Dissertations and Plagiarism — Say it isn’t so

Should universities require the use of plagiarism software? Many say “no,” even more say “he__, no.”

Some universities are beginning to require the use of plagiarism software. I’ve included an example from one university that requires the use of turnitin.com, one of the big names in plagiarism software. But I’m not providing a URL and changing the copy so it doesn’t seem like they’re connected to the following personal opinions about the dangers of using plagiarism software.

“Unfortunately, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests scholarly works, including theses and dissertations, are not immune to various types of plagiarism. These documents are becoming increasingly accessible with the move towards Electronic Theses and Dissertations and their publication through portals; … it is critical to ensure that these documents are plagiarism-free, as evidence of this would severely damage students’, advisors’, and the institution’s reputation. Therefore… the Office of Graduate Studies has instituted a requirement that theses and dissertation be analyzed using plagiarism-detection software.” Note that this university uses turnitin.com

Let’s back up. Here’s how most universities define plagiarism: Plagiarism is one example of academic dishonesty. Plagiarism is presenting someone else’s ideas or work as your own. Plagiarism also includes copying verbatim or rephrasing ideas without properly acknowledging the source by author, date, and publication medium.

A plagiarism rant from a friend of mine

Here’s what a friend of mine in the dissertation business has to say about plagiarism software:

“Plagiarism software is becoming pretty popular at some schools and I hate it! A very popular one, Turnitin, is a problem because if you run a draft through the Turnitin checker, it will store that draft and then when you go back later to check it again, or when the reviewer of the students’ work runs the submitted dissertation through, the work comes back as plagiarized. This is because that %$**&^ Turnitin has saved the student’s draft in the database!

I’ve had a few clients who have specifically told me NOT to check work with a plagiarism software because of this very reason. Some reviewers just run a dissertation through, get a result that the work is 90% plagiarized, and want to report the student…or they at the very least scare the heck of the poor student, who then calls me and says the work is plagiarized. Which it isn’t!

Example: I’ve been working with a client for about a year on her proposal methodology as she goes through some of her final classes. Each class the instructor reviews what she has, gives input, and we make some more adjustments. The adjustments by now are just silly things that I think the reviewer suggests, just because they have to critique something. Well, the last class she took, the instructor sent her work through a plagiarism checker and you know what? 100% plagiarized! That is because her document had been submitted in a prior class by a prior instructor so the software was comparing the students work to her own work! That isn’t the bad part. The bad part is the instructor had such a hard time understanding this concept and wanted to report the work as plagiarized. Luckily someone convinced him to look at the information more closely so he could see that Turnitin was just referencing her earlier draft that hadn’t changed much in the current draft.

Long story…I know…The other thing reviewers do is that they send the document through the plagiarism checker with the references. Well, of course the references are all going to be marked as plagiarized, they’ve been cited probably many, many times in other articles or works in APA format, so they are verbatim the same from document to document.

Anyway, plagiarism software is the devil in the wrong hands for sure. And unfortunately many reviewers don’t seem to understand how to work with it correctly. And, most likely if you run this person’s work through a plagiarism check he will find himself having to ‘splain himself on the next draft when it comes back as 95% plagiarized due to his own prior plagiarism check.

Ok, as Forrest says, “That’s all I have to say about that.”

Plagiarism by any other name…

“How To Check A PhD Dissertation For Plagiarism.” This was the title of an article saying how you can check a PhD written by a third party for plagiarism. Am I missing something here (let the rant begin!)? Aren’t dissertations supposed to be original work? Anyway, here’s what it says:

When you have your PhD dissertation written by a third party, one of the things you need to worry about is the risk of plagiarism. There are times when you may end up finding that parts of the dissertation are copied from some other source. In such cases, the entire dissertation may be rejected, and this means that you may need to start writing it afresh. In order to avoid such inconveniences, you need to come up with ways of ensuring that your dissertation is not considered to be plagiarism. There are a number of things you need to keep in mind when doing this including:

Sorry, I just don’t get this. And this is why I didn’t cite the source. It sounds like it’s promoting plagiarism!

First-hand plagiarism story:

I worked on editing one dissertation that was so inconsistent in its writing that I knew exactly which paragraphs were plagiarized. The way I checked was to copy and paste what I thought were plagiarized sections and sure enough, the original work was there for all to see. (More on this later.) I contacted the client and suggested maybe he didn’t understand he had to include page numbers if he copied something exactly. (It had a citation with author and year but no page number.) He wanted me to show him exactly which paragraphs were plagiarized because he had spent a lot of money for someone to write his dissertation proposal and didn’t think he should pay him if he plagiarized citations. I declined.

Which leads me to the question: How does someone get to this stage in the doctoral process without knowing this? And by “this” I mean what is and is not plagiarism. Bottom line. If you copy something exactly you have to have author, year, and page number. That’s basic APA style. My answer to the bigger question of how someone can get all through the dissertation coursework (presumably using APA style for everything) to the dissertation stage and not know this (or at least one answer is): Beware of non-accredited online doctoral programs. A disclaimer here: I’ve edited lots of dissertations from accredited online doctoral programs and their programs and doctoral guidelines and advisors and chairs are as rigid as any I’ve seen.

How plagiarism software works

There are several plagiarism software programs in the marketplace and more entering the market practically every day: turnitin.com; safeassign.com, and grammarly.com and others.



“Instantly check to see if student work is original by comparing it to the most comprehensive database in the industry, including the world’s largest repository of student papers. Color-coded and percentage-tagged highlights provide immediate insight into matched content.”



“SafeAssign is a tool used to prevent plagiarism and to create opportunities to help students identify how to properly attribute sources rather than paraphrase. SafeAssign is effective as both a deterrent and an educational tool. SafeAssign compares submitted assignments against a set of sources to identify areas of overlap between the submitted assignment and existing works.”


“Grammarly is an automated proofreader and plagiarism checker. It corrects up to 10 times as many mistakes as other word processors.”

An article in insidehighered.com (https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2009/03/13/detect) entitled “False positives on plagiarism checkers” compared Turnitin and SafeAssign.

“Generally, the study found that Turnitin was much more likely than competitor SafeAssign (which is part of Blackboard) to identify material as being potentially not original. But that finding shouldn’t necessarily cheer Turnitin. The researchers reported that many of the instances of “non-originality” that Turnitin finds aren’t plagiarism, but are just the use of jargon, course terms or the sort of lack of originality one might expect in a freshman paper. In other cases, the study found that Turnitin didn’t necessarily identify the correct source of plagiarized materials.”

“False positives: Many of the phrases or sentences flagged by both services — but especially the greater number identified by Turnitin — weren’t plagiarism, but were cases in which certain phrases appeared for legitimate reasons in many student papers. For example, the researchers found high percentages of flagged material in the topic terms of papers (for example “global warming”) or “topic phrases,” which they defined as the paper topic with a few words added (for example “the prevalence of childhood obesity continues to rise”).”

“Likewise, commonly used phrases generate much flagging even though writing something like “there is not enough money to go around,” while not original, wouldn’t be considered plagiarism. When the Texas Tech researchers started asking professors about some of these issues, they discovered unusual work-arounds, such as a professor who tells his students to write their papers, and then to delete any topic sentences so that their papers won’t be flagged in error.”

What if you want to check yourself?

Much of the software is for universities and professors to check their students’ work for plagiarism. I checked grammarly.com to try out a plagiarism checker.

I typed in my paragraph about myself “Dr. Kat is the president of The Cannon Agency, LLC, a St. Paul-based writing, editing, and communications consulting firm. She publishes the “She Said What?”…” and was told “significant plagiarism was detected.”

Then, to find out how to correct the plagiarism (and grammar and syntax and style), you can subscribe to a monthly, quarterly, or yearly plan. Again, I declined.

Alternatives to plagiarism software

Most university dissertation guidelines include something about plagiarism and honesty. Purdue https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/589/01/ has this to say: (Purdue University students will want to make sure that they are familiar with Purdue’s official academic dishonesty policy as well as any additional policies that their instructors have implemented.) http://www.purdue.edu/purdue/about/integrity_statement.html

The Council on Writing Program Administrators (http://wpacouncil.org/positions/WPAplagiarism.pdf) published this document about plagiarism. It’s surprisingly interesting and easy to read.


Thanks for listening to my rant. More on plagiarism and plagiarism software to come!

Dr. Kat (aka Dr. Kathleen Cannon)

Fun, fast, reasonably priced dissertation editing, coaching, and therapy.
Contact drkatcannon@dissedit.com

©2016 KathleenJCannon

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