The Effectiveness of Plagiarism Detection Software
As you’d expect, it’s not very good:
But this measure [Turnitin] captures only the most flagrant form of plagiarism, where passages are copied from one document and pasted unchanged into another. Just as shoplifters slip the goods they steal under coats or into pocketbooks, most plagiarists tinker with the passages they copy before claiming them as their own. In other words, they cloak their thefts by scrambling the passages and right-clicking on words to find synonyms. This isn’t writing; it is copying, cloaking and pasting; and it’s plagiarism.
Kerry Segrave is a right-clicker, changing “cellar of store” to “basement of shop.” Similarly, he changes goods to items, articles to goods, accomplice to confederate, neighborhood to area, and women to females. He is also a scrambler, changing “accidentally fallen” to “fallen accidentally;” “only with” to “with only;” and, “Leon and Klein,” to “Klein and Leon.” And, he scrambles phrases within sentences; in other words, the phases of his sentences are sometimes scrambled.
Turnitin offers another product called WriteCheck that allows students to “check [their] work against the same database as Turnitin.” I signed up and submitted the early pages of Shoplifting. WriteCheck matched many of Shoplifting’s phrases to those of the i>New York Times articles in its library of student papers. Remember, I submitted them as a student paper to help Turnitin find them; now WriteCheck has them too! WriteCheck warned me that “a significant amount of this paper is unoriginal” and advised me to revise it. After a few hours of right-clicking and scrambling, I resubmitted it and WriteCheck said it was okay, being cleansed of easily recognizable plagiarism.
Turnitin is playing both sides of the fence, helping instructors identify plagiarists while helping plagiarists avoid detection. It is akin to selling security systems to stores while allowing shoplifters to test whether putting tagged goods into bags lined with aluminum thwart the detectors.