back to article Uni plagiarism site buckles under crush of last-minute essays

Student-sniffing site Turnitin went down in the UK for 24 hours over Monday and yesterday, leaving last-minute essays piled up in the plagiarism spotter's inbox. Turnitin is a software service that checks through student essays for instances of plagiarism based on searches over the net, and some universities now require …

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  1. Nigel 11
    Flame

    Appallingly bad design?

    "The service also stores all student essays submitted – with the result that students are often accused of plagiarising themselves."

    Surely it should also store who submitted the essay, and spot that it's being resubmitted by the same person?

    On the wider issue of citation versus plagiarism, it surely ought to be capable of parsing the common forms of citation, such as text in quotes followed by a citation reference.

    It's wrong that the computer is "scoring" students. Surely it should just return the essay marked up to show the areas of concern, which the student can then revise, and finally hand in the (marked-up) essay with a separate explanation for human consideration of anything where he can't satisfy the big dumb computer!

    1. apr400

      Re: Appallingly bad design?

      >"The service also stores all student essays submitted – with

      >the result that students are often accused of plagiarising themselves."

      >Surely it should also store who submitted the essay, and

      >spot that it's being resubmitted by the same person?

      If you copy your own previous work rather than producing new and original material then that is still a problem.

      >It's wrong that the computer is "scoring" students.

      >Surely it should just return the essay marked up

      >to show the areas of concern, which the student

      >can then revise, and finally hand in the (marked-up)

      >essay with a separate explanation for human

      >consideration of anything where he can't satisfy

      >the big dumb computer!

      That is exactly what does happen (with the potential exception that the work is not necessarily returned to the student after checking). The software doesn't accuse a student of plagiarism - it assigns a score based on the likelihood of cheating, and then provides the marked up essay together with the matching source text for the student's lecturer to consider.

      1. Captain Underpants

        Re: Appallingly bad design?

        @apr400:

        "If you copy your own previous work rather than producing new and original material then that is still a problem."

        Err....no. If you've written Essay A about a given subject, and are set a second Essay B on a related or substantially overlapping subject, and there's a Y% overlap between the two topics such that you have Y% of Essay B already written in Essay A - *what is the advantage of being compelled to re-write it*? No new information is being delivered; it's just re-expressing the same ideas again. Unless you're talking about a creative writing assignment, that's a stupid and inefficient use of their time and abilities.

        1. DayDragon

          Re: Appallingly bad design?

          @ Capt. Underpants

          I've not upvoted or downvoted you but you don't quite seem to get Academia do you.

          What apr400 stated "If you copy your own previous work rather than producing new and original material then that is still a problem." is correct, at least in our University anyway.

          You are not allowed/meant to copy previous work, even if it is by your own hand.

          You can 'cite' you previous work as you can 'cite' bits from other works.

          1. Captain Underpants
            Meh

            Re: Appallingly bad design?

            @DayDragon:

            Convention is that you cite publications, on the basis that this allows the reader to look up the reference for themselves. Outside of a dissertation, most stuff an undergraduate writes is highly unlikely to see publication. Citing it, therefore, is rather problematic. And given that a substantial amount of marking in universities is not done by the individual who sets the work, you also cannot assume that the person marking your essay will have easy access to a complete set of your previous essay submissions.

            Now, I think we'll both agree that someone setting essays or problem sets that can be correctly answered in large part by reusing answers submitted for previous essay questions or problem sets is clearly Doing It Wrong.

            And yes, if you've been told specifically at the start of your course that reuse of material you have written is not allowed, then you have to re-write it. That's not always the case, though.

            Outside of what you might call "training" for The Real World, I don't see the point in enforcing a "cite or rewrite" rule on students who are in practice unable to usefully cite their previous work.

            1. This post has been deleted by its author

            2. DayDragon

              Re: Appallingly bad design?

              @ Capt Underpants

              What you're saying is correct, it is a stupid rule to enforce but we just work for the University and have to follow it's rules/policies/guidelines. I take back my first statement, you do seem to know what you're talking about. :)

              Basically it's something along to lines of what Ian Johnstone states on this thread, about not receiving more credit for a piece of work already credited rather than plagiarism.

              May be cite is the wrong word, i can't think of the correct one, you're allowed to 'refer' to a piece of your own work if it adds to the assignment. Whoever is marking will possibly have access to the work and of course it is cached on TII (i think).

              @Crisp No idea :)

          2. Crisp

            @DayDragon

            What if you're doing a reflective essay on an essay you wrote earlier in the year?

          3. Ian Johnston Silver badge
            Megaphone

            Re: Appallingly bad design?

            It may break institutional rules to submit the same thing twice - there is generally a rule about not using the same work for credit more than once. It is emphatically NOT plagiarism to do so, though.

          4. ratfox
            Facepalm

            Gods...

            In all the articles I have written, I use the same paragraphs to introduce the general topic...

            FLAGGED: You are plagiarizing 1,234,567 articles with the sentence "Machine learning has a multitude of applications". Please reword it.

        2. Figgus

          Re: Appallingly bad design?

          "Unless you're talking about a creative writing assignment, that's a stupid and inefficient use of their time and abilities."

          That last part would cover quite a bit of college coursework, actually, and nearly everything from high schools.

    2. Doctor_Wibble

      Re: Appallingly bad design?

      > students are often accused of plagiarising themselves

      Brings to mind a quote that some may remember:

      "South Sea Bubble was a goldfish..."

  2. tirk

    Essays on their own are the problem?

    There will always be ways of plagiarising if essays alone are used in the internet age, be it wikipedia or essay-writing services. In my day [ ;-)] essays were combinde with tutorials, where you had to demonstrate knowledge of the contents of the essay, and intelligently defend your arguments. But I guess that's too expensive now.

    1. Jeebus

      Re: Essays on their own are the problem?

      Lazy teachers and lecturers too busy protesting their own pensions then justifying their jobs. Self serving at its most damaging extreme.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Essays on their own are the problem?

        YEAH! Bloody teachers & lecturers, demanding that the ancillary benefits which make up for the relatively low income in their chosen field (compared to other fields to which their skills can) are actually provided! I mean it's almost like they don't like being on the receiving end of a bait-n-switch. The fuckers.

        Well-deserved sarcasm aside, I'm confident in saying that, of the university lecturers I work with, very few are offered an opportunity to provide input on the teaching technologies implemented and mandated for use by the departments or faculties for which they work. As such, blaming them for being forced to work within what may well be a silly structure is confusing the symptom for the root cause - ie unlikely to get you particularly far.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Essays on their own are the problem?

        Go and work in education for a few years. Feel free to come back and rejoin the discussion, when you've acquired the slightest clue as to what the fuck you're on about.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Not surprised

    Barely worked 4 years ago when i was tasked with integrating it with moodle (which barely worked as well)...

    yet more shiteware the education sector has bought into, essentially searched wikipedia and top 10 google results for sentences that appeared when the essay title was entered as the search term, despite marketing literature i could never see any evidence it did more than that...

    ho hum

  4. Rich Harding

    "The cause was a database issue that slowed report generation"

    AKA someone ran - or the system was allowed to run - an ill-advised query.

    1. Field Marshal Von Krakenfart
      Devil

      Excellent idea, I must submit a paper about SQL injection attacks, with examples

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    If one of my students can find it

    Then so can I, but if Turnitin can't I've got other search engines and methods available. The kind of students who deserve to pay 3 years course fees and then fail their degree tend to be too slack to do the things which such careful searches won't find anyway.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Do Reg articles get put through Turnitin?

    1. Gordon 10 Silver badge
      Joke

      Lewis Page

      Obviously not Lewis' as they would come marked as published before.

      Nuclear Power - check.

      Silly Carrier decisions - check.

  7. TeeCee Gold badge
    Joke

    Service collapsing under heavy load?

    We see something like that reported around here quite regularly, so it's quite obviously been done by others in the past.

    So blatant plagiarism on the part of turnitin then. How ironic.

  8. I think so I am?
    IT Angle

    I wonder what would happen if you put actual SQL queries into your work?

    1. Toastan Buttar
      Happy

      ...or if you include references to work written by Little Bobby Tables.

  9. Simon Biles
    FAIL

    Plagurism - maybe, maths no ...

    "In 2011 Turnitin had over 99.5 per cent uptime – which equates to less than 11 hours of downtime a year"

    Ok, unless I'm very much mistaken - 0.5% of a year is 43.8 hours ( 365/100 * 0.5 * 24 ). So someone somewhere can't count. ( Or, more to the point hasn't accounted for planned downtime - which would suggest that if 11 hours is 0.5% of all running time that was planned {22 hours = 1%, 99.5% would be 2189 hours which is only about 25% of the hours in a year ... [ The grand total of 24 * 365 = 8760 hours ] } ).

    1. JRS

      Re: Variation

      11 Hours downtime would mean 8749 hours uptime which is about 99.87% of 8760 hours. This is more than the 99.5% quoted. Don't understand why they didn't claim "almost 99.9% uptime" if that's realistic.

      (I work for a small University and whilst we get occasional problems with Turnitin they're few & far between & usually resolved pretty quickly)

    2. Steven Jones

      Re: Plagurism - maybe, maths no ...

      It depends what the rated hours of service are. If it is 24 x 7 x 365, then you are right. However, if it only has service for normal working hours for measurement purposes then they are right.

      Many services are available 24 x 7, but only supported for office hours. Depends on the service level agreement.

  10. Charlie's Butt
    Headmaster

    99.5% Uptime?

    Last time I checked 99.5% uptime was 1.83 days downtime per year.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: 99.5% Uptime?

      It doesn't work on Christmas Day and was late in one morning after a dentist appointment so those hours don't count?

    2. Matthew 25
      Coat

      Uptime?

      Damn! I was having such a nice dream

  11. Grom_uk
    Holmes

    When I was at Uni, it was the printers, photocopiers, binders and laminators that crashed under the heavy load of last min submissions.

    Yes I did a degree before google.

    1. DJV Silver badge

      Yep, me too

      Except that it was printers running out of toner that was a major problem.

      1. Field Marshal Von Krakenfart
        Facepalm

        Re: Yep, me too

        and the prat who decided that it would be an interesting academic exercise to see if could fill up the print queue which was prioritised on document size, so he printed a file consisting of a single form feed.

        Yes the file versioning system under VMS has a lot of advantages and disadvantages, especially when you create over 20,000 1-byte file to be printed.

      2. Field Marshal Von Krakenfart

        Re: Yep, me too

        Toner! You were lucky to have toner! We used an old dot-matrix printer with a worn out ribbon, big ugly thing it was, one of the legs were missing from table holding it up, we were all 'uddled together in one corner for fear of falling on us.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Dot matrix? Well la-di-dah!

          We used to 'ave daisy wheels. Only t' daisy had died so 'arf the time it was a dandelion.

          1. MrZoolook
            IT Angle

            Re: Dot matrix? Well la-di-dah!

            Before daisy-wheel printers even came out, we had something called a PEN... Those were the days...

  12. Crisp

    The problem here is....

    The amount of phase space of originality that's available for students. Essays are normally limited in length. 30 students researching the same subject are likely to use similar if not the same sources.

    It's even possible for two people, working on the same assignment, performing the same work to sometimes have completely identical ideas and write those ideas down in the same way. Matching text in this case does not indicate plagiarism or corroboration, but convergent thinking.

    1. JulianB

      Re: The problem here is....

      It is theoretically possible, yes, but very unlikely, that the same ideas would be expressed in exactly the same words, sometimes including misuse of words or grammatical mistakes. It would then be up to the student(s) to convince their examiners that it was convergence. I know of one recent example where a Nigerian student was unable to account for why his thesis was almost identical to that of a Taiwanese student (even down to apparently having got his data from Taiwanese institutions while resident in Nigeria). He failed to so convince his examiners.

    2. Ken Hagan Gold badge

      Re: The problem here is....

      Ho ho. No, the problem here is that you'll struggle to explain what concepts such as "phase space" and "convergent evolution" /are/ to people in Arts and Humanities, so they'll carry on hoping for a magic computer solution to a problem that any scientist can see is too poorly specified to admit a solution.

      You shouldn't be able to graduate in these subjects without being able to write an essay, but that doesn't mean essays are a good way of measuring your fitness to graduate.

      In maths, sciences and engineering, exercises tend to have only one right answer. This is generally seen as a good thing, but it does mean there really is no way to tell whether the student came up with it themselves or discussed it with friends. As a result, these subjects are invariably assessed by formal examination. Perhaps that's a direction other subjects need to move in. You could "set" the essay and allow arbitrary preparation and collaboration for a week but the essay itself has to be written at the end of the week under exam conditions. It wouldn't be any more onerous than the practical classes that are attended by science students.

      One could, of course, still cheat by memorising all the key facts and most important citations that apply to the topic at hand, just like those scientists and engineers who cheat by learning how to solve all the different problems that are likely to come up.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Not as often as you might think

      As an Academic Conduct Officer for the OU I deal with plagiarism issues on courses with thousands of students. In three years I have encountered precisely one case in which common use of sources gave the appearance of plagiarism.

  13. Steve Evans

    Somethings never change...

    Times change, technology moves on, but students will always leave everything to the last minute.

  14. Charles Calthrop
    Happy

    better in my day

    I just copied wholesale from a book that was not published in the UK.

    1. graeme leggett

      Re: better in my day

      In the words of Tom Lehrer, (The Great Lobachevsky)

      "....plagiarize, let no-one else's work evade your eyes. Plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize... but always remember to call it Research."

      1. Field Marshal Von Krakenfart

        Re: better in my day

        Plagiarism - Copying one person's ideas.

        Research - Copying lots of people’s ideas.

  15. Stevie

    Bah!

    To all those young things who are outraged that their lives can be substantially altered by a computer scoring some facet of their lives, then passing the results to clueless humans for the requisite draconian response:

    You are going to *hate* real life, which in the West is largely predicated on this practice. Want to write novels? Buy a house? Get a credit card? *Cancel* a credit card? Persuade someone that delinquent matters of law-breaking should not be directed your way based on name similarity (and not particularly close similarity at that)? Get a job? Buy insurance (which other people might insist on as a condition of something else on this list)?

    I live in eager anticipation of the EMP of global nuclear war. Maybe then we can lose this idiotic belief that data=information.

    Gotta run. Some lawyer served me with papers accusing me of refusing to answer a summons I never received in a town I've never been in on account of an accident I never had in an ambulance I don't own, and I have to explain to him the importance of checking that more than the surname and country match when compiling his list o' perps.

    1. Heathroi
      Mushroom

      Re: Bah!

      umm perhaps if you are in the range of an EMP, these things you complain of will not be troubling you much longer as the blast will end your meaningless existance.

      1. Captain Underpants
        Thumb Down

        Re: Bah!

        @Heathroi

        Not quite - electromagnetic disturbances due to detonation of nuclear explosives have been recorded several thousand miles away from the detonation location, hence the paranoia amongst certain types in the US military (and government, I should probably add) about the possibility of an Enemy Of The State detonating a relatively low-yield device a couple of miles above ground and causing widespread havoc across the entirety of America (well, they only care about North America but the effects would spread beyond that).

  16. John Latham

    Originality

    There's something slightly depressing in the idea of millions of undergrads desperately attempting to express an original thought on a subject that isn't.

    Ask me an original question and I might give you an original answer.

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Plagiarism detector software.

    When I was at college one lecturer decided that an ideal final year project would have been a plagiarism detector, the idea was that the software would analyse your program and create a set of software complexity metrics, McCabe, number of variables, etc. that could be used to compare student programs and thereby detect any possible plagiarism.

    The student who took the project was caught copying it.

  18. Ian Johnston Silver badge
    Megaphone

    Retaining essays

    Turnitin only adds students' essays to its database if the university asks/allows it to.

    1. JulianB

      Re: Retaining essays

      Isn't it a condition of using Turnitin that you contribute to its database?

      1. Ian Johnston Silver badge

        Re: Retaining essays

        Nope. When you set up an assignment on Turnitin you can choose to have the submissions added to their database or not. Been there, done that.

  19. A J Stiles

    Best response to plagiarism

    One time, four students in my class handed in identical papers.

    The professor noted that the paper was very good; worth 18 / 20, in fact. Which he then split four ways, giving them 4.5 / 20 each.

  20. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    actual library

    Wait ... we have some?

  21. Tom 7 Silver badge

    Adopt TV's approach

    Just say your going to write an essay on 'subject'. Tell us you will tell us about it. Tell us you've told us you'll tell us about it. Then say you will be telling us some more about the subject.

    Repeat ad nauseam.

    Then go on el-reg bemoaning the fact.....

  22. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    On the other side

    My son handed in coursework in school and the teacher said it was so good she thought he'd copied it from somewhere so had run it through this sort of check. In fact he hadn't which the check proved.

    Unfortunately being a teenager his response to this was to lose interest in the class and put in less effort on the basis that if he was going to be accused of cheating for working hard why work hard.

    It's nice to see that at university level the presumption is that all students are trying to cheat, such pro-active teaching methods we have adopted in this modern age. Maybe, just maybe, the people marking the essays should be able to spot blatant plagarism, should be aware of the key sources etc.

    1. MissingSecurity

      Re: On the other side

      You need to take a look at the marketing of college now. At least here in the us, the slogan is "everyone needs to go to college", and that tends to be get out of HS, go to college, than work off your debit.

      Most kids I know have no clue what they want to do, have no drive to learn the topic they are going for in college, and they're there to "get the degree."

      I think its a glaring point about your business model, when instead of getting students who want to do your program, you just fill in the gaps, and come up with another solution for trying rein in kids who don't give a fuck to begin with.

  23. Neil Alexander
    Thumb Up

    "It's broken basically"

    Love it.

  24. heyrick Silver badge

    Just a random thought...

    ...has anybody considered the potential IPR and exploitable ideas that students are now being requested to upload to a server someplace? I understand plagarism is a problem, but is this the best solution?

  25. sisk

    Is it really that big a problem??

    I get that there are dishonest students out there, but is plagarism really widespread enough to warrant forcing every single student to upload every single paper to Turnitin? This reeks strongly of the entertainment industry's disturbing trend towards assuming every customer is a thief. The entertainment industry could possibly make the case that they're justified based on piracy numbers (not saying it'd be a strong case, mind you) but I can't imagine there's many university students who plagarize papers. At least not enough to justify treating the whole student body like cheaters.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Is it really that big a problem??

      Most universities introducing Turnitin report that around 30% of submitted essays contain significant plagiarism. In the Open University (anonymous, cowardly, OU Academic Conduct Officer here again) it's about 0.5%.

  26. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    On my course, we still have to hand everything in in hardcopy. This can prove very interesting, given that the uni has a central print server, connected to every printer on campus.

    In theory, this means that you can print from any computer, and then log in to any printer in person to print it off. In practice, you can still print directly to any printer you want through active directory, and given that everyone uses the same five printers and ignore the rest, you can clog up the system quite easily.

    Not that I would have anything to do with that though... Although, printing a 100mb .psd trollface to every printer on the network simultaneously seems to be the current 'in thing' these days. Think the record is about 3 hours spooling?

  27. gigitrix
    Boffin

    Regarding False Positives

    The whole point of Turnitin is that it's aggressive: at least at my uni we are informed that it flags up stuff for review that is then manually processed. Got a load of red flags and alarm bells? It just means your lecturer is going to go through and ensure it's all quotes and coincidence, then nothing bad will happen.

    I didn't know students used turnitin directly, we all just submit to an internal system online which is then used by the lecturer.

    Personally there's nothing wrong with using technology like this. Your uni makes it clear what's going on and if you get caught after being told there's an automated system that scans EVERYTHING, well you aren't the brightest bulb in the box...

  28. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    64% original

    "...the service can't check for plagiarism performed in an actual library..."

    Personally, I'd be delighted if one of my students showed the initiative and industry required to locate a book, open it, read it, select relevant passages and then copy them out. I'd even be quite impressed if one or two of them blatantly copied and pasted from a website other than Wikipedia.

    Unfortunately I'm sure my college isn't the only one where every time you walk past the library [sorry "Learning Resource Centre"] you see tumbleweed blowing through the empty aisles of books, while each computer is occupied with a student busily ROFLing and LOLing on FacePuke.

    But who cares! —We've successfully turned education into a commercial enterprise in which courses will enrol literally anyone who bothers to turn up for interview, to avoid being shut down, institutions will retain non-attending students, so as not to lose the funding for them and lecturers will pass and award degrees to couldn't-care-less students, whose work would barely have been of O-level standard a couple of decades ago.

    Anyone who thinks that occasional plagiarism is the biggest problem in education at the moment —you don't know the half of it!

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