Sunday, 12 February 2012

Case study - Electronic plagiarism detection in the Law School

Part of my role within the School of Law is to deal with all aspects of plagiarism.  I put electronic copies of all assignments on the VLE and a Turnitin link for the students to submit their work to. All of our students are asked to submit their assignments via Turnitin otherwise they don't get back a copy of their assignments with feedback. We do this because we can't penalise them under the current practice for not using Turnitin and we don't wish to go down that route (at least, not yet). We try to explain to all the students why we are using Turnitin and we try not to scare them. We don't systematically go through each Turnitin instance looking for plagiarism; if we happen to see an assignment with a high percentage of copied material or if an academic asks me to look at a particular assignment further we will then investigate.


We really wanted to use Turnitin to provide the academics with a bit more support with regards to plagiarism. We also wanted to be more proactive with regards to eliminating plagiarism. There have been cases where Turnitin has pointed out to the academic that an assignment has been plagiarised. Academics can't be expected to know the content of every website on their topic. Using Turnitin we can also guard against students submitting assignments that were written by someone else during a previous year or prepared collaboratively. This year we've also tried to keep a closer eye on the first year assignments where Turnitin can highlight incorrect referencing as opposed to deliberate attempts to cheat. Previously, students had been asked to submit an electronic copy of their assignment as well as the paper copy and my understanding was that we were running out of storage space for all the CDs and floppy disks; so Turnitin has helped with that too.


I actually just started in the summer after the School handbooks had been produced and the procedures had been decided; but as this is the first year we have had to be flexible. The School did use Turnitin last year for Masters modules and the students had to go to the Turnitin website to submit their work. Setting up Turnitin was a lot more time consuming using the Turnitin website. Students need to be registered and the class size limit meant things could become confusing. Using Turnitin via the VLE has simplified the process and we've implemented Turnitin across all modules. We did get people from the VLE team and the Library to come and demonstrate Turnitin to the staff and have needed the support of the VLE team on a couple of occasions. It's nothing we haven't been able to sort out. As we don't hand back assignments with the feedback support staff have to check that the students have submitted their assignment, which is extra work for them. Students have emailed me with problems e.g., submitting the wrong assignment, or confusion over the preview box now showing footnotes and the word count Turnitin produces. It's not been a massive problem and this is something new for all undergraduates so next year things will be better as it's only new to the first years.


It's definitely been a valuable tool to use. Next year I want to do some student workshops on plagiarism where I'll show the students a Turnitin report. Showing them how it looks and what we do with it. We may also do an optional test submission for first years where students will be able to see the report for the assignment they submit. This will have to be looked at closely so that students don't use something they're going to submit in the future. I would certainly look at online marking (Grademark) and some of my colleagues are very keen on the idea.

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