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Common App may use plagiarism website to check essays

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 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.”


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Anonymous posted on

hi i am a teacher

Jennifer posted on

Different people have different perspective towards plagiarism, but if you use your logic, it copying the work of others can never be ethical. Any act of stealing the content of other can easily be caught if the readers starts using a reliable software to carry out duplicate content check. why plagiarize when you can re-write any information in your own words?

#prayer posted on

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Anonymous posted on

Constance, I would like to correct some of the misconceptions and understanding of some of the folks quoted in this article.

“The website suspected a friend of cheating due to his use of the phrase ‘In William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.’ “-Tom Caruso, CC’13

Showing a match to text in our database is not identifying plagiarism. 10,000 universities and high schools use the Turnitin academic service. Tom does not understand the service. It works and is an important part of education in over 100 countries.

I don’t understand Barmak Nassirian and David Hawkins misinformed opposition to the use of this technology. Admissions professionals care about making fair, well informed decisions based on the best information available.

“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.” Barmak Nassirian

If you read the NACAC publication, Factors in the Admission Decision:
Table 2. Percentage of colleges attributing “considerable importance” to factors in the admission decision by institutional characteristics: 2008 page 3.
Of those institutions that select less than 50% of their applicants, 56% consider the essay/writing sample of considerable importance. (membership or purchase required to view)

“I am skeptical whether plagiarism is actually a problem in college essays,” Hawkins said. “

As the researchers from the Harvard teaching hospital found, even medical school graduates plagiarize in their personal statements to residency programs. Their research was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in July 2010.

“This isn’t a free service,” Nassirian said. “Using Turnitin adds to the cost of the application process.”

According to Carrie Marcinkevage, page 2: “The admissions staff determined that the plagiarism review, analysis, decision-making, and communication for this case took over 150 hours to complete. With Turnitin for Admissions, they estimate they could have reduced that time to 12 hours. In addition, their confidence in the quality of the review as well as the consistency of documentation and communication would be greatly increased. The software removes human error and limited memory, and it ensures equitable assessment of every individual.” That is a savings of 138 hours.

Jeff Lorton,
Turnitin for Admissions,

Anonymous posted on

I am a senior in high school going to columbia next year. They use turnitin in my high school and it seems the author of this article does not understand how it works. If 10% of my paper comes up as plagiarism, my teacher does not fail me. He looks at which parts of my essay came up as cheating, and sees whether it is actual cheating or if it is merely a coincidence that i used a common sentence (joe walked the dog in the morning) or a quote. furthermore, there are settings that make anything in quotation marks not count as plagiarism. additionally, from my experience as a student, most people are either under 10% or are above 50% (and there is a very clear distinction between cheaters and non-cheaters).
I know several people who have borrowed paragraphs or full essays from older siblings or other students already in college, although mostly to state schools and not to prestigious universities such as columbia. i don't expect a lot of people to be caught on turnitin, not because people now dont cheat, but because in my school it became a preventive measure, people didn't bother cheating because they knew itd come up on turnitin. But if you don't think people plagiarize on application essays now, then you are extremely naive.

Bob posted on

Interesting article!!

Ketterpiken posted on