By: Hillel Golubtchik, Jaden Jubas, Aryeh Katz  | 

YU’s Plagiarism Policy is Too Broad: Lessons Learned From Turnitin

If you are an undergraduate student, chances are you have used Turnitin, an online plagiarism checker, at some point in your life. If you have, did you ever experience a shock upon seeing a high percentage of plagiarism on a paper you originally composed? Turns out, you are not alone. A group of peer tutors at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania investigated the validity of Turnitin’s plagiarism-checking ability and found that there are many problems with the program. The emphasis that many undergraduate professors put on Turnitin, regardless of the program’s problems, is reflective of a deeper issue — the lack of respect and seriousness given to an article written by a student author. This is represented in the cryptic wording of YU’s updated Academic Integrity policy, as we will go on to explain.

In the article “Taking on Turnitin: Tutors Advocating Change,” we learn more about plagiarism, writing centers and the “web-based plagiarism detection service” known as Turnitin. In a nutshell, this article discusses the misconceptions surrounding plagiarism, the ineffectiveness of Turnitin, and issues with the program as a whole, both educationally and ethically. The tutors from the writing center of the Indiana University of Pennsylvania wrote this article in response to the lack of knowledge in their university surrounding Turnitin, particularly from students who were confused as to why their completely original papers were flagged as plagiarized by the system. 

Before going on the attack against Turnitin, the tutors speak about the misconceptions surrounding plagiarism as a whole. Author Rebecca Moore Howard discusses the important distinction between plagiarism and patchwriting. She claims that “even the most professional writers are merely sophisticated patch writers.” Understanding that plagiarism is a broad term, ranging from blatant copying to misunderstood patchwriting, the tutors decided to coin the term “fraudulent plagiarism.” This is when there is true intent from somebody, beyond a doubt, to submit work that is not his/hers. 

Amidst the investigation, the tutors discovered functional, ethical and potential legal issues associated with the use of Turnitin. Firstly, students in many circumstances are required to submit their work to Turnitin, without any explanation as to why. Now, taken at face value, this may not be the worst thing in the world. However, upon further examination, it was found that Turnitin keeps a copy of every paper that was ever submitted to its database; therefore, by submitting a paper to Turnitin, one is essentially granting ownership of the paper to Turnitin. If this wasn’t bad enough, Turnitin uses previous articles they received in their database to check for plagiarism in other papers; that is their main method of plagiarism. If one submits a paper that looks like a previously submitted paper, that is considered plagiarism. However, if one were to completely copy a paper from a friend, though the friend’s paper is not in the Turnitin database, it would not be flagged as plagiarism. It is evident that the methods Turnitin uses to detect plagiarism are flawed and incomplete. 

This article is quite relevant to many parts of the YU academic integrity policy. YU’s policy discusses different forms of plagiarism, including intentional and unintentional plagiarism. For example, the YU policy’s description of “intentional misrepresentation” is synonymous with what our article calls “fraudulent plagiarism.” Our article defines fraudulent plagiarism as “​​instances in which there is, beyond a doubt, true intent by writers to submit work that is not their own.” YU’s definition of intentional misinterpretation differs slightly, explaining that any work submitted without acknowledging the source falls under this category. In addition, YU’s policy seemingly limits a student’s ability and authority to write; including but not limited to patchwriting and paraphrasing, ideas that are often seen as acceptable. This is an expression of YU’s very stringent approach to what’s considered a misappropriation of ideas, sources and language. 

Yeshiva University has recently made changes in its Academic Integrity policy, redefining non-original work in a much more broadened view. In its most recent change, YU has decided to investigate all matters of potential plagiarism, including writing techniques that outside of the scholastic environment would be accepted, if not highly praised. Many believe that this inconsistency/double standard is negatively affecting students and their perceived ability to write at a higher level. This new policy is one step closer to possessing the same issues that the peer tutors at IUP discovered about Turnitin, blurring the line between different types of plagiarism. If every accidental misquote or misphrase is considered an integrity issue, eventually, YU professors will find plagiarism wherever they turn.