Starting in the 2012-2013 cycle, admissions officers might not be the only ones reading applications to Columbia.
The Common Application, which Columbia is now using, is considering a service being marketed by Turnitin.com to check for plagiarism on college application essays.
Rob Killion, executive director for the Common Application, said that the Common App’s board of directors is still researching the possibility and will not reach a decision for at least another year.
“My Board of Directors has made no decision to implement this program since they are still researching the issues involved,” Killion wrote in an email. “Were they to implement such a feature, it would not be for the next admission cycle starting this summer.”
Killion added that it has not been determined whether the Turnitin product would become a mandatory element for schools using the Common App.
That has implications for Columbia, which had been the last Ivy League school to exclusively use its own application but switched to the Common App this past admissions cycle.
A University spokesperson said he could not comment for the admissions department.
Jeff Lorton, product and business development manager for Turnitin for Admissions, said that Turnitin started hearing about the need for this type of product in 2003.
“An anesthesiology program contacted us because they had three personal statements that were exactly the same,” he said.
In a survey of application essays from around the country, Turnitin found that 36 percent of essays had significant matching text, meaning that more than 10 percent of their text matched other text that was not their own. Penn State University’s MBA program, which currently uses Turnitin, found that 29 of its 368 applicants had significant matching text in their admissions essays, which Lorton called a “plagiarism perfect storm.”
“During that same time, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, the teaching hospital for Harvard, contacted us. In their outside research, they found two identical paragraphs in different personal statements,” Lorton said of the program’s beta testing, which started in 2007. “They were, of course, shocked and never thought it would be a problem with residency programs.”
But some outside observers are skeptical about the need for this type of product.
Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director for external relations at the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, believes that it could become a discriminatory tool.
“The software can’t tell who is stepping forward in their own voice. It cannot register when people are getting significant help from experts and parents,” Nassirian said. “A poor inner-city kid might have misappropriated a quote which gets picked up by the program, and a kid paying for expert advice is less likely to get picked up because the student is receiving help that is an entirely private transaction.”
David Hawkins, director of public policy and research for the National Association for College Admission Counseling, questioned whether the Turnitin program is even necessary.
“I am skeptical whether plagiarism is actually a problem in college essays,” Hawkins said. “Admissions’ concern is more of whether it is of high quality and has merit.
Plagiarism doesn’t seem to be the primary concern of admissions officers, and the questions to ask about the quality of the work are much broader than plagiarism.”
Hawkins added that the program could give false positives if applicants quote other sources in their essays, a thought Tom Caruso, CC ’13, agreed with.
“To be perfectly honest, I don’t think Turnitin actually really does anything,” Caruso said. “The website suspected a friend of cheating due to his use of the phrase ‘In William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.’ And even if it did, in the admissions process, it would seem to me that anyone who would plagiarize an admissions essay would either not be smart enough to actually get in or be plagiarizing from a more untraceable source.”
But Lorton maintained that Turnitin does not attempt to diagnose plagiarism definitively.
“A big misconception is that we identify plagiarism, which we don’t,” Lorton said. “We review a document and then compare it to everything in our database. We then look for matches and see where those matches come from. However, you make a decision yourself if the matches are a problem.”
Still, some questions remain unanswered.
“You don’t know that you’re catching the one who plagiarized. There is no chain of custody of original content,” Nassirian said. “Second, the whole notion of authenticity is quite false. In this process, there is a set-up of a business opportunity in which a need does not exist. Personal essay is the least important aspect of the application.”
He added that the financial consequences of the Turnitin need to be considered as well.
“This isn’t a free service,” Nassirian said. “Using Turnitin adds to the cost of the application process.”