Posted by: Louis Lavelle on December 14, 2011
Don’t say you haven’t been warned. For some time now Bloomberg Businessweek has been reporting on a new service offered by Turnitin that checks admissions essays for signs of possible plagiarism. One business school in particular, Penn State’s Smeal College of Business, has been at the forefront of the effort to root out the problem. Smeal’s admissions director, Carrie Marcinkevage, signed on with Turnitin after her team discovered 29 cases of plagiarism in a batch of 360 essays. Irony alert: the essays were on “principled leadership.”
More business schools are signing on all the time. According to Turnitin spokesman Jeff Lorton, there are now between 10 and 20 schools currently using the service—the exact number, which includes third-party sales and b-schools covered under their institutions’ licenses, is hard to determine. The schools include Brandeis University’s International Business School, Iowa State’s College of Business, Northeastern’s College of Business Administration, UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, the Wake Forest Schools of Business, and of course Penn State’s Smeal.
The Turnitin service was launched by iParadigms in December 2009. It scans admissions essays and compares them to a huge database containing billions of pages of web content, books and journals, as well as student work previously submitted to Turnitin for a plagiarism check. Turnitin looks for instances of matching text, but leaves it to the individual schools to determine whether it’s plagiarism or an innocent mistake.
How widespread is plagiarism in admissions essays? It’s hard to tell, but a Turnitin study of 453,000 “personal statements” received by more than 300 colleges and universities in an unnamed English-speaking country found 200,000 contained text that matched sources in the Turnitin database. Of the more than 1 million matches found, Turnitin concluded that 36 percent were cases of suspected plagiarism. “It is safe to assume,” Turnitin wrote, “that more that 70,000 applicants that applied though this system did so with statements that may not have been their own work.”
Northeastern's director of graduate recruitment and admissions, Evelyn Tate, told me that she signed on with Turnitin after discovering some discrepancies in the quality of the writing found on applicants' standardized tests and in the essays submitted with their applications. In the first round of 2012 applications, at least 10 essays were flagged by Turnitin as containing possible plagiarism. In most cases the essays appeared to originate with web sites offering essays for sale. For many of the applicants, English is not their native language. Several will likely be rejected, she said.
I suspect more business schools will begin subjecting admissions essays to the plagiarism test. Is this something that MBA applicants should be worried about?
I don't think using the same essays in multiple applications will get anyone flagged as a plagiarist--there seems to be general agreement that you can't plagiarize yourself. But borrowing from sample essays found online or other online sources without attribution, even unintentionally, might result in your application being rejected.
I'm all for zero tolerance on plagiarism, but what does everyone else think? Northeastern's online application warns applicants that their essays will be reviewed for possible plagiarism. Should b-schools that use Turnitin warn applicants, or is the stealth approach okay?