Within the last year or so a few cases of plagiarism in academia have made headlines, and the NCCR Trade Regulation was not spared. Notably there were the cases of the german politicians von Guttenberg and Chatzimarkakis; unfortunately these ‘gentlemen’ are not alone. The Swiss version involved a professor at the University of Fribourg who is no longer associated with the NCCR Trade Regulation at WTI. However, plagiarism is a concern in all academic fields, not just the social sciences or the humanities, also the physical sciences have seen their share of academic misconduct, including plagiarism. Plagiarism is also not just something that ill instructed students do, unfortunately as evidenced above, it is also something that academics do. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, plagiarism is “the action or practice of taking someone else’s work, idea, etc., and passing it off as one’s own; literary theft.”

Since this plague hit a bit too close to home, precautionary measures were put in place. Now all WTI working papers must be subject to additional controls to catch any potential problem of this nature before it hits the international headlines. I have just completed a manuscript on patentable subject matter, thus before I can take the paper any further along the publication trajectory, it must be controlled. Our procedure right now requires that the manuscript is first run through the turnitin program. What I got back was a 69 page long PDF file telling me that my paper had a 31% similarity index. The report then proceeded to list 284 sources for all of which it claimed that there was a similarity of 1% or less. At this point I was not amused.
My lack of amusement resided in the fact that I was very sure that when I write, I do not plagiarize. The next task was to verify the similarity report in its substance as that would be the proof of the pudding. I needed help to deal with the report as it all seemed a bit ridiculous to me. I got some instruction from our English editorial staff, and then got to work. In fact, there was no plagiarism in my paper, but it took one full day of work to go through the report and verify every single instance of similarity. At this point, one must ask what it is that this program does and if it is of any use.
First, turnitin reports similarity, but in the words of Susan Plattner it does so moronically. Similarity and plagiarism just are not the same thing. Second, my manuscript had been scanned as if it were a student paper with all the bells and whistles turned on ignoring the fact that less than 1% similarity is not significant and that there are many phrases of common knowledge, usually not longer than 30 words, which do not constitute plagiarism. In addition, the turnitin scan blindly goes through the bibliography and references and it ought to be of no surprise that these might be found in other papers and sources. For fun, we turned off all the bells and whistles and then my paper zipped through the turnitin similarity scan with flying colours. Still, I was asked to go through the report and the more than two hundred instances where turnitin had found similarity.
My first thought on starting this process was that because of one black sheep, we all get punished with additional work which does not seem productive. Still, curiosity gave me the motivation to plough through the report and verify it against the manuscript. To my surprise there was some value in the exercise. That value was where I had not anticipated it. It – turnitin – is excellent at catching my typos and other distractions while writing (spellcheckers miss a lot). Four types of errors were found.  First, I found on several occasions that I had made typing errors while citing or quoting a text, thus the similarity scan found my typos to differ from the source. Second, there were a few instances where I had used single instead of double quotation marks. Third, there were some in text citations that mentioned the author or source but were not in quotation marks. Those would have been alright, but the paper also does not suffer – other than making the text look ugly – with the addition of quotation marks. Fourth, while going through every single one of the 195 footnotes I caught one orphaned ‘Ibid’ created when I inserted a piece of text with a footnote.
In conclusion, turnitin is not just a nuisance, is is a good quality control instrument for senior researchers or editorial staff. In my view it is far from being an excellent quality control instrument, albeit a necessity in times when some unscrupulous researchers have lost track of what academic integrity is about. I like giving credit where it is due, and I find that this often makes for much more comfortable writing than when all that I voice is my own opinion.


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