Turnitin: a researcher’s tool

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Composite image of various forms of textLast week, the Doctoral School gave Sussex doctoral researchers automatic access to the Turnitin for Doctoral Researchers Study Direct site (just use your ITS username and password to log in).  I had a brief play with Turnitin over the weekend, and here I mull over some of the issues raised.

What Turnitin does

When you submit your text to Turnitin – a chapter, section, research report or an entire thesis (in the form of a word processed document or PDF: 10MB limit on file size) – it is compared to an enormous database of text: from journals, books, conference proceedings, web pages, and archived student papers.  Then Turnitin gives you a full report (nobody has access to this report but you), highlighting any similarities, which can vary from two- or three-word phrases to larger sections of text.  You can then make sure that sections quoted from other resources are referenced correctly, and attributed to the correct source, within your own writing.  You can also get further information about the source that the matching text has come from – and even view the text of journal articles and books in question, so you can see the context of the matching text.

Why Turnitin is useful to researchers – and other issues

So far, so good, and you almost certainly learned about plagiarism, quoting and referencing during your Bachelors or Masters degree – but for researchers, Turnitin can be useful in ways other than a reference-checker, and raises other issues for researchers:

What happens to the text you submit?

It remains in the Turnitin database, and is used in future comparisons.  Think about this for a few moments and it raises a couple of issues, both of which seem to me, to be different sides of the same coin:

  • it becomes clear why you must only submit your own text to Turnitin, and not submit your text via another’s log-in.  Doing so would mean a revised chapter submitted under your own log-in would be flagged as similar to someone else’s previously-submitted text.
  • it means that Turnitin will spot, and highlight any future writings from other students that “borrow heavily” from your work.  The increase in online, open-access publication of theses, via the British Library’s Electronic Theses Online Service (EThOS) and by the institution’s repository, Sussex Research Online (SRO) have made researchers more sharply aware of, and protective of, their intellectual property in the form of their theses.  Submitting your thesis, or parts of it, to Turnitin, will help to prevent others taking advantage of your work.

It’s worth covering an important point here:  Your submitted text is not accessible to anybody else.  Your text is used for future comparisons only, and in an anonymous way: when similarities are found to a paper submitted by someone other than you, it is marked “Student paper – Submitted to XXX University“.  Further information is given by Turnitin:

“Because submitted papers remain the intellectual property of their authors, instructors and respective institutions, we are unable to show you the content of this paper at this time.  If you would still like to view this paper, you instructor may be able to request permission to view the paper from the instructor to whom the paper was originally submitted.”

What happens if I resubmit a revised chapter?

Nothing bad – you won’t have your own text highlighted as (overwhelmingly) similar to your previously submitted text.  Turnitin assumes that text submitted from the same log-in is written by the same author, so any text you submit will not be compared to your own, previously submitted work.  Another reason to only use your own Turnitin log-in when submitting text.

The concept of ‘originality’ in your thesis

The report given by Turnitin is called an “originality report”, and provides a “similarity index”, both of which seem poorly phrased concepts in the context of a doctoral thesis.  However, the originality report refers to the originality of the text, not of the thesis itself, or the research on which it is based.  Turnitin is not (yet?) capable of assessing the “doctorateness” or originality of your thesis.  Your supervisor(s) are much better at that 🙂

The issue of ‘Voice’ in your writing

When I put my thesis through Turnitin (6% similarity score, if you really want to know), I found some of the results rather interesting.  Many two- and three-word phrases were highlighted repeatedly.  This isn’t really a surprise when your writing is about your doctoral research, by definition a fairly narrow field – all disciplines have their own lingo, and often there are only one or two ways of clearly and effectively describing something such as a method or result.  Indeed, some similar sources turned out to be conference abstracts written by me – which was reassuring really.

But the surprise for me here, was that of the tens of authors that frequently crop up in my field of research, one rose significantly above the rest as the person to whom my writing is most similar: my supervisor.  As my supervisor didn’t copy-edit my drafts (feedback was centred around themes, ideas, content and structure rather than syntax), I have come to the conclusion that my writing voice has grown to be similar to his.  I’ve heard it said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, yet I had no idea my writing style was starting to mirror that of my supervisor.  In fact, when I read my work and his, I hear two distinct ‘voices’, even when we write about the same concepts.  I suppose that the similar phrases being just two or three words reflects this in a way – it’s possibly the number of occurrences, rather than the number of unique phrases that has contributed to this phenomena.

Get involved

If you’re a doctoral researcher at Sussex, you will already have access to Turnitin for Doctoral Researchers through Study Direct – simply log on.  The site includes a comprehensive FAQ and a forum for Sussex doctoral researchers to discuss the issues raised by the use of Turnitin.

If you’ve used Turnitin for any of your research-related writing and want to share your experiences here on the blog, we’d like to hear from you – please email doctoralschool@sussex.ac.uk

Other resources

  • Including third-party copyright material in your thesis – Library factsheet [PDF]
  • Handbook for Doctoral Researchers 2010/11 – Doctoral School [PDF]. Includes policy on use of 3rd party copyright material in doctoral theses on page 30.
  • The Doctoral School coordinates professional development Related workshops across the university. Full details and booking instructions are on the researcher development pages of the Doctoral School website. The following workshops may be particularly relevant to issues raised by the use of Turnitin:
    • Copyright issues in your Doctoral thesis
    • Introduction to EndNote
    • Intermediate EndNote
  • EndNote Resource – Study Direct site including examples, images and video resources for using EndNote reference management software. Includes manuals to download and referencing information.
  • E-Learning for Researchers – includes a module on “Intellectual Property in the Research Context”, covering copyright, trademarks and patents.

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