[Throwback Thursday] What’s the Deal with Turnitin?

This post first appeared on Thesislink in October 2018. It was updated with new information and instructions in June 2021. From May 2022, AUT students can now access Turnitin via Canvas, rather than Blackboard. Details are available here.

You may be aware that AUT now requires all theses and dissertations (except those presented in Te Reo Māori) to be run through Turnitin (or equivalent programmes to Turnitin) before they are submitted for examination.

But what the heck is Turnitin, why do you have to use it, and what do you need to know?

The short answer is that Turnitin is used to detect plagiarism. Digital copies of students’ writing are scanned by Turnitin and compared to other pieces of writing in Turnitin’s database and across the internet. Turnitin then returns a ‘similarity report’ that indicates how much of the writing is original, and how much has appeared elsewhere before. Turnitin can detect text that is copied from the internet, from print sources, and from past student work.

If you’ve taught or studied in university courses in the past decade or so, you may be familiar with Turnitin because it is often used to check undergraduate coursework. The use of Turnitin for postgraduate research dissertations and theses is more recent – at AUT, we’ve made it compulsory since 2018. It works the same way for postgrad research as it does for undergraduate assignments; the text of the thesis or dissertation is scanned, and a similarity report is produced. But because postgraduate research projects are so variable, there are no hard and fast rules about how to interpret the similarity report.

To help you figure out your Turnitin report, we’ve loaded lots of resources in Blackboard under ‘PGMe,’ including videos from the AUT Library about what a high or low score could indicate. If you’re coming up to your submission, you may like to review those resources so you know what to expect. You can also find our full Turnitin instructions below, as well as answers to a few FAQs.

How and when do I use Turnitin?

You will need to use Turnitin before you submit for examination. To upload your thesis or dissertation, go to Blackboard and navigate to PGMe, then follow the instructions there. Wait for Turnitin to generate a similarity report, then download the report and email a copy to your supervisor/s. You’ll need to discuss the report with your supervisor/s and have them note that the Turnitin process has been completed on your PGR12 form when you submit your thesis or dissertation for examination.

Can I upload to Turnitin before my final submission as a ‘test-run,’ or will that break the system?

Ordinarily, Turnitin saves submitted work to its own database against which it will compare future submissions. In theory, that could mean that a thesis submitted twice would return a 100% similarity report on the second submission. However, that won’t happen for AUT thesis writers as long as you use the version in PGMe. This version has been set up to allow for research (including embargoed/confidential work) to be submitted without information being stored within the Turnitin database. This means that you can do a test-run through Turnitin via PGMe and it won’t distort the similarity report for your eventual submission.

What should my similarity report say?

The similarity report reveals what percentage of written material is original, and what percentage comes from pre-existing sources. In the vast majority of cases, the Turnitin similarity report will show a larger percentage of original material, and a smaller percentage of material drawn from other sources. That is as it should be – a postgrad research thesis or dissertation should be mostly the author’s own work, with some quotes cited from sources.

What percentage of original material is required?

Every field of research, and every thesis, will differ in terms of how much cited material is appropriate. For instance, my thesis was in the field of literature. I quoted a lot from the novels I analyzed; so of course, my thesis contained a relatively high percentage of unoriginal material. That was fine for me; but the same percentage may not have been considered appropriate for others. For that reason, there is no ‘perfect score.’ At postgraduate level particularly, the Turnitin report is more about informing conversations with supervisors and/or examiners than hitting particular numbers.

What kind of behaviour does Turnitin ‘catch out’?

For people who have done their own work, Turnitin simply affirms the integrity of their authorship. Unfortunately, some people try to present others’ work as their own by buying pre-written text to incorporate into their thesis, submitting someone else’s thesis as their own, or passing off sources as their own work by not citing correctly. Turnitin catches that kind of intellectual dishonesty.

Can Turnitin accidentally make it look like I cheated?

Do you ever feel guilty when a security guard watches you in a shop, even if you haven’t stolen anything? Yeah, me too. It’s natural to feel anxious when your integrity is scrutinized. The good news is that it’s practically impossible for Turnitin to make it look like an honest writer cheated. When you write a thesis, even allowing for direct quotes, you create tens of thousands of words of your own text. The odds of other sources ‘accidentally’ matching your particular words, in your particular order, are infinitesimally small. Turnitin will pick up on text that you’ve quoted from elsewhere, but as long as you have cited your quotes correctly, that’s not an issue. Bottom line – if you write honestly, and cite honestly, you’ll be fine.

About Anaise Irvine

Dr Anaise Irvine is the Editor of Thesislink and leads the Researcher Education and Development team at Auckland University of Technology. Her PhD research analysed how contemporary films and novels represent genetic engineering as a social justice issue. These days she works with researchers at all levels to improve their research skills, and the most obscure of her own research skills is being able to turn novels into phylogenetic trees!

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