UCLA's Anderson school has decided to use 'Turnitin' essay-check software to check admission essays of hopeful applicants. So far, UCLA has turned away 52 applicants for plagiarism offences, many of them received from applicants abroad.
Due to increasing competition for prestigious university places, it is believed approximately half of applicants to Harvard, Stanford and Wharton may employ the services of consultants to polish their essay applications -- leading to a rise in plagiarism cases. Due to this, Turnitin anti-plagiarism software is now being implemented in over 100 U.S. schools and universities.
Turnitin, based on the phrase 'turn it in' for school work, has been running since the 1990s. However, two years ago the Oakland-based firm developed a specific service that targeted admission essays, allowing academic institutions to check large numbers of submitted essays via a database system with extensive records of individual papers.
In an attempt to curb the problem, UCLA is now employing Turnitin to scan documents and find any copied passages or extracts from other essays or across the Internet. The software is mainly used for postgraduate applicants, however Stanford University is going to start using it to approve freshman applicants from this year.
Andrew Ainslie, a senior associate dean at UCLA Anderson, said:
"Our initial hypothesis was that the same essays would show up and be recycled by the consultants. What we actually found is just wholesale copying of massive chunks of stuff from websites or .. off articles or Wikipedia. Essentially, they [some applicants] are just plagiarizing."
If an applicant is found to have plagiarized, UCLA plans to simply reject the application rather than enter in to discussion with a prospective student. If more than 10 percent of the work is not a students', then they can expect to be turned down.
This latest attempt does remind us that plagiarism is becoming a serious problem, especially with the wealth of material now available online, consultants offering their services more widely to desperate applicants, and a mounting casual attitude to plagiarising other people's work.
However, relying on automated checking systems may not deal with the root cause of the problem. A study conducted by Dr Robert J. Youmans of California State University compared two groups, one of which was informed that the plagiarism software would be used to check submitted work. He found there was very little difference between the surveyed groups and their attitudes & awareness of plagiarism.
I would also like to know whether the database Turnitin employs would take in to account multiple submissions of the same piece to different schools by the applicant -- or whether this in itself would be considered plagiarism.
It may not be useful as a sole deterrent to hopeful university applicants, but perhaps at the least if students are informed about it, then it may increase awareness of the issue and make students take more notice of how they write.