Entirely missing the point

Essay-writing firms claim that they use a service offered by Turnitin, a plagiarism detection tool used by universities, to provide their customers with reassurance that the work they purchase will not be flagged as suspicious.

OK. Tool to detect p[algiarism exists. So, people wanting to avoid plagiarism will use tool to do so.

And, obviously, those selling the essays will use the tool to ensure that the tool used to try to find them doesn’t.

All obvious enough.

When a student or staff member at a subscribing institution runs a Turnitin check using that institution’s subscription, the article that they are assessing is often added to the Turnitin “student database” so that future submissions can be checked for plagiarism against its content. However, when an individual uses the WriteCheck service, essays are not added to the main database.

Access to the WriteCheck service costs $7.95 (£6.40) for one paper, $19.95 for three papers or $29.95 for five papers. HE registered with the service and had one article checked. At no point in the process were we required to verify our identity or say why we were using the service.

The essay mills aren’t paying to have stuff checked individually, don’t be stupid. They’re employing a student with access to an institutional account to do it.

Obviously.

24 comments on “Entirely missing the point

  1. Did this kind of thing go on to quite this extent before the expansion of the universities?

    Perhaps I am wet behind the ears, but I think we used to call this ‘cheating’, and would have been horrified at the shame not only of getting someone else to do one’s work, but of being found out.

  2. Perhaps if grades were awarded only on the basis of exams, it wouldn’t matter.

    What’s the point in grading coursework, when you can’t have any certainty about _who_ did the work?

  3. PiW is dead right. But in my experience there is endless central pressure on uni departments to use more “continuous assessment”.

    My view is that you should use c/a only for the sort of work where there is little choice. Otherwise use examinations, and proper ones. Multiple three hour papers, restricted choice of questions to answer, and no multiple-choice-of-answer tick-box stuff.

    The exam papers should preferably be set and marked by academics who did not teach the course in question, and the scripts should be anonymous, identified by a candidate’s code rather than a name.

  4. “They’re employing a student with access to an institutional account to do it.”

    Surely if they do this, the essay will be registered with the tool, and when the institution does a check after the student hands it in, it will fail.

  5. Could the beaks require all bibliography and citations link to your special student kindle account? That could then confirm that you’ve actually visited the cited page. It could also report how many other pages of that source were read by that user, average reading period, words per minute.

  6. From memory (6 months ago), students can run turnitin checks without it being “added to the database”, which highlights all the phrases which may have been plagiarised. Those parts can then be rewritten. I think you good up to about 20%, at which point it will raise alerts with the markers (tutors).

    The work is added to the database when it’s submitted for marking, not while it’s being drafted and written.

    The whole thing kinda, sorta works but suffers from a lot of false positives.

    Very common phrases often originate with historical writers, eg Dickens, Shakespeare and that flags as copied work.

    References (bibliography) often looks like a rash of copies, especially for things where the work being referenced itself references your other sources.

    If you turn in an assignment during semester 2 and cite parts of it in a later paper, that raises flags.

  7. “Did this kind of thing go on to quite this extent before the expansion of the universities?”

    Interesting question.

    One thought I’ve had: if writing essays for students is the best thing you can get to do with your degree, how valuable is your degree?

    When 10% of people went to university and a degree really did open doors, you didn’t have a lot of people around doing this sort of thing, because they weren’t serving coffee to people. They were in a graduate trainee jobs at Lloyds Bank. Expand the sector, market value falls (or at least, you get a lot more baristas).

    Whole thing is a bubble. One of my kids wants to go, and she wants to do serious, valuable science. The other loves history but thankfully doesn’t want to go to university.

  8. Mr Lud, my experience with such things is that it is generally students whose first language is not English; indeed the first alarm bell is usually that it is too well written.

  9. @ Edward Lud
    Probably not: because it is strongly associated with access to multitudes of papers online instead of access to a few papers in the university library that one’s tutor will have read (if he/she didn’t write them).

  10. TMB,

    “Why “thankfully”?”

    Whole load of reasons. One is that I doubt she’ll get the A levels to get into a good university, and if you’re doing a degree that doesn’t apply to the job, the university matters.

    Secondly, I’m suspect about how good history teaching is in many universities.

    Thirdly, the salaries, even from a good university, aren’t that great with history 5 years later.

    It’s her choice, of course. Her first choice plan is to try and do an apprenticeship after A levels, and I think that would suit her better.

  11. BoM4

    Thanks for the response.

    On Nr 1 and Nr 2, I absolutely agree with you: there’s a risk that an arts degree other than from the top end of the Russell Group will not be perceived as an attractive academic qualification by potential employers. Of course, that’s not the be all and end all and study is worthwhile in its own right, but a school leaver bright enough to benefit from academic study should also be bright enough to get good enough A-levels to qualify.

    As to Nr 3, I’m agnostic. There are employers who are eager to recruit the brightest arts graduates for their potential rather than their practical skills.

    As an arts graduate myself among this STEM favouring community, I take comfort in the certainty that no arts graduate ever designed a submarine that was too heavy to break surface.

  12. Did this kind of thing go on to quite this extent before the expansion of the universities?

    It certainly didn’t go on (at any scale) before the WWW.

  13. Isn’t there some sort of gender split around how well exams vs coursework such that it women overall do better when using coursework.
    I recall History A level where most of the boys did the bare minimum of coursework to stay in the course and had estimated grades that were lower than they achieved in the A level exam, but most of the girls had lower grades in the exam than the estimated grade as they were more diligent and had higher coursework marks (even though it meant nothing at the time).
    I did point out to the teacher that as I couldn’t write a 10 page essay in the time constraints of the exam what was the point of producing one for coursework, needless to say I was not one of his favoured pupils

  14. Isn’t there some sort of gender split around how well exams vs coursework such that it women overall do better when using coursework.
    I recall History A level where most of the boys did the bare minimum of coursework to stay in the course and had estimated grades that were lower than they achieved in the A level exam, but most of the girls had lower grades in the exam than the estimated grade as they were more diligent and had higher coursework marks (even though it meant nothing at the time).
    I did point out to the teacher that as I couldn’t write a 10 page essay in the time constraints of the exam what was the point of producing one for coursework, needless to say I was not one of his favoured pupils

  15. Turnitin is good and a useful tool. It allows plagiarism to be avoided.

    But common phrases are always caught by it, and it claims you may have used a paper even if you have never read the paper.

    Even the most original piece will have a similarity rate of 10-20%, which can be increased by omitting quotation marks by accident.

    Its useful, but you are looking for chunks of text borrowed from someone else, not occasional common phrases. You need a bod to do that and interpret what they see.

  16. @ BniC
    What was found was that Girls did better in coursework – except in Mathematics where coursework was done in class (i.e. where Mum or Dad could help with homework, girls did better, whey could not, girls did worse).
    My boys never wanted help with their homework (my wife did manage to pressure the younger one to accept help from me on Maths once but not a second time although I am quite good at Maths), I find this plausible.
    In exams where coursework does not count, boys still do better.

  17. The Meissen Bison said:
    “I take comfort in the certainty that no arts graduate ever designed a submarine that was too heavy to break surface”

    Jules Verne?

  18. I’d like to know what percentage of plagiarism is carried out by those from the Indian subcontinent, where such practices are culturally acceptable.

    On a related note, my kid sister just graduated from Bristol with a first in history. Turns out 30% of the class got firsts. When I was at university, only a handful did. Apparently the number and level of degree awarded affects the university’s ranking, so they have an incentive to inflate.

  19. Tim Newman,

    “On a related note, my kid sister just graduated from Bristol with a first in history. Turns out 30% of the class got firsts. When I was at university, only a handful did. Apparently the number and level of degree awarded affects the university’s ranking, so they have an incentive to inflate.”

    This is something that’s been highlighted elsewhere as a general problem. But the effect is the same as printing more Zimbabwean currency for most degrees.

  20. “if writing essays for students is the best thing you can get to do with your degree, how valuable is your degree?”

    A lot of it is done by grad students who need money.

    >On a related note, my kid sister just graduated from Bristol with a first in history. Turns out 30% of the class got firsts. When I was at university, only a handful did. Apparently the number and level of degree awarded affects the university’s ranking, so they have an incentive to inflate.

    All true. My campus satire is full of mickey-taking about stuff like this.

    Coursework v exams: having exams only, or in-class essays, would solve all these problems at a stroke. But you won’t believe the pressure there is to have less exams. This was yet another reason I got out. Having an exam instead of coursework made you a leper in the eyes of the noisy students and the higher-ups (the latter caring only what the former think).

  21. Grade inflation has been going on for years but it accelerated after the introduction of league tables. Rates of progression (i.e. non-failure) and number of 2:1s were two of the indicators used and there was great pressure on lecturers to pass students and to award generous marks. If, like me, you stuck to exams and your pass rate was lower than other ‘modules’ you had to justify yourself in an exam board, but if you marked generously you would receive high praise for ‘good teaching’. Most took the easy route. A measure ceases to be so when it becomes a target.

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