Student, Heal Thyself with Turnitin

Traditionally, tools like Turnitin have been used to sniff out plagiarism and provide faculty and administrators with evidence for disciplinary action against students. However, Turnitin can also be used in a more benign fashion as a writing guide for students to self-evaluate their work. Columbia's Turnitin subscription, managed by CUIT, is used primarily by students to check and repair their own work prior to handing it in to the instructor. The idea is that if students are able to check their work before submitting it, they can avoid unpleasant confrontations regarding plagiarism while improve their original writing.

For example, Columbia's School of Social Work has set up ten "assignments spaces" for each student within the system. A student may use these spaces as a petri dish in which to experiment on a paper. After the student logs in and submits a paper, the student can select processing options (e.g. ignore phrases that are in quotation marks or that are followed by footnote references). Seconds later, Turnitin returns an "originality report", which details what percentage of the document comes unattributed from other sources. Additionally, the report provides a list of all the identified sources and a color-coded key of the phrases from each. Armed with this information, students can edit and resubmit their papers to Turnitin for an updated report.

Some SSW faculty ask students to staple a copy of the originality report to their papers. This provides proof that the student has analyzed her own work (and repaired any glaring errors) and it gives the faculty member a numerical rating of the degree of "originality" in the paper. Paradoxically, the number indicated at the top of the report actually indicates the amount of "unoriginality"--a low score like 10% means that most of the content is original, whereas a high score like 90% indicates that most of the content has been lifted directly from other sources.

To get started with Turnitin, instructors make a request to CUIT via the email address turnitin-admin@columbia.edu. CUIT will work with the department to set up accounts and provide training, after which faculty can add courses, create assignments, and notify students with login information.