring concepts of plagiarism
and the similarity index presented by the Originality Report:
S21: As I searched in the internet about the similarity index, it doesn't determine
plagiarize and this got me at ease.
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It is fortunate for this lone student that he was enlightened with regard to the distinction of the
said concepts, but generally, this confusion on the concepts of plagiarism and originality
affected students’ attitudes toward plagiarism as well as the software itself.
Affecting Students’ Attitudes towards Plagiarism and the Software
Having the student drafts checked by Turnitin may have engendered conflicting perceptions
and attitudes with regard to plagiarism and the software itself. On the one hand, the majority
of the students have shared their appreciation for the software, positing that it helped promote
discipline and a sense of professionalism. Some of their favorable qualitative assessments of
the software are as follows:
S1: It will give discipline to students to not copy their work which would make
S2: It helps us practice academic honesty.
S3: It helps them know if they have the same idea with another person, so that
he/she can cite that source.
S9: It would act as failsafe software to warn them of accidental plagiarism.
S15: They can avoid unintentional plagiarism or citing errors.
S19: Students will have a better understanding of what plagiarism is.
S27: Students can benefit by checking their papers before submitting it. Not only
will they be confident of their work, [but] they will also learn how to write
Clearly, these statements show confidence in the software as well as honest appreciation for
the benefits it was able to offer them as students and writers.
On the other hand, some students seemed to have grown more confused with regard to the
concept of plagiarism. This confusion is manifested in their lack of confidence in their
revision efforts. Despite their enumerated strategies (e.g. researching for more sources,
paraphrasing and/or summarizing further, and correcting citation formats), quite a number of
students still expressed anxiety over their final output:
S27: I am never confident with my work; there might be paragraphs which [sic] I
think I have properly paraphrased, yet are still considered plagiarized, just
like when I first submitted my draft.
Some students even grew a little skeptical about the usefulness of the software:
S13: I do not find these softwares [sic] 100% reliable. In my case, some of my
wordings were similar to other writers; however, this does not mean I have
copied ideas from other writers.
S23: It depends but maybe not to argumentative essays because there are a lot of
technical terms in such essays because sources come from organizations and
experts. Changing their statement sometimes destroy it even more.
Others also may have grown wary of the software as shown in how a student questioned the
concept of originality:
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S23: To say that my paper exhibits originality sounds kinda [sic] odd to
me because ideas move around and about, nobody knows where it
originally came from.
Herein lies perhaps the most problematic aspect of the Turnitin software – it claims to detect
plagiarism, but it does so by rating the originality of a paper (or the rate by which one’s paper
is similar to another existing work in the vast database of Turnitin). It therefore raised some
confusion among the students if the concepts of originality and plagiarism are the same. This
confusion may have led to misguided revision efforts explained earlier: focusing on the
techniques of rephrasing to evade high percentages of Similarity Index ratings more than
trying to explain the real concepts in their paper guided by a real sense of academic integrity.
Again, the importance of proper execution and thorough explanation of the use and the role of
Turnitin software in the writing process cannot be overemphasized. Otherwise, there is a risk
that teachers may “introduce a culture of conflict and generate complaints” (Frazer, Allan, &
Roberts, 2004, p. 7). Students may develop a sense of fear of and anxiety over plagiarism
without understanding what it really means. Turnitin, instead of becoming part of an effective
“educate-to-avoid” approach to promote academic honesty, may be construed as a fearsome
“detect-and-punish” approach to plagiarism. These two approaches were distinguished by
Starr and Graham-Matheson (2011b, p. 5) in their evaluation of this PDS in Canterbury Christ
Church University. This perceived policing role of Turnitin was made more obvious in the
students’ responses on how they thought the PDS benefited the teachers:
S3: Teachers will know if the student just copy pasted their work.
S11: It helps them catch students blatantly copying others' work.
S25: They get to identify who are the intellectual thieves.
S29: Teacher will instantly find out plagiarized work.
S30: Teachers can easily detect if a student committed plagiarism and it will make
their jobs easier.
Another misconception noted by the researchers was some students’ idea that teachers use the
software to evade work:
S8: It saves the teacher the trouble of checking the papers of the students, so it
also saves the teacher more time for other matters.
S10: To make their work easy and to help them check the paper of his/her students
S19: The teacher no longer need [sic] to give a lot of effort in checking papers.
This misconception creates the illusion of lazy teachers using the software to avoid having to
check papers, whereas the reality is that having the papers coursed through the software is
actually an extra (albeit proactive) work/step in the list of the teacher’s tasks in checking
With all these conflicting student perceptions on the use of Turnitin, a student carefully
concludes the value of the Turnitin software:
S28: It can validate the originality of a student's work, but it is not good to
rely on it completely [emphasis added].
CALL-EJ, 14(2), 2-22
The general attitude towards Turnitin is conflicted: it is a good tool to alert teachers and
students to any form of plagiarism (by investigating the highlighted similarities with other
texts), but it may be deemed to have been a bit overzealous in its “policing” efforts.
Therefore, it has inadvertently promoted a wary attitude towards plagiarism among the
students as manifested in their revision efforts and survey responses.
Overall, using Turnitin was a good strategy since it promoted vigilance among the students
and facilitated the checking/detection process, but at the same time, the confusion it generated
may have been a drawback. Perhaps a clearer explanation is needed to clarify what the
Originality Report ratings meant and implied about their writings, and a coherent synthesis
discussion after the whole writing process could also benefit the students.
CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
As suggested by previous studies (James et al., 2002; Koshy, 2009; McAvinia, 2006),
plagiarism detection software, such as Turnitin, serve to help minimize instances of
plagiarism and inculcate a sense of vigilance among students and teachers alike in upholding
academic integrity. This belief is confirmed in this study whereby benefits like increased
awareness on plagiarism and originality as well as greater care in integrating various
researched material were realized by the students. Further, this software facilitated the
previously tedious process of detecting plagiarism in ESL writing classes. The Originality
Reports also serve to support the cautionary comments of the teachers in student drafts,
thereby strengthening the teacher’s credibility.
Based on the results of this study, however, it cannot claim that plagiarism was totally
eliminated. Understandably, ENGLCOM is an introductory ESL class whereby the students
are just being oriented on the rudiments of academic writing. Although the university
considers plagiarism as a major offense, the teachers of this course exercise maximum
tolerance in dealing with plagiarism. The students are not meted out with an automatic failure
in the course or any disciplinary actions. Instead the students are given ample feedback,
warning, and chances for revision of their problematic output.
Turnitin is obviously not yet perfect software because of the limitations that were mentioned
earlier in this paper. First, it is unable to detect improperly cited text and to countercheck
sources mentioned in the in-text citation with the reference list. Second, it also cannot
highlight pieces of information that need citations. Third, its complex program/system often
lends itself to some forms of misuse from its users. And lastly, its very nature of “detecting
plagiarism” by reporting the level of similarity of a text with its vast database often creates
some form of confusion on concepts of similarity/originality versus plagiarism. This
confusion often leads students to resort to misguided tactics in evading high percentages in
the similarity index, instead of paying greater concern over clarity in writing while
maintaining academic honesty. These limitations should not be neglected because Turnitin
has all the potentials to perfectly aid the teachers to tap the confidence and competence of
every student writer in the ESL writing class.
Therefore, special attention must be paid in monitoring such software. There are a few caveats
that may serve as recommendations for the proper use of Turnitin. First, Turnitin merely
presents the percentage of similarity of a document to other existing works in its repertoire.
Hence, “manual checking and human judgment are still needed” (James et al., 2002, p. 1) and
CALL-EJ, 14(2), 2-22
teachers are “to support writing, and offer formative feedback, rather than focusing purely on
plagiarism detection” (Flynn, 2010, p. 23). This distinction must be clear to users of the PDS.
As Starr and Graham-Matheson’s review (2011b) has recommended and this study now
reaffirms, there must be proper training of teachers and concerned staff in analyzing and
interpreting Turnitin Originality Reports in order to more competently guide students in their
writing process, specifically in terms of avoiding plagiarism. Aside from this formal training,
academics must also take the initiative to carefully read the provisions and guidelines
presented and clearly explained in the Turnitin website to avoid misuse of the software (e.g.
overlooking certain filter options and other settings) (Koshy, 2009). Furthermore, teachers’
computer literacy and “technological competence” should be considered because “good
software is not linear in nature… users need to… explore it in some depth” (Burston, 2003,
p.35). As Ramanair and Sagat (2007) put it, it is important to consider teachers’ positive
attitude and upgraded knowledge in technology to better facilitate innovations.
These measures are important in avoiding “a culture of conflict” as Frazer et al. (2004)
cautioned before. This warning leads now to the second point of consideration: the plagiarism
policy or approach of the institution. As previously raised by Koshy (2009) and Starr and
Graham-Matheson (2011b), this study likewise encourages the review of an institution’s
plagiarism policy in order to correctly situate the use of Turnitin. Ideally, this PDS (and other
PDS for that matter) must be used to educate-to-avoid plagiarism, and not to strive for detect-
and-punish tactic which does not serve to promote a healthy learning environment nor a
positive outlook and attitude towards developing academic honesty and integrity. The policy
of the institution may then inform the proper training of its teachers and other concerned
academic staff. With the collaborative effort of all the stakeholders, Turnitin can be packaged
and marketed as a positive educational tool. As an extension, it also offers teachers a good
opportunity to expose themselves to a computer application software that could compel them
to “improve their personal level of computer literacy and competency and gain online
experience contextually relevant to their teaching situations” (Son, Robb, & Charismiadji,
2011, p. 34).
The third recommendation is closely tied to the first two points presented. This study firmly
agrees with McAvinia’s (2006) proposal to adopt an “inclusive approach” (p. 3) in the use of
Turnitin whereby students are part of the whole process of orientation and application of the
software and they are allowed opportunities to check their works whether or not it is used or
required by their subject professors. This recommendation may be a good measure in
addressing student misconception and anxiety over the use of PDS such as Turnitin as it
democratizes the use of the software and opens it for student exploration and learning process.
In this manner, it may likewise complement the educate-to-avoid policy on plagiarism,
especially in introductory ESL writing classes where students are just in the initial stages of
learning the conventions of academic research writing as well as just developing a true sense
of academic integrity. By adopting this inclusive approach, students may perceive Turnitin
less of a threat to their writing process and more of a useful research writing aide.
The fourth recommendation is concerned with the research methodology. This study did not
perform a quantitative comparative analysis of draft versus final essays. Rather this study
conducted a descriptive analysis on how the software addressed the problem of plagiarism in
the writing process, its limitations, and the students’ attitudes towards plagiarism. Future
studies may perform a quantitative analysis comparing draft against final outputs for more
concrete measures of plagiarism.
CALL-EJ, 14(2), 2-22
As can be noted in the list of recommendations, this study recognizes the merits and the limits
of Turnitin. If all stakeholders are properly trained, the works are correctly assessed and the
whole process is appropriately implemented, this PDS could be a potent part of the cyber
educational change (Johnson, 1999). It allows everyone (teachers, academic staff, and even
students) a deeper understanding of the nature of an online learning environment in relation to
responsible writing practices. Ultimately, Turnitin can and should be used to promote real
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