Turnitin, a writer’s tireless sparring partner

Writing, like all other skills, is learned through practice. Proficient writing skills, implying writing text that flows and in one’s own words, require a great of practice. An additional requirement, particularly in academia, is knowing scientific or academic writing practises, where the author must know how to cite sources adequately when quoting and paraphrasing ideas from elsewhere.

At university, we tend to assume (or hope) that students know how to write. Some do, but a great many struggle to write longer reports, essays and their thesis. Why is this? One prime suspect is lack of practice. Difficulty in writing makes the copy-and-paste approach a tempting writing technique, which, especially when the source isn’t cited, amounts to plagiarism. Software exists that detects such similarities in text and is sold as a tool to detect plagiarism. Turnitin (see also the Aalto University LES Teacher Services Turnitin site), used at Aalto University, is one such software. One big obstacle in proficient writing is expressing ideas from textbooks and other sources in one’s own words. Often, something one writes is something one remembers from somewhere, but it feels like one’s own.

So, is there something can we do to help improve students’ writing and scientific writing skills? Yes. Begin by giving them writing assignments. In addition to giving them writing practice, well-planned essay assignments also help them structure the subject matter they’re learning while writing. We won’t go into that in this blog, since my theme here is finding a way to write good text and adhering to good scientific writing practices. Next, follow this three-point approach  that can address the  issues mentioned above:

    1. Ask your students to submit a draft of their written work in Turnitin not because you want ‘expose’ any misconduct, but because it is a great tool to help them see where they have successfully expressed ideas in their own words and where they haven’t. Tell them they can continue working on the draft after seeing the similarity report. Set up this Turnitin activity for the draft so that submissions aren’t stored in the standard repository. Despite being known as a tool to expose plagiarism—which, strictly speaking, it isn’t—Turnitin primarily exposes text similar to the text in its vast and ever-growing database, called the standard repository, in its Similarity Report. Yes, Turnitin does expose certain types of suspicious ‘conduct’ in the text, but that’s another story. Just replacing words in a sentence or paragraph with their synonyms leaving the sentence structure unchanged is interpreted as similar. If the nature of the assignment requires you, as the teacher, to comment on the draft, do so.
    2. Students can rework the highlighted similar text in their work, rephrasing the sentence(s) or rewriting the paragraph(s) better in their own words. The highlighted similar sentences or paragraphs also serve as reminders about citing borrowed ideas or quoted text—citing is fundamental to good scientific writing practice. They can also react to your feedback if you have given it.
    3. Now the assignment is ready for its final submission, which can also be in a Turnitin activity. This time the submission can (or should) be stored in the standard repository to protect students’ work against plagiarism.

This approach makes writing less intimidating since students can continue working on their work after submitting their draft, polishing any issues flagged by Turnitin. Seeing the Turnitin feedback (the highlighted similar text) and reworking the text helps students develop their writing skills. Also, since Turnitin becomes a familiar tool when used already in coursework and using this approach during the thesis writing process, submitting one’s thesis into Turnitin before the submission deadline, when the time comes, is not a stressful nightmarish experience for the student, wondering what the similarity report will say.