Hi-tech plagiarism-detection services awaken b-schools to admission-essay cheating

If there is one word that gets most communities the world over all stirred up, it is ‘plagiarism’. Be it artistes, musicians, writers, politicians or even academicians, they all rue the p-word. And in the space of higher education, including MBA, plagiarism is nothing short of blasphemy.

B-schools that use the essay+recommendations route for admissions have a problem with applicants using copied material in their essays and are using software services such as Turnitin for Admissions to discover such plagiarism.

This year, the Pennsylvania State University’s Smeal College of Business detected 30 cases of plagiarism out of some 400 applications. When 18 of these cases were detected earlier in the year, 10 of them happened to be Indians.

Plagiarism in business education is not a recent menace. In 2007, 34 students who were found copying at Duke Universitys Fuqua School of Business were either suspended or expelled. It is no coincidence that Smeal College has recently inserted the following instruction on its international applicant requirements webpage (as of July 26, 2010) — “Please ensure … adheres to principles of ethics in the admission process including guidelines regarding academic integrity. To ensure academic integrity, all essays will be confirmed through ‘Turnitin for Admissions’ authenticity software.”

That Smeal considers the plagiarism problem to be an international one is clear from the omission of such a guideline on its American applicants webpage.

Turnitin for Admissions‘ is a copying detection software that can search and highlight matching or unoriginal text in an admission essays. Its larger version, simply called Turnitin is used by universities including Harvard to detect plagiarism in academic papers, articles and student assignments. Both versions of the software use data-mining to compile a 13.5 billion-webpages-strong database of electronic academic materials (academic publications, encyclopedias, news articles and other sources) which they index and store. Documents are compared to this database for possible plagiarism. Turnitin claims that it receives 40-50 million papers a year for plagiarism checks and about 9,500 colleges globally use its services for not only admission essay plagiarism, but also copyright infringement in academic papers and articles.

According to Katie Povejsil, Vice-President of Marketing, iParadigms LLC, the providers of Turnitin, “The technology creates unique digital fingerprints of text strings in a document and compares these unique patterns to the unique patterns of other content in iParadigm databases. So, in effect, software like Turnitin does not detect plagiarism but acts like a tool to help educators make informed evaluations of student work. It is up to the instructor to make the judgement on whether the ‘matched copy’ is a work of plagiarism or not. Some cases may be straightforward ones of plagiarism, others may be instances where the copy only skimmed through an original piece of work. Finally, it is human judgment that takes the final call on whether a piece of work can be labeled as ‘plagiarised’ or not.”

The folks at Turnitin agree that the matched text could be completely coincidental or common knowledge. The software therefore also includes the ability to exclude ‘small matches’ if the instructor wants to exclude common phrases. But according to Turnitin, the likelihood that a 16-word match is ‘just coincidence’ is less than 1 in a trillion.

Turnitin believes that the admission official looking at the matches has to decide whether the writer’s intent matters. Some people care about intent, others do not. Turnitin has not disclosed which business schools use ‘Turnitin for Admissions’ to check plagiarism in essays, and it is unlikely that many b-schools will announce it in the open, although some such as Smeal have.

Nevertheless, b-schools do admit that plagiarism in essays is a concern. However, schools often differ on the finer points of what defines plagiarism.

For example, is it alright to use a universally-known idea popularized by a person without crediting the person — say, ‘non-violence’?.

There are questions such as, is it alright for re-applicants to use sentences from their own essay from the previous year to the same school — given that an essay on personal goals may not really change if the person’s goals haven’t; and merely making an applicant re-word it does not tell the admission committee anything new about the applicant’s candidature, except his ability to reword a sentence.

Or how should a b-school treat an applicant if it finds that the same essay was also used to apply to another b-school?

These are all ambiguous areas and different b-schools have different policies on these matters. While software such as Turnitin will throw a match each time there is a textual similarity in the essay, the important question is what kind of matches really qualify as plagiarism for b-schools.

Mr VK Menon, the Senior Director, Career Advancement Services and Admissions & Financial Aid at the Indian School of Business, Hyderabad’s says that it is okay for a student to use unoriginal text in his admission essay but he has to specifically use them as quotes.

Dr Rahul Choudaha, Associate Director of World Education Services, a New York-based foreign academic evaluation agency agrees that quotes are often a grey area in essays. “Direct quotes are different from paraphrasing and many times students cite direct quotes without putting quotation marks. Sometimes students plagiarize without realizing that they are plagiarizing,” he says.

According to Carrie Marcinkevage, Smeal’s MBA Admissions Director, after a software indicates possible plagiarism, the school reviews each case individually to determine whether it does or does not violate Penn State University guidelines on plagiarism.

“If it is a borderline or unclear clase, we explain why and invite the participant to rewrite the essay. If the case of copying is clear, admission is then denied,” Marcinkevage informed.

When asked whether there are cues that evaluators keep in mind while deciding whether a piece of work can be labeled as being plagiarized, Marcinkevage said that effort is made to keep a positive outlook and go into the admissions process looking for the great things in candidates, rather than cynically looking at every candidate wondering whether s/he cheated. “Thats why using the software can be so helpful. Let the software be the bad guy and look for cheating. Let the admissions staff check for the greater aspects of fit and potential, not cheating.”

Colleges are aware that plagiarism can also take place in form of fraudulent transcripts or resumes. There have been cases where a candidate could have someone else interview in his place, pretending to be that candidate. ISB Hyderabad has a process in place to check those who plagiarize but being an internal procedure, it does not reveal it to the public.

Writing admission essays often becomes a mundane procedure with exposure to the Internet and easy accessibility to information on the rise, not to mention fly-by-night essay consulting services with shady methods and advice. Little wonder then, that ‘plagiarism’ cases during b-school admission processes are on the rise and it is difficult to point to any one factor contributing to the menace. Dr Choudaha attributes the problem to not only easier access to Internet but also poor understanding and enforcement of standards of academic integrity.

Officials at Turnitin believe there is no shortage of discussion on why applicants plagiarize in admission essays. This is an important conversation with many shades of distinction and that conversation should continue as todays ‘digital natives’ have become the ‘new normal’ and they have a very different way of relating to content — is how Turnitin views it.

Smeal’s Carrie Marcinkevage views this as a cultural thing. “Some cultures perceive knowledge as a shared resource whereas intellectual property is a very Western concept. They may have not researched US education and business practices before writing their essays,” says Marcinkevage.

“It also could be that students simply prefer to save their time and ‘copy’ an essay or to simply say things the way the original author said, since one agrees with the author anyway,” Marcinkevage adds.

Companies like Turnitin however believe that constant checking of academic will eventually force plagiarism down the hill.

According to figures present with the company, after two years of regular use, institutions have shown an improvement of about 20 percent or more compared to their first full academic year of use. “Institutions with four years of usage of the software show improvement of more than 35 percent and after six years of usage, the improvement is 45 percent plus,” informed Povejsil.

These encouraging numbers read well only for those institutions which employ software like Turnitin or do vigorous Googling of the suspected text.

What about those who prefer to ignore the problem? For many universities, using plagiarism-detection creates an existential problem — what if essays/academic documents of successful graduates from the past were run through Turnitin to find that they had been plagiarized?

Many universities have willingly chosen to stay in denial mode about plagiarism. Stanford University writes on its blog in a post dated July 20, 2010, “The University at several points in the past years has explored electronic programs that would detect plagiarism, most recently in the winter of 2006, and our position to not adopt this kind of software remains the same. We have at every point maintained that centrally adopting this kind of software sends a message to our students that is not one that we want to send. We dont want to presume that they arent approaching their work honestly. We want to presume that theyre behaving with integrity.”

In the US, there has also been a public outcry against Turnitin, with students and parents of one high school expressing their anguish against the service on a website www.dontturnitin.com, citing the school’s use of Turnitin as arbitrary and inequitably applied.

There is no research to prove what kind of managers or people plagiarists turn out to be. Marcinkevage hopes to learn over time through constant checking. “Continued dialogue about it creates the atmosphere for openness and ethics to thrive. Unfortunately, when done deliberately, plagiarism is a sign of poor ethics. Business is full of complex decisions, that require sound judgment and principles. It’s much harder to come back up the slippery slope of poor integrity after incidents like this have occurred,” she concludes.

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