Caution over Turnitin’s role in fight against essay mills

The Times Higher Education reports that universities must not cut back on efforts to catch students who use essay mills once new software to identify ghost-written papers is released later this year, experts have said.

Earlier this month, the anti-plagiarism software company Turnitin unveiled its first electronic tool to help catch students submitting work written by other people.

The product, known as Authorship Investigation, is expected to be ready by the second half of 2018 and is the first major product designed at thwarting the multimillion-pound industry of internet-ordered student essays. It will use machine learning algorithms and forensic linguistic analysis to detect major differences in students’ writing style between papers.

The Quality Assurance Agency estimates that about 17,000 students are caught using essay mills in the UK alone every year, but the real numbers using these sites worldwide are much higher.

Phil Newton, director of learning and teaching at Swansea University’s medical school, who researches academic integrity issues, said that while Turnitin’s announcement was a “welcome development”, the software would not be enough to stop contract cheating.

“We need to improve the design of our assessments, the education and support for students and staff and we need improvements in the law and regulation surrounding higher education.”

“I am sure many will feel uncomfortable about making high-stakes decisions on the basis of AI,” he said, adding that he hoped the threshold for triggering a concern will be high to “avoid the damaging effect of a ‘false positive’ accusation where a student has simply developed or changed their writing style”.

Another anti-cheating expert, Thomas Lancaster, who is associate dean for student recruitment at Staffordshire University, also expressed caution about relying on the tool too heavily.

Universities also needed to be “ready for essay mills addressing this technology”, he added. “They could, for instance, offer students a premium cheating service where they get allowed the same writer for every essay,” said Dr Lancaster.

Read more Caution over Turnitin’s role in fight against essay mills

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