Response to THE article: Plagiarism software can be beaten by simple tech tricks

THE published an article today about a paper in AEHE:

J. Heather (2010). `Turnitoff: identifying and fixing a hole in current plagiarism detection software’. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 35(6):647-660.

My response posted on THE comments system (with added links):

From a technical stand point these methods are often useless, since the complete absence of a match to any source when scanned by Turnitin is just as much a trigger for staff to examine work as a high score. I have already seen papers that produce irregular looking originality reports in Turnitin, not because the student has deliberated attempted to cheat the system, but through other word processing misuse, so this nothing new. For example, students were asked to ‘double-space’ their work and students have interpreted this as double-spacing of characters (affecting the kerning within each word). This produces a highly unusual pattern of multiple strings of very short matches in the resulting originality report in Turnitin which stands out clearly from other reports. Such work can be downloaded, reformatted and rescanned successfully.
The wider question here is surely one of the arms race we are creating by becoming over reliant on tools for detection of poor academic scholarship. Many students are now using their own plagiarism detection systems, such as scanmyessay.com (which by the way, recently scored the lowest for efficacy of detection in Debora Webb-Wulff’s 2010 software tests and was thought to be a harvesting system for an essay bank). As educators, we should not be focussing on the technical ways that a student can beat the system any more than students should.

Not published on THE: I’m not sure that this paper moves us forward at all. We know that some students will always try to beat a technical system, you only have to look at the flourishing business on eBay for GCSE course work, or the growing essay bank or custom writing businesses  or search on youtube for ‘Turnitin cheats’ to know that some students will put more effort into beating the system than into their coursework. They don’t see he irony that this level of effort focussed in the right way could get them a better mark on their work without cheating.

update: thinking about Turnitin as a pedagogic placebo (posterous)

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