At the 2nd meeting on Institutional Policies and Procedures for Dealing with Plagiarism at Oxford Brookes University last week, I listened with interest to Dr. Niall Hayes of Lancaster University. Niall is involved in a Student Diversity and Academic Writing project, funded through HEFCE. He challenged the notion that using a Plagiarism Detection Service (PDS), such as Turnitin, in a pro-active screening approach, is fair to all students.
His argument is that students patch write (i.e. pick and copy from different sources) when they are trying to come to terms with a new language, when they are new to a discipline, when they may be inexperienced in new forms of assessment or are uncertain about expectations. Reusing sample language structures and common phrases is natural to international students and, where feedback is constructive, supports their learning of the appropriate academic practices. But these are exactly the practices highlighted by a PDS and labelled as plagiarism.
Here at NUI Galway, we have been piloting Turnitin for almost 2 years and are starting to develop good practice guides for its use. Following Niall's presentation, challenging the neutrality assumption, I'm starting to think about a more formative use, where the Turnitin "originality" reports could be used to guide the students, rather than make plagiarists out of them.