Every so often, in workshop and in forums, someone asks, “What percentage of plagiarism is allowed?”
The short answer is, of course, zero per-cent.
The question is usually asked by someone who has received an originality report from Turnitin or other online text-matching software,
and it has come back with passages and paragraphs brightly coloured. The highlighted sections indicate text for which the software has found matches, on the internet or within its own databases.
Highlighted text does NOT indicate plagiarism.
If the highlighted text is inside quotation marks, is indented, or in some other way makes clear that this is somebody else’s words or work, and if there is indication as to whose words or work it is, then it is not plagiarism. It is a match, but it is a match used in academically acceptable style, with no suggestion that the writer is trying to pass this off as his (or her) own.
ASIDE: There are other ways of indicating the use of someone else’s words and work, so some judgement is needed. In-text citation (or numbered foot- or end-notes) and bibliographic references are requirements of academic writing (as well as the quotation marks or other signals for exact-word quotations).
But in fiction, in journalism, in writing for a general audience, there are other ways to show indebtedness to others; in sound and in visual works, there are other ways to show indebtedness to others. They should still be used, one should still honestly state what is not one’s own; it’s just that it does not have to be indicated in pukka MLA, APA, or any other style!
If the highlighted text is a bibliographical reference to a book or journal or website or any other source (and these are often flagged by Turnitin because someone else has likely used the same source material), it is not plagiarism.
If the highlighted text is a common expression, it is not plagiarism. Many subjects have stock expressions. And what about “The constitution of the United States of America…”? That’s eight consecutive words. Turnitin will highlight expressions like this. It is not plagiarism. Similarly, it is usually held that there is no need to document the source of common knowledge, nor common knowledge within a subject. There is no need to document it – but Turnitin may still highlight it.
And, as noted, Turnitin will highlight passages and sequences of words, even when the signals are there : quotation marks, indentation or other, along with an indicator which links to the original source. (It is possible to set Turnitin to ignore material inside quotation marks, and also to ignore bibliographic entries, which could reduce the number of passages which still need to be checked, by the teacher. They still need to be checked.)
But, bottom line, highlighted text does NOT indicate plagiarism. The percentage shows the amount of matched text, it does not show plagiarised text. The matched text might be plagiarised, and it might not be plagiarised. A paper which includes signalled and cited quotations in support of an argument or as evidence for a position is good. We want this. (Not too much, of course, we still need the writer’s own words and thoughts and discussion.)
How much matched text is allowed? That is a different question, and that depends on the nature of the exercise, how much other people’s work is needed in the discussion of what one wants to say. But text matches per se, cited and signalled, that is not plagiarism.
It should also be noted here, non-highlighted text does NOT necessarily indicate that there is no plagiarism. If a reader is suspicious, is sure that this could not be the writer’s own creation, then further investigation is needed. It is relatively easy to beat Turnitin – but that is a matter for another post.
Much of the time, fortunately, and one would like to think most if not all of the time, there is no intent to cheat. The writer wants to do an honest piece of work – and does.
But, say it again, Turnitin does not detect plagiarism – it detects matches of text.
Turnitin says as much, on its website, and in much of the supporting material available through the website.
“Turnitin determines if text in a paper matches text in any of the Turnitin databases. The service does not detect nor determine plagiarism – it detects patterns of matching text to help instructors determine if plagiarism has occurred” (Plagiarism and the Web, p. 5)
Turnitin has long since made claimed that it is an educational site, its purpose is not to catch plagiarists but to help writers source their material appropriately. It offers other services as well which aim to improve the quality of student writing and to ease the teacher’s load. In recent months, it has begun concentrating, not just on student use of unoriginal material but on the worthiness and authority of the sources of that unoriginal material. The aim – the claim – is better, improved, more-scholarly writing.
Which is why I get just a little suspicious of websites which claim to help writers determine if their work includes plagiarism. There is no such thing as plagiarism detection software, the human touch is always needed.
There are, unfortunately, a number of websites which claim to offer FREE online plagiarism detection, sometimes with the enticement (? inducement?) that students can check for plagiarism before their instructors submit the work to Turnitin. Some of these free sites may well be perfectly legitimate – but some of them are definitely dodgy. It isn’t always easy to determine which are which. (Another note to self: that’s another post coming up.)
My advice, and I know it is idealistic, is that students should learn WHY they should document their sources, WHY and WHEN, and that they get plenty of practice so they get into the habit. Practice which allows them to make mistakes, and to learn from their mistakes, and no mention of the “P-word”. Perfecting the HOWs, the formal formatting styles, come later. If they know WHY and WHEN they need to cite and reference other people’s work and they do it, they shouldn’t need text-matching checkers, they will have the confidence to know they are doing it right, using other people’s work ethically and honestly. And the earlier they start, the better!
Not all the sites which offer online plagiarism detection services are free. And it doesn’t matter how much such services cost – they cannot detect plagiarism. Automated sites might find matches, but it takes the human touch to determine whether the matches are evidence of plagiarism or not.
Which, final point in this post, just makes it a teensy bit ironic that iThenticate, the parent company of Turnitin, time after time after time, states, on its web-site and in its documents, that it offers online plagiarism detection software?
And that leads one to wonder, somewhat tongue-in-cheek and with the start of this post in mind, how much plagiarism confusion is allowed?
But the basic question, how much plagiarism is allowed? Answer, “None”!
Plagiarism and the Web: Myths and Realities : An Analytical Study on Where Students Find Unoriginal Content on the Internet (2011). Turnitin White Paper. Downloadable from http://turnitin.com/static/resources/documentation/turnitin/company/Turnitin_Whitepaper_Plagiarism_Web.pdf