Pilot Program Takes Aim at Plagiarism

Sociology class is guinea pig as Harvard tests anti-copycat software

Instructors in one sociology course will use anti-plagiarism software to catch copycats in their class, as part of a new pilot program run by Harvard’s Instructional Computing Group (ICG).

The program was launched before The Crimson discontinued two editorial-page series amid evidence that the authors had lifted material from other sources—but after plagiarism allegations against novelist Kaavya Viswanathan ’08 led her publisher to pull her book from the shelves.

The one Harvard class that is piloting the anti-plagiarism service TurnItIn is Sociology 189, “Law and Social Movements,” according to Harvard’s director of instructional computing, Paul F. Bergen.

TurnItIn is a software system that searches for similarities between work submitted to the service and text from an expansive database of billions of Web pages, academic journals, and previous submissions, according to the company’s Web site.

Bergen said the trial was initiated in response to a request from a Faculty member, but he did not identify the instructor.

“We have not publicized the trial. Thus far, Sociology 189 is the only course using the service,” Bergen said. “We will accept only a small number of others while we assess the product itself and associated support strategies during this academic year.”

Assistant Professor of Sociology Tamara Kay, who teaches the course, said she has experienced problems with academic misconduct in the past.

“One of the most distressing aspects of plagiarism for professors is that if students are copying the work of others, they are not learning—and [professors] are first and foremost committed to their students’ intellectual growth,” Kay wrote in an e-mail.

According to Kay, few professors have time to catch students who plagiarize if they are focused on “helping students learn to write more effectively and giving them constructive feedback.”

It’s not the first time anti-plagiarism software has turned up in a Harvard social science course. A visiting professor from the University of Virginia used a similar service, Eve2, in Government 1790, “American Foreign Policy,” in fall 2002.

And TurnItIn’s client list also includes Georgetown, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, more than a dozen other universities, as well as educational institutions in Australia, Canada, Egypt, Lebanon, New Zealand, Shanghai, and the U.K. Several U.S. high schools have also signed on.

Katherine E. Smith ’10, a student in Kay’s course, said her high school began using the service two years ago in response to a “big plagiarism problem.”

“As far as cutting down plagiarism, [the site] was very, very effective,” Smith said.

But TurnItIn offers more than just services designed to catch students in the act of plagiarism. “It’s a tool to help students understand what plagiarism is and how to avoid it,” Kay said. She added that the company’s Web site “can help educate students and protect them from having their own work plagiarized by others.”

Laura C. Mumm ’09, also a student in Kay’s class, said she has no objections to submitting her work to the service.

“[The site] is not that different from what we’ve done before in this or other classes. Now it’s just on an official Web site,” Mumm said.

According to Bergen, the trial will run throughout the academic year. He added that a date for widely releasing the software to the College has not been determined.

“We need a more thorough assessment of the product before we can make it more widely available,” Bergen said.