Opinion Opinion Feature

Substance over scores (or why I dislike using Turnitin)

Turnitin is flawed.

For those that aren’t aware, Turnitin is a company that provides many services designed to assist professors and help students learn and improve. One of its common functions is to act as a plagiarism checker; Turnitin has a program that can scan any document submitted for strings of words and phrases that appear in other published papers, highlighting these phrases and spitting out a Similarity Index that represents the percentage of the paper submitted that is supposedly plagiarised.

This is used in some of my subjects, most notably in my Economics Thesis, where my group is required to run our paper through Turnitin before submission. However, while effective in theory, the program doesn’t seem to be able to differentiate common strings of words from actual plagiarised phrases. A particularly egregious example is how in my friends’ paper, the phrase ‘Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ was highlighted as plagiarised. Every usage of those words increased the paper’s Similarity Index, and there wasn’t anything my friends could do about it.

The problem comes in knowing that the Similarity Index given by Turnitin is required to fall below a certain threshold, no matter the case. After initially submitting a document and getting the score, you’re given the option to resubmit an edited version. I remember how the Similarity Index of one draft my group submitted was rather high, but not due to actual plagiarism—there was simply an abundance of phrases used that happened to appear in other published papers, and were assumed to be plagiarised, despite being rather common strings of words in the subject matter. Examples ranged from the titles of theories and hypotheses, to lists of countries, even to common phrases (an example is ‘the data used in this study’). None of these phrases or ideas were stolen, and yet, each was highlighted by Turnitin and increased our paper’s Similarity Index.

What happened, of course, was a quick edit, rearranging the phrases in strange ways, or using synonyms that didn’t exactly fit the sentence structure, just to beat Turnitin’s algorithm and get a lower percentage score. Of course, this worked, and the edited version, with its mishmash of phrases and words, got a desirable Similarity Index, despite less-than-desirable wording and clarity.

These flaws within Turnitin are a microcosm of a much bigger problem, one that revolves around our academic system. Students seem to care more about getting a higher grade than submitting substantial output or learning new lessons because that is what is actually rewarded. Getting high grades and learning aren’t mutually exclusive, but more often than not, the desire to see a higher score on your MLS page wins out over the actual desire to learn—a culture that professors and subjects unwittingly propagate through systems like these.

Turnitin is one example. While we, as students, should be aiming to submit the best worded, most substantial paper possible, we end up forgoing the clarity and wording of the paper just to work around this algorithm. We do this because we know that a lower percentage is desired, rewarded, even required, and this matters more to us than the structure of the output that we so willingly sacrifice.

Another example is how some students try to cater to what they know their professor wants to see. If they know the professor prefers longer works, they’ll fill their paper with unnecessary information and needlessly long explanations just to reach a certain number of pages that they know will impress. If they know the professor will only ask certain questions, they’ll rely on old tests or the opinions of former students to memorize solutions and answers, as opposed to actually understanding the lesson.

It’s something I’m guilty of just as much as everyone else, and while there’s nothing wrong with trying to get a high grade, or with adapting to a professor’s teaching style, I think it becomes a problem when getting a high grade becomes our only goal and priority; we no longer try to adapt to teaching styles and systems, but instead look for ways to exploit and abuse them.

Let me be clear: I understand the need for a plagiarism checker, and to its credit, Turnitin does its job when it spots large paragraphs or sections almost entirely lifted from other papers. While I see its use, though, I wish both the students and professors weren’t so dependent on just the final Similarity Index given. When all we care about is the final percentage the program spits out, it completely disregards the potential for errors and misunderstandings on the part of both the program and the students. We are, in effect, saying that final answers hold more weight than the reasoning and logic behind them.

This problem is not our professors’ fault, nor is it the students’. I believe it is a flaw inherent in our entire academic system, a system that rewards and places more weight on bottom lines than on the different figures that lead to them. We need a shift then, in mindset, for both mentors and mentees—to take into account final answers and figures, yes, but to place more attention and emphasis on the ideas and reasons that we arrive at these figures in the first place.

There is a difference between getting high scores and understanding a topic, between doing well in a test or paper and effectively learning and mastering a subject matter. If our academic system continues to reward and focus on the former over the latter, then students will continue to care about and treat final grades as more important than the learning process, ultimately sacrificing essence and substance just to see a prettier grade on their MLS page.

Wilhelm Tan

By Wilhelm Tan

One reply on “Substance over scores (or why I dislike using Turnitin)”

While the necessity for technologies like Turnitin is still there, your issue should not be with Turnitin but with lazy professors who just look at the percentage shown by the Similarity Index and who don’t read the Originality Report that shows in detail which items are being flagged as similar to others online. All that Turnitin does is sift and count; the judgment as to how original, substantial, and honest the paper is–after the stock phrases and jargon are disregarded–still depends on the professor.

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