One of our work-study students wanted her own account on TurnItIn, even though her professor was not in the habit of using that database. I couldn't figure out why, so I asked.
"It's so that I can test my papers for plagairism before I hand them to the professor."
That confused me. So I asked why.
"Well, better safe than sorry. I just want to make sure, that's all."
TurnItIn is a massively useful database, and since its recent announcement that it would be joining ProQuest, has become even more useful. The press release described the venture thus:
Turnitin, the global leader in originality checking and plagiarism prevention, today announced a partnership with ProQuest, an information company serving the global research community, to include more than 300,000 dissertations and theses from 2008 to the present in the Turnitin comparison database. The agreement enhances Turnitin's repository of scholarly content while extending its massive plagiarism-checking database, which now tops 20 billion current and archived web pages, 200 million student papers and more than 110 million articles from scholarly journals.
There is no way that being able to scour a couple of hundred million documents in the search for plagiarised content can be a bad thing per se. However, it was making this student a little tense.
So, I told her, here's the thing. It's admirable that you care about this enough to be proactive in dealing with it. But let's talk for a minute about what plagiarism actually is. Okay?
"Okay," she said.
You see, I said, plagiarism is not when I study a set of papers and describe their contents in my work. That's more like paraphrasing. A literature review, which your paper will almost certainly need, is going to need that. It has to, to show the professor that you know what's going on in the subject you've chosen to write about. And I attribute the articles I found, to their authors then list them in my references, and it's all good. If two people write on the same subject, even assuming that they are writing the same paper, the chances of one person's paper matching the other's exactly is just about zero. It's possible, but highly unlikely.
Plagiarism is different. That's when I take the contents of your paper, and paste it into my own with the intention of passing it off as my own work. No attribution, no references, no nothing. The wording of multiple paragraphs as well as the order in which those paragraphs appear will be identical. That is what TurnItIn looks for.
"I see," she said.
And if it really is that important for you to use TurnItIn, I said, then I can create a a join password for you. But I think it makes more sense for you to just work on that paper until it's the best one you can possibly write. Also, make sure that your professor know who you are and what you're up to. If you have an idea for a paper, or a strategy for writing you're not sure of, ask her for advice.
"Well, that's part of it," she said. "Mostly, I find that my writing style changes depending on whether I really care about the subject or not."
That can be a drag, I agreed. The trick, if there is a trick, is to try and write about what you care about. If you absolutely have no choice, that's one thing, but if you can choose your subject matter, so much the better. Make that paper the best you can.
That's the trick our students need to learn. Make that paper the best you can.