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Academic Integrity Toolkit

The tools you need to help you succeed in university study

What is a Turnitin report and how can it help with your referencing?

You may have been told that your work will go through Turnitin when it is submitted, and wondered what Turnitin is. A common misconception you will hear is that Turnitin is a plagiarism checker. In fact Turnitin is a tool which, if properly used and if your tutor enables it, can help you to work with academic integrity when you are referring to sources in your writing.

Turnitin is a program which checks your work for originality: that is, it searches through its database of published texts, webpages and student assignments to see if there are any areas which have a significant match to your work. Turnitin is NOT a plagiarism detector. Your tutor will use Turnitin to alert them to possible problems, but they are also familiar with your writing and with the literature in your field, and they will use their experience and academic judgement to identify any issues with your use of references.

- You cannot rely on Turnitin to do the work of checking your references for you.

- You still need to make sure that you understand when and how to cite your sources.

- If you know how to do this, you may then be able to use Turnitin to help you with checking and improving your work.

Different Schools use Turnitin in different ways, but you may have the opportunity to submit a draft assignment before submitting your final version. This will produce a ‘Similarity Report’ which you can use to help you revise your work. Note that a Turnitin report with a low percentage does not guarantee that your work is free of plagiarism or other poor academic practice; the system does not detect all matches.

Your University will provide guidance on how to submit assignments through Turnitin. If you are a student at the University of Reading, this guidance is provided via the Support for Students tab on Blackboard.

Some tips from the TEL team at the University of Reading:

If you can't see your report - This may mean that your assignment submission has not been set up for you to access it. Note that it does take a few minutes for the report to be generated once you submit the work and, if you are resubmitting, you will have to wait 24 hours for the revised similarity report to overwrite the original report in the Turnitin database. Note that this delay does not apply to your assignment submission.
Check your images - Turnitin only checks text. So you will have to remember to also check any photos, graphs, tables and other images you've included with your work to make sure their sources are properly acknowledged.
Paraphrases still need a citation - If you've written up something you've read in your own words, you will still need to show where you got the ideas from. Turnitin won't pick them up, so it's up to you to make sure they're all correctly referenced. Good record-keeping and note-taking can help with this.
Turnitin's database doesn't include everything - It does not include every possible source that you might consult, and may not include the full text of sources you've consulted. However your tutor will not only rely on Turnitin to detect plagiarism or poor academic practice in an assignment and nor should you.

In the end, the best way to avoid plagiarism is to understand how and when to use references, and to have good record-keeping and note-making practices. Turnitin can help you improve your work, but it can't do it for you.

What should I do with my Turnitin report?

So now you have a Turnitin report on your work - what should you do next?

The important thing to know is that it's not just about checking your score. You can't rely on a low percentage score to mean that your work is free from plagiarism. It may mean that you do not have many errors, but the errors you have may be significant. Likewise, you shouldn't panic if you have a high percentage as there may have been many common phrases detected. Whatever your score, you need to go through the report and check each of the matches that have been highlighted. Then you can decide whether they can be ignored, or if you need to do any revisions: adding citations, cutting down on the number of quotes, or making sure any direct quotes are marked up properly, for instance.

One thing you definitely shouldn't do is try to reduce the percentage score by changing a few words and repeatedly resubmitting. This will result in writing that is muddled and difficult to read, and does not improve your understanding for the future, so you are likely to have to spend just as much time tweaking your work in future. There is also the problem that you have to wait 24 hours between each resubmission for a new similarity report to be produced, so your final submission is likely to be delayed - you may even lose marks through late submission. It is much better academic practice to take a systematic approach, working through the report and writing new paraphrases where they are needed.

Check through your matches:

- You may have a high percentage of matches but find they're mostly quotations, marked up and cited. In this case, you need to consider if there are too many direct quotes in your work. Using a lot of quotes can make your work look very derivative and is likely to mean that you have not got enough critical analysis. If you can explain something in your own words, you show your marker that you have understood the ideas. Try keeping direct quotes for times when it's vital to include the exact words: when you want to discuss something about the actual language used or illustrate a point, for instance.

- You may have a number of matches with other student essays. This may just be common phrases but it is worth checking the sources of each to make sure that you do not have a large number from one particular source. It may be completely coincidental, but there can be problems if you have borrowed notes, or used an online essay as a source, for example. Rewriting the matched passages will be a sensible option here.

- There may be missing details which will trigger a match. For instance, you may have forgotten to include a citation, but you might also have included author and date details, but missed out page number on the citation for a direct quote. Check that you have included all the necessary details. If you can't find them in your notes, try Googling a quote (in double quotation marks).

- If you have a low score, make sure that the matches you do have are not significant ones. They may be just a few common phrases, in which case you can ignore them. But they may be sentences you have accidentally copied without acknowledgement, and these will count as plagiarism whatever your intentions, and however small the copied text is.

If you are able to resubmit and check your work again before submission, remember that it will take 24 hours for Turnitin to overwrite your previous similarity report and check the new submission to produce a new report. (Note that your actual assignment submission is not subject to this delay - it is only the case if you want a new similarity report.) So make sure you've been thorough in checking through and revising your work the first time before you resubmit.

Using 'free' online reference checkers

If you are not feeling very confident about your referencing, you may think about using one of the many free online reference checkers. We advise against this for the following reasons:

- Even well-funded and long-established originality checkers like Turnitin do not cover every published (or unpublished text) which you may have used in your preparation for writing. Free checkers are likely to miss many published texts. So relying on them to check your work means laying yourself open to possible examples of plagiarism being missed by the checker.

- It has been known for 'free' checkers to take assignments submitted for checking and sell them on to other students. This makes it likely that your own work will find its way into Turnitin as a submitted assignment from another student - and you could be accused of plagiarism despite having written the work!