IT scholar says PDF tweaks allow students’ copied work to evade detection. Hannah Fearn reports

Technological loopholes allow savvy students to beat academic plagiarism software, an IT expert has warned.

James Heather, senior lecturer in computing at the University of Surrey, has revealed that plagiarism detection systems such as Turnitin that are routinely used by universities are open to simple cheats allowing students to evade detection when submitting copied material.

The software works by extracting text from an essay or assignment and checking whether it matches text from other sources, such as documents available online.

But in a new paper, “Turnitoff: identifying and fixing a hole in current plagiarism detection software”, Dr Heather reveals that beating the system is simple.

“In their current incarnation, one can easily create a document that passes the plagiarism check regardless of how much copied material it contains. When there are loopholes that can be exploited, they give the operator a false assurance that a submission is original.”

The study, which appears in the journal Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, demonstrates ways in which students can modify plagiarised work to avoid detection.

“If we can stop the text from being properly extracted from the document, without affecting how the document looks and prints, then the software will not be able to identify any plagiarised material,” Dr Heather writes.

Read full story in Times Higher Education

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This is definitely something to look out for, and just for a point of personal interest, James is a friend of mine, and built my visual database for my PhD posters!

3 Responses

  1. Although being implemented at the institution I work for, Turnitin is seen as a formative tool for the students to use prior to submission rather than a tool to “catch” plagiarism. Because of issues like that flagged in this article (relatively trivial and obvious really), any automated tool could only contribute to an academic arms race between markers and dishonest students – however, I firmly believe that academics are pretty good plagiarism detection filters themselves, by simply recognising text which is “out of character”.

    It was suggested that google wave might make a good platform for academic assessment as it would provide a visible history of the thinking/research/drafting of the final work to make any large copy/paste operations obvious too.

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