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Does Turnitin detect plagiarism?

Part 1: The "Similarity or Plagiarism?" debate series

Patti West-Smith
Patti West-Smith
20-year education veteran; Senior Director of Customer Engagement






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Similarity does not equal plagiarism. The two concepts are not the same.

There, I said it. This might ruffle some feathers and challenge some notions, but we need to clear the air. I’ll say it again - SIMILARITY does not equal PLAGIARISM.

Now that we have that out of the way, let’s dig into that statement a little more, and see if we can bring some clarity to the situation. As far back as 2013, Turnitin has been writing blog posts, speaking out, and generally finding any opportunity to clear up the question of whether our products detect plagiarism. No matter how many times we address the subject, we still encounter people around the world looking for the answer. On our Turnitin Educator Network, where Turnitin users around the world come together to ask questions and share ideas, the topic resurfaces year after year, and in my direct contact with educators and students around the world, it also comes up regularly. Our Customer Onboarding and Education teams report that the topic frequently surfaces in trainings as well. So, we KNOW that there is a great deal of uncertainty. The answer, however, is simple: Turnitin does not detect plagiarism. In an effort to clear up any remaining doubt, let’s go through some of the most frequent questions we hear one-by-one and try to answer each one as simply, directly, and clearly as possible.

In this first post of our series, we will focus on general questions; in Part 2, we will dive into questions specific to the educational aspect of the "Similarity or Plagiarism?" debate and exactly how it impacts classroom practice.

Here are five essential questions for clarification:
  • How often does Turnitin detect plagiarism?
    Never - that’s not what we do. We never seek to replace the judgment of an expert practitioner working with students directly. We provide information to help the educator draw conclusions and arrive at a judgment. Our job is to support your work and, if we can, make it easier.

  • If the report doesn’t detect plagiarism, what does it detect?
    Similarity - that’s why we call it the Similarity Report. You’ll notice we don’t call it the Plagiarism Report or - even worse - the cheating report. We don’t detect those things, and we’re not in the business of making those determinations. Instead, we want to provide educators with all the information they need to make the right judgment calls, including when and how to create a “teachable moment” and deliver critical instruction that addresses potential skill deficits. Some of those deficits might be in foundational literacy skills like paraphrasing or in specific skills related to citation; they might even be at the executive-functioning level with a critical skill such as time management.

    Because we know that these skill deficiencies can be the root causes in incidents of plagiarism - intentional or otherwise - we’ ve created resources specifically designed to provide instruction, feedback, and support in each of these areas, including our exciting formative product, Draft Coach, which allows students to practice drafting with feedback on their grammar/language usage, as well as their citations and similarity.

  • What is the difference between similarity and plagiarism?
    Turnitin’s software takes what a student submits and we compare it to a massive database of content, including internet, academic, and student paper content, and we look for similarities. We report those similarities with a percentage, the percentage of the work submitted by the student that is similar to the content in our databases. In the report, a student or educator can dig into the details to see what, exactly, is matching, and how much.

    Merriam-Webster defines plagiarism, on the other hand, as “the act of presenting as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source.” In other words, intentionally representing someone else’s work as one’s own. That is a very different thing than similarity. Is there a place at which similarity might also be plagiarism? Yes, of course, but it is worth repeating: we leave THAT judgment up to the expert educators working closely with students, who have a full range of context that they can apply to understanding the situation. Our software is never going to have access to all of those complexities.

  • How much plagiarism is acceptable?
    None - plagiarism is a violation of academic integrity, and it is never “acceptable.” However, I return to my earlier statement; Turnitin does not detect plagiarism.

    If we shift the question and instead ask, “How much similarity is acceptable?” it becomes a very different discussion, which we will explore in a great deal more detail in our next post in this series. As a teaser, it’s worth noting that similarity is not only not always a bad thing; it can actually be a wonderful indicator of learning. One longtime Turnitin advocate in the UK suggested, “Similarity is okay in many cases and can show wide reading and research, acknowledging the views of other authorities and sources - a vital step on the road to forming one’s own views and arguments.”

  • What is unintentional plagiarism?
    Unintentional or accidental plagiarism usually results from a skill deficit, when a student has a weakness that leads them to - without intention - represent someone else’s ideas as their own. Perhaps the student struggles with paraphrasing or isn’t skilled in citation. Perhaps a language fluency challenge led them to copy ideas from another. Regardless of the specific reasons, the intention to plagiarize was not present. On the other hand, there are situations where intention is clear or situations where educators need more information to be sure of intent. Check out this blog for a full rundown on those scenarios and the tools that Turnitin offers to help identify intentional acts.

To sum that all up - plagiarism is never acceptable, but similarity and plagiarism are not synonymous. More bluntly: Turnitin does not detect plagiarism. At Turnitin, we take our value of customer-centricity very seriously, and our customers are educators and researchers around the world, which brings a tremendous amount of respect for the expertise and professional judgment of those who choose the profession. Because of that, we seek to support those professionals, providing them tools and insights that can aid their judgments and decisions, not replace them.

Interested in learning more? Keep reading with part two in this series: Similarity in the Classroom. We address how the distinction between plagiarism and similarity impacts classroom practice - what works, what doesn’t, and how to best utilize our tools to support instructional goals.