College Uses Web Plagiarism Checks

Admissions office catches a ‘handful’ of plagiarists each year with online programs

As college applicants face escalating competition to get accepted to selective colleges, admissions offices—including Harvard’s—are increasingly using internet resources to catch plagiarism in application essays.

According to Dean of Admissions William R. Fitzsimmons ’67, the admissions committee tends to catch a “handful” of would-be plagiarists each year using electronic sources in addition to admissions officers’ judgment.

Occasionally, he said, attempts are “clearly obvious” to application reviewers, as when students copy college essay books word for word.

“There may well be instances that get by us every year. There’s no way to know for sure,” he said in a phone interview.

According to Fitzsimmons, students can, and a few likely do, purchase essays from various private sources. Electronic scanning sources cannot detect these works, since while they are not the students’ own, they are not technically unoriginal.

Fitzsimmons said that the College has been using online resources since they became available over a decade ago. But the admissions committee also depends, as it has since before these online resources became available, on admissions officers’ intuition.

Fitzsimmons said that the committee is generally prompted to check the originality of application essays for a variety of reasons, such as when a reader assigned to a specific geographic region finds similarities between essays from that region.

Admissions officers also take notice when familiar passages from well-known pieces published in essay books appear in applicants’ essays, or when essays contain writing that doesn’t seem to match the rest of the student’s profile, Fitzsimmons added.

“Certainly there are times when there is an essay that seems much, much better than what a student would have been able to produce,” he said, citing the gap between essay quality and grades or test scores as indicators of this incongruity.

In the event that plagiarism is detected, the committee contacts the student and allows him or her the opportunity to provide an explanation. If the student’s response does not suffice, the application is rejected.

Fitzsimmons did not say which online resources the admissions office uses to catch plagiarists. But at least one specific resource has been used to detect plagiarism at Harvard.

This past fall, the instructors in Sociology 189, “Law and Social Movements,” used Turnitin.com to scan students’ work as part of a plagiarism-detection pilot program run by Harvard’s Instructional Computing Group (ICG). The nine-year-old Web site, which added an admissions-essay service in 2004, has screened 27,000 admissions essays and found 11 percent to contain at least one-quarter of un-original material, according to The Wall Street Journal.

—Staff writer Aditi Balakrishna can be reached at balakris@fas.harvard.edu.