The Office of Undergraduate Admissions turned to computer software to combat application fraud this past fall when it began using Turnitin for Admissions to check application essays for plagiarism. Those admitted through restrictive early action to the Class of 2016 were the first to have their applications submitted to the database, which is already being used by approximately 100 colleges and universities around the country.
“It’s really the few that attempt to get away with this sort of thing [plagiarism] that should be forewarned that it’s not in their best interest,” Director of Undergraduate Admissions Bob Patterson said. “It’s our expectation they’re going to be honest and open and transparent in their application, and when they sign off that everything is their work, that has to have meaning.”
Patterson said that while his office has not been made aware of any instances of plagiarism from applicants in past years, it was “concerned there could be.”
He added that the University decided to utilize the software because of reports in the media about higher levels of plagiarism in applications.
“If we do see that there is plagiarism in an application, we will definitely reach out to the student and ask for the student’s input, and then we would make decisions from there,” he said.
The software compares submitted admissions documents with its extensive database of “Internet content, subscription content and previously submitted documents to create a comprehensive Similarity Report,” according to the Turnitin for Admissions website.
This Similarity Report recognizes both word-for-word and paraphrased text matches, which are then highlighted and linked back to the corresponding documents in the database. The Report also gives the option of building an internal database for all of the institution’s applications, as well as the option of participating and submitting content to the central Turnitin for Admissions database.
Stanford is one of only a dozen universities using Turnitin for undergraduate programs. Most admission offices currently use the software to assess graduate school applications.
Anna De Cheke Qualls, director of graduate affairs and admissions at Johns Hopkins University, said that her office began using the software in Sept. 2011. According to Qualls, the software is important because the University requires applicants to give complete disclosure in their applications. If applicants don’t exercise that full disclosure, they are rejected, she said.
“Our faculty have a greater ability to focus on applications, not authentication,” Qualls said. “We try to safeguard our institution and our departments from making an inappropriate decision.”
The graduate admissions office at Johns Hopkins gives the software to various departments, which can then individually decide how they wish to use it. Qualls said that while her office has heard of anecdotal instances of the software’s use, including text matches in applications, the office needs more data about how the plagiarism-checking software is being used in individual departments to determine its functionality.
Andrew Ainslie, senior associate dean at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, said that while faculty members have used the software in classrooms for many years at the graduate school, it has only recently been made available for admissions use.
“Initially we used it to see what sorts of results it would get for us,” Ainslie said. “It seemed like a great source of information about people who are plagiarizing, and it is able to verify the plagiarism.”
Ainslie noted that the software links to places from where plagiarism is detected, such as when the application shares a quote with another document on the Internet.
“It seems like a very useful tool to ensure that the people we allow into the program are the right kind of people…It is a pretty major offense to pass off someone’s intellectual property as your own,” Ainslie said.
“We think it is important that students are honest in their applications,” Patterson said. “We just want to make sure we are doing everything that we can.”