Not long ago, I featured a story on Turnitin for Admissions, a powerful new tool from the same people who brought us the Turnitin service that is the bane of college students' existence. The idea behind both is simple (although the technology is remarkably robust): scour the web as well as every other essay ever screened through Turnitin for patterns of duplication and flag essays with possible plagiarism.
As Turnitin has tested and rolled out their admissions software, striking research from early adopting institutions suggests that plagiarism is rampant among graduate school applicants and new findings released yesterday point to similar trends among applicants to medical residency programs. A single study from Harvard Medical School of almost 5000 applicants to residency programs at the Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston exposed potential plagiarism in 5% of the personal essays.
While there were significant subgroup differences (applicants from outside the United States were more likely to plagiarize, for example, as were students with low MCAT scores, among other factors). While it may help us feel a little better here in the States to say that only 2% of US applicants (versus 14% of non-US citizens) were flagged for plagiarism, one can't help but worry about the integrity of any applicants, regardless of nationality, who might be making it through the application process to our most prestigious physician training programs when Turnitin isn't used to identify potential programs. Would you want your doctor, US citizen or otherwise, operating on your child's heart or performing a Caesarean section to deliver your baby knowing that he or she lacked enough confidence in his or her abilities to even write his own residency application?
As one of the researchers put it,
I think that is the part that bothers me most..You read this heartfelt anecdote about a person's illness or a family member's illness or a particular patient and it turns out not to be their experience at all
The research even led on doctor to suggest that the personal essay was no longer relevant in an age when cutting and pasting and paid essay-writing services and consultants abound. From my perspective, I say keep the essays and use Turnitin for Admissions to quickly weed out those doctors who lack the integrity, confidence or communications skills to bang out their own essays. If applicants are not native English speakers, then they should work with a translator rather than the Internet or an essay writer. After all, we need doctors with diverse cultural experiences and fluency in other languages to address the needs of a diverse population. More than that, though, we need doctors who are highly competent, confident, and, above all, beyond reproach in their integrity.