TEACHING AT PITT: Turnitin pros, cons and best practices


Web resources, often blamed for a perceived flood of plagiarism, offer possible solutions to this problem in the form of platforms that claim (explicitly or implicitly) to deter or detect plagiarism.


Be transparent. Talk to your students about Turnitin, its benefits and limitations, and why you’re using it. This can help students understand the positive role that Turnitin, when thoughtfully deployed, can play in a course.

Teach academic integrity. Don’t assume that students know what plagiarism is and how to avoid it. Levels of knowledge vary widely, and it’s only fair to educate students in the social and cultural norms attached to referencing and citation practices in academic culture.

Create authentic assessments. Consider a series of assignments instead of a single paper. A student who proposes a thesis, generates an annotated bibliography, produces a first draft and so on will learn more about the writing process and find it harder to plagiarize.

Customize the platform. Turnitin lets you exclude small matches and exclude quoted and bibliographic material, measures that help reduce false positives. You can also choose whether or not your students’ submissions will become part of the Turnitin database.

One such platform, which Pitt has been using for more than 10 years, is Turnitin, available both as a standalone application and as a Canvas integration. Turnitin compares student submissions to works in its database of material to find potentially problematic similarities. It generates an Originality Report based on this comparison, a report that contains a Similarity Index score showing how much of the material from a student’s submission appeared in other sources.

But if such platforms are “imperfect tools” (Hunt and Tompkins 2014, p. 63), then what are the benefits and drawbacks of Turnitin? How can instructors who adopt the platform use it most effectively? And what misconceptions often go along with using Turnitin as an aid for identifying and preventing plagiarism?

The big myth

Instructors who adopt Turnitin need to know that it does not detect plagiarism; “It merely matches material present in a specific document uploaded to the Turnitin website to material present on the internet” (Walker 2010, p. 43). Therefore, determining whether a paper is plagiarized “requires academic judgment” (Pitchford 2012, p. 61).

Turnitin can be both under-inclusive and over-inclusive, sometimes missing cases of true plagiarism and sometimes finding high degrees of similarity between student work and previously published material even when students have diligently maintained our academic-integrity expectations (Batane 2010).

Pros and cons of Turnitin

Concerns about a toxic culture of student-instructor mistrust inform one view of Turnitin, a platform that Brabazon (205, p. 14) ominously calls “the panopticon of plagiarism.” This is a skeptical perspective about Turnitin, its limitations and its effect on student-instructor relationships (Bruton and Childers 2016).

Some at the Teaching Center share a hesitant view of Turnitin. Cressida Magaro, manager of Educational Software Consulting, the unit that principally supports Turnitin at Pitt, notes that technology is not a cure-all for the academic integrity problems that can vex an institution of higher learning: “Academic integrity is an issue of institutional culture, not technology.”

Turnitin does not itself address the issues that give rise to academic integrity problems, so it doesn’t correct those problems, instead potentially leaving students with the bad feeling that they are suspected of cheating at the very outset of a course or with the sense that their work product is being used against them and others without their consent.

Turnitin has faced lawsuits brought by groups alleging that students’ intellectual property rights to their material were violated when Turnitin added those submissions to their ever-growing database. In every case, however, Turnitin has prevailed on fair use grounds. Yet for Magaro, this still raises some ethical questions for potential users to consider: Should student work be subjected to similarity review through Turnitin as a matter of routine without any prior indication that plagiarism might be a concern?

The Teaching Center’s Lindsay Onufer, program manager and teaching consultant, cautiously takes a hopeful view of Turnitin. “It’s just a tool,” she says, “and how you use it and how well you use it really matters.” Onufer values the platform for what it can do in an extreme case of blatant plagiarism, raising a red flag that the instructor can then independently investigate further, and she sees a real deterrent benefit in using Turnitin, one that is supported by research in the field (Betts, Bostock, Elder, and Trueman 2012; Buckley and Cowap 2013).

Combining Turnitin usage with education about the norms of academic writing, according to Onufer, “provides another tool in your arsenal” for dealing effectively with academic integrity issues. In particular, less-experienced student writers can sometimes plagiarize unwittingly and therefore need formative guidance to refine their academic writing prowess.


Don’t use Turnitin reflexively. It’s a powerful tool for flagging potential plagiarism, but remember that it isn’t a plagiarism detector. Because a high Similarity Index score doesn’t automatically point to plagiarism, you must review papers carefully. “Originality reports need interpretation” by thoughtful subject-matter experts (Betts, Bostock, Elder, and Trueman 2012, p. 76).

For a consultation on these issues or other teaching concerns, please contact the Teaching Center for help.

J. D. Wright is a teaching consultant with the University Center for Teaching and Learning. He can be reached at jd_wright@pitt.edu.


Batane, Tshepo. 2010. “Turning to Turnitin to Fight Plagiarism among University Students.” Educational Technology and Society 13(2): 1-12.

Betts, Lucy R., Stephen J. Bostock, Tracey J. Elder, and Mark Trueman. 2012. “Encouraging Good Writing Practice in First-Year Psychology Students: An Intervention Using Turnitin.” Psychology Teaching Review 18(2): 74-81.

Brabazon, Tara. “Turnitin? Turnitoff: The Deskilling of Information Literacy.” Turkish Online Journal of Distance Education 16(3): 13-32.

Buckley, Emily, and Lisa Cowap. 2013. “An Evaluation of the Use of Turnitin for Electronic Submission and Marking and as a Formative Feedback Tool from an Educator’s Perspective.” British Journal of Educational Technology 44(4): 562-70.

Hunt, Jared, and Patrick Tompkins. 2014. “A Comparative Analysis of SafeAssign and Turnitin.” Inquiry: The Journal of the Virginia Community Colleges 19(1): 63-72.

Pitchford, Kay Tulley. 2012. “Mouse Click Plagiarism: Can Technology Help to Fight Back?” Practitioner Research in Higher Education 6(2): 58-68.