Authentic Authenticity

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A frequent question in academic and educational forums is, “How much help can a student get?”

The answer, not surprisingly, must be “It depends.”

In the first place, it depends on the terms of the assignment. If the instructions state that the work must be done without help, then no help is permitted.

If the instructions state that the work can or must be carried out in consultation with a teacher supervisor, then the teacher-supervisor may give help (which may well be subject to constraints), but no other help is permitted.

If the instructions allow outside help, then outside help is permitted.

BUT… even when no help is permitted, help is usually permitted (though not necessarily in closed examination situations). Even when outside help is permitted, there will probably be constraints on what kind of outside help is permitted, how much is permitted.

If this all sounds contradictory and paradoxical, try this exercise: (click on the image to enlarge it, or click here to get a printable .pdf version of the questions):

put “✓” in the cell if the situation is acceptable,
put “X” if it is not acceptable,
put “?” if you don’t know or you’re not sure or if your answer is “it depends.”

What linePerhaps some of these are not so easy to determine, the line is not so clear?

Or perhaps the line needs careful spelling out. Exactly what outside help is allowed when no outside help is allowed?

And then there is the question, if a student does engage in any of these activities, who is to know? How will they be found out?

This is, in part, where integrity comes in, integrity is often defined as: “Doing the right thing, even when no-one is watching” (C.S. Lewis) and as “Doing the right thing, knowing that nobody’s going to know whether you did it or not” (Oprah Winfrey).

If you know the rules, you abide by them. If you’re not sure whether a behaviour is acceptable, you ask.

Thence comes trust and respect: because you always do the right thing, it is assumed that you have not taken short cuts, not indulged in unacceptable behaviour. This is what integrity is all about.

But … how much help?

Outside of a test or examination, I doubt that any teacher would object to a student using MS Office spell- and grammar-checks. That was not the case ten or fifteen years ago. I recall fierce debates as to whether it was ethical for a student to use a spell-checker – although use of a dictionary was usually allowed, often encouraged.

A small step onward, there is not a lot of difference between a desktop spell-check and an online spell-check. Both can make huge mistakes, especially with heterographs (sometimes called homophones): words which sound the same but have different spellings, like “their” and “there”, or “to”, “too” and “two”. A spell-checker can tell you if a word is spelt correctly, but it cannot tell if the word is used correctly. The writer still needs to think and check for her- (or him-) self. And now that Word and similar spell-checkers are widely available and accessible, almost everyone is on the same level, almost everyone has the same opportunity to use the application. (That’s a huge generalisation, I know, but bear with me.)

A human spell-checker, though? This is dangerous territory, when the student is required to work alone, or only with a given peer or teacher or supervisor. Now it depends on what level of help the teacher is authorised to give. And again, there is a difference between someone reminding the student that they need to check their “their”s and their “there”s, and a someone who gets out a red pen and marks the places where the writer has made the wrong choice.

So where do we stand with proof-reading, human proof-reading? Is it acceptable for fellow students to proof-read and point out mistakes in a fellow-student’s essay? For parents? For paid tutor? For paid online human proof-reading?

A step further

So what about editing? Is this permissible?

Or critiquing? A human suggesting improvements, perhaps of the structure of the work, perhaps making suggestions as to what might or should be included or expanded upon, what reduced or left out, what other evidence might be introduced to support the argument, and so on? Is this still acceptable?

Is proof-reading wrong? Professional writers will often have their work proof-read, and maybe even edited. In academic publishing, peer reviewers might suggest ways in which a paper can be improved; we’re accepting critiquing. In popular publishing, an editor will work with an author. It is common for celebrities to have their “auto-“biographies ghost written.

Doctoral students are often advised to have their work proof-read. Some may have their theses proof-read and typed (though possibly not as many as before the computer age). They may still have it proof-read.

So much depends on the instructions given.

I fully appreciate the advice given by my friend and colleague, Christina Nord. She argues:

“If a machine does it for you – you still have to check that the machine gets it right, and when the machines can do it perfectly – is there a problem?
“If a human does it for you, you haven’t done it yourself – that’s unethical, if you are supposed to do the job yourself.”

It’s a good rule of thumb, isn’t it? And it all comes down to integrity, doesn’t it?

Christina adds:

“if a machine can do it perfectly, but you are supposed to do it yourself, it’s still unethical…
“On the other hand, if a machine can do it perfectly, is there any reason for you to do it yourself?”

Deep thoughts here, especially that last (which I intend to consider more deeply in a future blog-post; enough now to remind ourselves that a common stratagem used to reduce opportunities for plagiarism is to set tasks and assignments which require more than just finding information…).

And then there are the custom essay-writing sites, services which, for a fee, will write an essay or a dissertation or thesis or term paper… you name it, they’ll write it. It is not the student’s work (and many custom essay-writing services say in the small print that it is an offence for a student to submit work s/he may have paid several hundred pounds or dollars for as their own), but who will know if it is submitted for assessment?

Plagiarism detection

Plagiarism detection – so-called plagiarism detection – is something else again. Many teachers and many schools feel that it is wrong to allow students to submit drafts of their work to Turnitin or other text-matching software.

The arguments for the practice include the notion that submitting drafts enables students to correct mistakes before it is too late, and hopefully they will learn from the experience – especially if they need to ask why a particular passage was flagged, and what they can do about it. Proponents argue that they are not out to punish students but to help them learn how to avoid plagiarism.

Arguments against the practice include the notion that submitting drafts with the opportunity to add citations or to paraphrase until the original is different enough not to be flagged gives students the chance to plagiarise better. It may also lead some students to think that the object of the exercise is to beat Turnitin, that what they learn is not how to avoid plagiarism but how to avoid being suspected of plagiarism.

This is in itself a problem for ensuring equality of candidates in national and international examinations: students who can submit their drafts and edit them have advantage over those whose work might be submitted only after the student has signed off and the opportunity to edit is no longer available. Students who can submit their work to Turnitin have great advantage over those whose work is not scanned at all – until it reaches an external examination board.

Self-help plagiarism detection

Of course, the playing-field is levelled, to an extent: there are plenty of “plagiarism checkers” available, for free and for fee. Even in schools which allow no submission of drafts to Turnitin, students can avail themselves of these other services. They may even be encouraged to use the free services! These services might not be as widely-used as Turnitin and they may not have the full Turnitin database, but they are available.

What worries me about a lot of services that claim to help students is that many of them seem somewhat dubious, their standards are suspect. It worries me that we drive students, some students, into the arms of services with mixed ethical understandings. Even some of the more well-used and approved sites offer services which, according to the instructions given to the student, might be acceptable – or might not be acceptable.

This is a long post. I’ll not list ALL the sites that worry me – there are far too many to do that here. , Some have been mentioned in earlier posts.  I will detail two or three of these worrisome sites. I am not reviewing them for accuracy or for quality of the service, just for the type of service/s which they provide – in some cases, extra services beyond the basic.


I worry, for instance, about

Plagiarism.netThis service offers a free plagiarism check, which searches the open internet using Google, Babylon and Yahoo. It also searches Google Scholar and Google Books – on separate tabs, you need to perform three separate searches to cover all three possibilities.


There is a Spell Checker tab, which will correct what it thinks are spelling and grammar errors in 11 different languages. And there is an Article Rewrite tab, which leads to a Synonymizer.


It’s not that good a tool. Here’s a rewrite of the first few paragraphs of one of my recent posts, How much rewriting?

This is a site which appears to equate any match of text with plagiarism, even if the writer did not intend to copy anything, just happened to have the same thought and expressed it in exactly the same words.


As may be, but this kind of thinking makes students confused and it makes them afraid. It drives students into checking for plagiarism. Which might not be so bad if the plagiarism check was accurate and worthwhile.

Free is not enough, especially if “free” costs. What could possibly be the cost of uploading an essay to be checked for plagiarism, for spelling, or to be rewritten? In her biennial review of plagiarism detection software, Dr Debra Weber-Wulff includes the note “The owner of the site also runs a pornography site and spam pages, according to a whois lookup.”  And so it seems to be, it’s a check you can do for yourself. Now why might someone who owns a porn site want to help students with a free plagiarism checker? What’s in it for him? Might he be keeping, and reusing, possibly reselling, those essays? What a thought! Did I really voice that?


I worry about

This site also offers a free plagiarism check. In order to access the check, you need to download a programme called VIPER to your desktop, copy the file/s you want to check to VIPER, which uploads your file/s for checking, and back comes a report.

Simplicity itself – though you’d have to be simple to download strange software to your computer without checking what else it might be doing to your computer. But that’s me, paranoid to a fault. It has to be said, I have not come across any claims that VIPER does anything else than what it claims to do. Just over-cautious, me.

ScanMyEssay - extrasApart from that, does ScanMyEssay raise other concerns? I’m afraid so. For a start, it also offers editing services, the most expensive of which includes editing, feedback and critique, all of which may overstep the bounds of authentic own work.

The other thing that gives me pause is the term in the Terms and Conditions,

“When you scan a document, you agree that 9 months after completion of your scan, we will automatically upload your essay to our student essays database which will appear on one of our network of websites so that other students may use it to help them write their own essays.”

At least the site is transparent and up-front, spelling out the cost of the free plagiarism check: after 9 months, the essay belongs to ScanMyEssay. There has been some discussion on the blogs: does this mean that ScanMyEssay makes the essay available to other students who might (heavens forbid) hand it in as their own, or is it simply there on the database for purpose of checking other essays against it for possible plagiarism?

The answer is given on another page on the site: How does Viper use my essay/dissertation? ScanMyEssay is part of a group owned by, and they state, quite bluntly, ” When we assess your essay as being particularly good, we sometimes allow students to access it from a range of other websites under strict guidelines. This is always at least 9 months after you scan your work.”

The page shows two of their other sites. One is EssayCoursework (which is now and which offers critiquing, custom essay writing services, and a section of the site which offers Free coursework examples: “The coursework examples below were written by students and then submitted to us to publish on UK Essays.”

The student who, nine months or more ago, innocently sent work for a free plagiarism check may later come under suspicion of having used an unethical service.

Of course, ScanMyEssay and UKEssays, as with so many other companies, claim their services are totally ethical. Just look at these Q&As on the UKEssays FAQ page:

Q. Your service looks likes it encourages plagiarism – do you?
Of course not! All work is our copyright, so cannot be handed in as your own. Not only would this be cheating but it would be a breach of the copyright of our work.

Q. Do I need to reference the work?
This is something that you must make your own mind up about by looking at the guidelines of your university in particular. Bear in mind that the work is not going to be published for anyone to check or see. Again, we cannot accept responsibility for your decision to either cite us or not cite us.

It’s UKEssays, looking the other way.

Or – work this one out:

Q. I have an essay already written – can you change it?
We currently are not able to offer this service. Due to the copyright rules of the Company, we believe that handing in a piece of work that is both ours and yours would be plagiarism.

How noble. They will custom write an essay for you, but they will not edit your own essay.

But they do offer a thorough-going critique – you make the changes…. Dangerous stuff.


And then there is WriteCheck, part of the iThenticate stable, a sister company to TurnitinWriteCheck

To be fair, WriteCheck does not offer a custom-essay-writing service. It does offer three levels of pay-for service, including a check against the Turnitin database and index, a check for spelling and grammar errors, and two levels of professional tutoring, human critique and feedback on “Main Idea/Thesis, Content Development, Organization, Introduction/Conclusion, Use of Resources, Transitions, Word Choice, Sentence Structure, or Grammar & Mechanics.” The professional tutoring service is, incidentally, not a direct service of Professional TutoringWriteCheck (or of Turnitin). For those students wanting the extra tutoring service, WriteCheck gives the papers to Pearson Tutor Services for reading and report.



WriteCheck offers tempting services, even if it might – depending on a student’s instructions and understandings – overstep a line or two. But it must be acceptable, mustn’t it, even if the instructions say “No outside help”? After all, the service is offered by

And there is the rub, a possible rub. Students whose schools use Turnitin as a deterrent, as a “Gotcha!” tool, students who might have been warned off use of other companies, especially those offering free services, they might be tempted to use a service which offers more help than is ethically acceptable. Another attraction… WriteCheck is the only company other than Turnitin itself which offers a check against the Turnitin database!

There is an element of double-dipping as well. Turnitin is offering the same service on the same essay, taking money from the student, and then taking money from the school, for performing the same check on the same essay. It’s a little … well, if you’ve read this post so far, perhaps you’d like to supply a word?

These are not the only companies and services which cause concern. They are just typical of many. I worry about the students who are gulled into using them. There are, of course, many companies offering legitimate and ethical services. The trick, essential for the customer, is to distinguish the bona fide and the ethical from the scammers and the cheats. Integrity!

No easy answers. Lots of questions.


Just as a footnote to a very long post: I do like the statements made and the advice given by OCR and the SQA.

OCR (Oxford Cambridge and RSA Examinations) requires candidates to sign a Statement of Authentication, which includes the statement:

1. Any help or information you have received from people other than your subject teacher(s) must be clearly identified in the work itself.

OCR Authentication Statement

Now the student has the opportunity to declare any outside help given. Of course, some of that help might be overstepping the bounds allowed, but at least the student can be honest.

The SQA (Scottish Qualifications Authority) goes further. It offers a guide, Coursework Authenticity: A Guide for Teachers and Lecturers, which includes even more guidance on outside help, what can and what cannot be sought or given:

In the section “The principal rules for compiling and submitting coursework” are the rules

3 Candidates should not let anyone other than their teacher/lecturer see their coursework. In real life, it may be considered good practice to share information, but in coursework assignments this is not acceptable. It can lead to candidates being accused of collusion, which could mean that a penalty is applied to their award.

4 If a candidate asks for help, other candidates, friends, family, or teachers/lecturers should only help them to understand. They should not tell them what to write, or show them their own work (or the work of someone else).

This spells it out, what help can and cannot be given. Yes, it’s open to abuse. But that is where integrity comes into play. The student with integrity plays by the rules. And we trust our students to do the right thing. It’s up to us. An aphorism comes to mind: when we have low expectations, people tend to live down to them; when we have high expectations, people live up to them.

We just have to let our students know what our expectations are – and where the lines are.

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