Implementing a Programmatic Self-Check for Unintentional Plagiarism
David Shreiber, Graduate Programs Director
By allowing graduate students to independently check drafts of their dissertations, David Shreiber finds that students are able to learn from their mistakes and better understand the content.
Turnitin: Welcome to the Turnitin Educator Spotlight Series, I’m Ray Huang. Today I’m speaking with David Shreiber, Associate Professor at Rutgers University, and an MVP honorable mention for the Turnitin All-Stars award program. David thanks for joining us. Could you first tell us a bit more about yourself?
D.S.: I'm an associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. I teach undergraduate and graduate classes, and I'm also the director of the graduate program in biomedical engineering, which is a joint program between the medical school and the university.
Turnitin: How long have you been using Turnitin for?
D.S.: You know if I saw—in a student's assignment—some material that I thought was questionable, I would cut it and paste it into Google and look for it on my own. As soon as I found that there was software that did it, then I said, “Well, I'm going to stop doing it the old way and I'll use Turnitin.” I would say it’s probably been five or six years.
Turnitin: Can you share with us a bit about how you’re using Turnitin?
D.S.: As the director for the graduate program in biomedical engineering, I have to sign off on every thesis, dissertation that goes through the department, masters and Ph.D. And there is a number of other parts of the process for graduating, especially for a Ph.D. student that includes other formal papers--documents that are prepared by students that I have to sign off on.
In addition to in the classes where I've seen plagiarism be a problem, I've seen it in these documents as well. And, I guess it was discouraging to think that students had reached the end of their time at Rutgers and still hadn't learned what is and isn't acceptable. And to me it's more important, the ethical considerations are certainly critical and vital and important. But to me, the most important thing is being able to communicate information in your own words and what that process does to your level of understanding of the material. So if the student is merely copying material from a paper into his own document, not only is it unethical and plagiarism and stealing, but it also probably means that the student doesn't understand what they're writing--which means I failed as a faculty, because my job is to have them understand the information that we're learning in the class.
Since the start--in my syllabi--I've written extensively what I consider to be plagiarism and that it's critical for students to read material, understand it, and communicate it in their own words to convince me that they understand it and to improve their own understanding. So there is certainly the ethical obligation and consideration, but even more critical to me is that when students plagiarize they are basically circumventing the purpose of the courses, which is for them to gain that knowledge. They are not gaining that knowledge and wisdom and understanding that is so vital.
I've seen it in the courses and primarily in undergraduate classes, and I guess the faculty all share their horror stories. But when I saw it in the dissertations and considered that these students are writing papers that are being published, I had an epiphany that these students are putting us all at a lot of risk, and that they don't appreciate the magnitude of what they're doing. And so, I instituted a policy where all of the dissertations and the pre-dissertation materials that are formally submitted to the program are vetted through Turnitin, before I would sign off as the director. But my goal was not to catch students plagiarizing. My goal is to teach them what is and isn't and what is there to be viewed by the outside world.
I created a tutorial that has now been distributed across the university that instructs students how to create—through our online learning system, it’s called Sakai, (that’s how we access Turnitin)—how through Sakai they can create their own submission site to check their own papers before I see it. So basically a student can self-check their dissertation and see it all lit up and say, “Oh, my god, I didn't realize what I have done. Let me go back and read it and review it and do it the right way.”
Turnitin: In a sense, you’re protecting the student, perhaps from him or herself, and also protecting the program and the institution and the value of the degrees coming out of it.
D.S.: We have had graduate students—not in our program, but in the university— who've had their degrees rescinded because of plagiarism and so this is sort of a way for all of the programs--for them to educate their students and protect their brand.
Turnitin: David, you were nominated by several of your colleagues as an MVP for our Turnitin All-Stars program. What do you think makes you an All-Star?
D.S.: I was nominated, because we created this process for our program and told the graduate school about it and the graduate school had separately been dealing with these problems, and I basically said, “Look, this is how we do it and I'm happy to share it with anybody.” And a lot of people said, “Thanks,” and took it and now are—they might be modifying how we approach the actual submission and how it's reviewed and whatnot--but I think the important part is to provide the students the tool to check their own work before we see it, basically. And then, maybe it gives them the opportunity to fix it. It gives them an understanding of, “Hey, I should finish my work ahead of time so I have time to check it and make sure that it's what I want them to see.” And again, other faculty have been using it in their classes.
Turnitin: Some people might say that with your set-up students are going to submit and submit and submit and wordsmith their similarity index down.
D.S.: That's going to happen. Although I think with Turnitin, it's not that difficult to see that they're changing it word by word. My general attitude is that if a student really wants to cheat whether it be plagiarism, whether it be on an exam, they are going to figure out a way. But my experience has been that the overwhelming majority of the students don't want to cheat and they make mistakes, and I guess we want to give them the opportunity to learn from their mistakes and maybe learn from their mistakes without our strict hand teaching them about it. Most of them are extremely vigilant about it, and don't want anything marked on their report so they get it. You're never going to stop everybody.
My experience has been that for the people that have been through multiple steps of this process, you can tell the ones that are wordsmithing. There was one student--who it wasn't especially an egregious qualifying report--but it was enough to give us pause and contact the advisor and say, “You should talk to your student about this.” So my radar was up when I saw the next phase, and I saw the wordsmithing. So the way we do the process lets me sort of double check certain students if I think their material is questionable. So this time we both sat down with the guy and said, “Look, you're getting away with this, because you're changing words but you're walking a fine line and your wordsmithing might stand up in a court of law, but you’re missing the point.”
Turnitin: And clearly you have seen a lot of success with that and rolling that out to other programs, having them adopt it?
D.S.: I created a new YouTube video, and I think it was in an October or November meeting that I shared it with the graduate programs. And I just checked it and it has got like 350-400 hits. That's pretty good. Not enough for YouTube to contact me about advertising about, but still pretty promising.
Turnitin: Well David, thanks so much for joining us today.
D.S.: Well, thanks for your time.
Turnitin: I’ve been speaking with David Shreiber, Associate Professor at Rutgers University, and an MVP honorable mention for the Turnitin All-Stars award program.