Posted by: Louis Lavelle on January 20, 2010
For a long time, b-school applicants have had it good. Submit an MBA application to Harvard, and who’s going to know if you send the same one to Wharton? And Columbia? And Yale? Turn in an essay with a few well-chosen words lifted from an online source, or a friend’s essay, and who’s the wiser? Well, those days are over my friends. O-V-E-R, over.
Turnitin.com, the web site that professors have been using for years to check student research papers for plagiarism, is now turning it’s attention to admissions essays, with Turnitin for Admissions. The new service, which was announced in December, checks admissions essays submitted by participating schools against a massive database that contains billions of pages of web content as well as more than 100 million student works previously submitted to Turnitin and millions of pages of proprietary content, including journals and books. It’s capable, the company says, of flagging instances of “plagiarism, recycled submissions, duplicate responses, purchased documents, and other violations of academic standards.”
No b-schools have signed up for the service yet, but it seems only a matter of time. The service was started by popular demand from colleges and universities, and b-school admissions directors are as vocal as any in their complaints about duplicate essays and similar problems.
And they don’t even know the half of it. Back in 2007, in anticipation of the new service, Turnitin undertook a study of every single undergraduate admissions essay submitted over the course of a year in a large (unnamed) English-speaking country, all told, about 453,000 “personal statements” received by more than 300 institutions of higher education. About 200,000 of them were found to include text that matched sources in the Turnitin database.
In all, more than a million matches were found (5 for each of the 200,000 essay). Half the matches were from online sources, with 29% coming from student documents (research papers, etc.) and 20% coming from other admissions documents. Turnitin’s conclusion: that 36% of the matches it found were suspected plagiarism. Here’s an excerpt from the Turnitin report:
Personal statements attached to university applications should be the work of that applicant and help the university know more about the perspective applicant. It is safe to assume that more that 70,000 applicants that applied though this system did so with statements that may not have been their own work. The number of Internet sites that matched personal statement/essay providing services leads one to question the additional 100,000 applicants whose personal statement contained a significant match (they may have borrowed or purchased all or part of their personal statement).
The list of internet sites where most of this poaching went on includes Wikipedia, the BBC, the Guardian newspaper, as well as numerous sites designed specifically to help students with their essays, including Peterson’s Essayedge.com. A few of the sites belonged to admissions consultants, including Accepted.com and EssayEdge.com, and few others, if you can believe this, actually belong to schools themselves, including online writing labs at Purdue University and Ohio State.
I really don’t know where to begin. If the Turnitin study is at all representative of the current state of college admissions, it seems safe to assume that more than a few current MBAs, and quite a few MBA alumni who have gone on to bigger and better things, started out their academic lives committing the cardinal sin of the academy, and a serious breach of ethics. If they stammered through the essays on their own, without the benefit of cutting and pasting, would they have been admitted? Impossible to say. Did not getting caught encourage them to go on to bigger and better lies? Again, nobody knows.
I’m willing to entertain any opposing viewpoint that makes a modicum of sense, but I’m not sure there is one. Is duplicating your admissions essay okay? Is plagiarizing someone else’s work in an essay ever permissable?