The Turnitin (TII) FAQ
These questions and answers have been prepared so students, instructors, and thesis advisors can better understand Turnitin, how it works, and the role it plays in supporting academic integrity in thesis publications.
For students, a basic guide to proper quoting, paraphrasing, and citing, with tips on reading a TII report, is available here.
How Turnitin Works
TII is the industry-leading software program to check the originality of text against other sources, including student work from other universities and published and Internet sources. It identifies text copied verbatim from other sources.
NPS has a license for the software. TII is not perfect, but it is one aid against plagiarism.
TII uses algorithms to check for unoriginal content. Its scope includes its vast repository of previously uploaded documents, published materials, and the Internet. When a document is uploaded, TII checks every phrase of five (5) (by default) or more words in the document against everything in its repositories. It regenerates the document with any matches color-coded; this is the TII “originality report.” Each matched source is given a different color and number.
At the end of the report, a percentage is assigned to each source/color, which indicates the percentage of the whole document that came from that source. A composite percentage is given as well, indicating the percentage of the whole document that came from all identified sources.
The report can be viewed in TII’s Document Viewer by the person who uploaded the document for review or downloaded it from TII as a PDF.
TII recognizes the structure of passages, so that a passage with simple word substitutions (e.g., “helped” in place of “assisted”) will still trigger a match. Proper paraphrasing will not trigger a match.
In a formatted NPS thesis, boilerplate text accounts for about 4-5% of the content. Numerous footnotes with lengthy book titles or URLs can contribute a sizeable amount to the composite percentage. We have seen theses with a TII score of 6% that contain significant attribution errors and other theses with scores over 20% that are uniformly well-attributed.
Studies show that TII only catches about two-thirds of unoriginal material. (Carl Straumsheim, “What Is Detected?” Inside Higher Ed, July 14, 2015.)
Also, TII can’t identify well-paraphrased passages that lack citations, borrowed images, most information in images, or material copied from sources not in its repositories (e.g., undigitized books).
TII is essentially an amped-up spell-checker. It simply identifies matches to passages found elsewhere.
Matches can include genuinely misattributed material. They also include “false positives,” or matches that do not meet the definition of plagiarism. Therefore, someone must review every match in the report to determine whether a match is a candidate for plagiarism or simply a false positive.
Here is a partial list of false positives:
- Common phrases, such as “The purpose of this thesis is to…” (7 words), “This page intentionally left blank” (5 words), “The current President of the United States is Barack Obama” (10 words), and “I would like to thank my wife, son, daughter, and dog for…” (12 words)
- Longer proper nouns, such as “the Director of Public Safety for the City of Philadelphia” (10 words)
- Book titles (because they're not between quotation marks)
- Boilerplate NPS thesis template text
- Footnote-style citations
- Long URLs
- Properly cited quotes that span two pages (TII stumbles on page breaks)
TII is a blunt instrument. As soon as TII finds a match in its repository, it lists that source, then stops looking. More likely, the NPS paper and the paper from Whatsamatta U. both contain a passage copied from the same web source.
TII’s Document Viewer (see How to Use Turnitin) hyperlinks its color-coded passages, which sometimes lead to the original web source. If not, Googling the color-coded text may locate the source.
How To Use Turnitin
Faculty and other instructors can use TII to check papers submitted to them by students for any class assignment, or only those papers that show signs of potential plagiarism upon review (see FAQs, Skill Development for signs of potential plagiarism).
We recommend letting students know on your syllabus if all or some submitted papers may be run through TII and that students are expected to adhere to the Academic Honor Code. These are common practices at many universities.
Advisors, co-advisors, and second readers may want to run drafts of their advisees’ thesis chapters through TII as chapters are developed, so they can, if necessary, counsel the student early on.
Or they may run a near-final draft through TII before they or their student signs the Thesis Release and Approval Form, attesting that the thesis is compliant with the Academic Honor Code (student), meets academic standards (advisors and chairs), and is ready for release (student and faculty).
Please be sure to set your TII account settings to NOT save a copy to the TII repository.
Faculty members, contract advisors and second readers, and library, GWC, and TPO staff and contractors.
Currently, students are not authorized to have their own NPS TII accounts (see “Why can’t students get TII accounts?” under the FAQs, Additional Policies).
No; it’s relatively easy.
TII allows for simple organization, like folders. Tailored for the educational market, TII calls these folders “Classes” and “Assignments.”
That said, there is a refamiliarization cost if you do not use TII regularly. And it can take practice to quickly differentiate between problems and false positives.
NOT if it's a thesis!
Once a document is saved to TII's repository, then a subsequent upload will produce a match as high as 100%—the document matching itself—which makes any subsequent uploads useless.
Since it's helpful to run problematic draft theses through TII more than once, it’s particularly important that thesis chapter drafts are not saved to TII’s databases.
Word docs, text files, and PDFs. LaTeX files can be saved as PDFs and then submitted to TII.
All documents must be publicly releasable with no restrictions.
It won’t allow documents over 20MB. To submit a large Word doc, first convert it to PDF, which should shrink the file size by 80–90%.
When reviewing a thesis TII report, a trained writing coach evaluates every color-coded passage to determine whether it meets the characteristics of plagiarism or is a candidate for possible plagiarism.
The evaluator adds comments to the TII report PDF, explaining the problems and offering recommendations for revision. He or she may recommend going over the report in person or by phone with any writing coach. He or she recommends students with apparent issues discuss the report and evaluation with advisors.
The evaluator may also comment on TII’s false-positives to help the student understand the report. (See FAQs, How Turnitin Works for more guidelines on evaluation criteria.)
Finally, comments may be added to explain how to fix a false-positive, such as adding a forgotten open-quotation mark.
Yes, if the problems are non-trivial.
In particular, TII may flag passages that are field-specific common knowledge and thus exempt from citation requirements. Advisors can help with this determination. They can also stress with authority the importance of citing, quoting, and paraphrasing correctly.
How the NPS Thesis Processing Office and Graduate Writing Center Use Turnitin
The TPO, as the NPS unit that publishes theses, is responsible within its resource base for publishing theses that do not contain knowingly plagiarized material or personally identifiable information (PII), meet copyediting and formatting standards, have all necessary signatures, are properly marked with the faculty-designated DOD distribution statement(s), and have permission to use copyrighted material.
TII is an automated tool that allows users to more easily and quickly:
- Identify issues with verbatim copied material that hasn't been cited
- Identify incomplete paraphrasing
- Teach proper citing, quoting, paraphrasing, and summarizing methods while documents are still in draft stage.
Any student who has been away from academia for a few years has likley forgotten some of the attribution norms and rules.
Few faculty members have used TII. When used infrequently, TII takes more time and effort to use. Faculty members are especially strapped for time.
Thesis processors and writing coaches are trained on how to coach students to properly cite, quote, and paraphrase. A few also use TII often enough to maintain efficiencies. Finally, members of our team share template explanations, emails, and “best practices.”
This service is supplementary to efforts by faculty. Students are best served when faculty and writing coaches work together to educate students about proper use of sources.
Yes, but only under three conditions:
- The Initial Draft appeared to have serious plagiarism issues.
- No Initial Draft was submitted.
- Thesis processors notice signs of potential problems, such as changes in tone, writing style, font, margins, citation style, and the like during Final Draft review.
This is strongly encouraged for students who had problems with their Initial Drafts. The student or advisor requests this by emailing Thesis Processing.
The student should coordinate requests for additional runs by emailing Thesis Processing. The request may return to the same report evaluator, depending on availability.
Evaluators rely on TII’s color-coding to direct their attention. They look for material that has not been attributed properly—material that has been copied from another source but lacks quotation marks, block quoting, or citations; quotations that are not formatted correctly; directly quoted material that has a citation but no quotation marks; and incomplete paraphrasing. The evaluator then recommends what needs to be done to correct the issue.
Often, the evaluator will recommend that the student consult with his or her advisor, especially on text that may be field-specific common knowledge. The evaluator may comment on TII’s false-positives so that the student will understand exactly what TII provides.
- Open the PDF.
- Select the “Comment” button (upper right).
- Select the “Comments List.”
- Click through each comment, in turn, from the list.
- The PDF will automatically go to the page where the comment was placed.
When Thesis Processing is overloaded, some of the writing coaches voluntarily pitch in by running and evaluating TII reports. This is appropriate, given that a significant portion of students need some guidance to make corrections.
Final Draft analysis is always done by the GWC/TPO Director or the GWC Deputy Director.
The procedure is to make an appointment with a writing coach, email him or her the document at least 24 hours ahead of time, and request a TII evaluation.
The coach will ask the student to confirm that to the best of his or her knowledge the draft paper contains no restricted information.
The coach will run the document through TII and go over the results with the student during the appointment, explaining proper methods (if necessary) and false positives.
If no issues are identified and the student is familiar with TII reports, an appointment may not be necessary.
Students currently are not given accounts for three reasons:
- Students can use TII’s feedback to help them willfully avoid detection of plagiarism. (See Marc Parry, “Software Catches (and Also Helps) Young Plagiarists,” Chronicle of Higher Education, November 06, 2011.)
- If students need guidance on how to properly cite, quote, and paraphrase others’ work, they are more likely to receive it if the TII report is provided to them by a faculty member or writing coach.
- There is some concern that students would be more likely than faculty or staff to permanently upload their documents to TII’s databases, making it impossible to check future versions through TII.
Principles of Citing
Identifying the source author affords the reader full opportunity to validate or falsify the authority, bias, or any other form of legitimacy that reflects on the accuracy, quality, or evidentiary value of the material.
By the same token, the reader has the right to assess the source medium, whether peer-reviewed journal or academic-press book, a publication with less rigorous standards, website matter, spoken words, private correspondence, and the like.
Finally, the ethics of academia require that authors and other sources be given appropriate credit for their original words, ideas, and data.
Yes, if the material used is from a copyrighted source. In that case, the “fair use” provisions of copyright law may permit use of limited amounts of copyrighted material—less than 10 percent of the total or less than one page of quoted text—without the permission of the original author.
Failure to properly credit the original author, however, weakens a fair use claim. See the DKL page Copyright at NPS for more information.
Yes. While basic citation rules and formatting apply, the citation for a figure or table should be listed in full and under the figure or table. In the thesis template, the Figure Caption or Table Caption style should be applied to the citation.
If a figure or table is borrowed exactly from another source with no changes, the borrower lists “Source:” before the citation. If the figure or table is only partially borrowed or has been changed in any way, the borrower lists “Adapted from” before the citation. If the components of the figure or table come from multiple sources, all should be listed in the citation.
By adding a citation or signal phrase to the sentence in which the information occurs.
If direct quotes are (generally) less than five lines long, they are placed between quotation marks as part of a sentence, then the source is cited within or at the end of the sentence. The sentence should begin with a signal phrase or other text, not a quotation mark.
If direct quotes are (generally) more than five lines long, they are set off in block-quote style, meaning the signal phrase preceding the quote is followed by a colon, the quote follows on a new indented line and is single spaced, and the citation is placed at the end of the quote. Quotation marks are not used around block quotes.
By adding a citation or signal phrase to the sentence in which the item occurs.
Rarely. It must be clear at all times who is contributing: the paper author or the source author.
When using a source for the first time, a sound policy is to identify the source’s credentials as authority for the material to set up the paraphrase, then cite the source at the end of the paraphrase.
For subsequent uses of the same source, use brief signal phrases or citations to clearly indicate the start- and end-points of the source’s contribution. In the absence of clear citations or signal phrases, the reader assumes that the ideas contained in a sentence belong to the author.
If a direct quote from the same source is used within a paragraph of paraphrased or summarized material, the sentence with the quote should be cited.
The text preceding the list should indicate the source(s) using a signal phrase and, if appropriate, its qualifications as evidence.
If there is one source, a citation should be added to the end of the last list item, on the same line. Quotation marks are not needed, as long as the signal phrase indicates the list that follows is "as stated in."
Yes. If multiple voices are blended into a single list, the author must make clear who the source is at all times. Normally, each paraphrased or quoted item would have its own citation. In such lists, quotation marks are required for quoted material.
Plagiarism is the borrowing of another author’s or source’s words, ideas, or data without giving credit. Written works are assumed to be the author’s invention, unless otherwise indicated. Quoted, paraphrased, and summarized information from others must be attributed to their source.
The exception is that common knowledge and field-specific common knowledge need not be cited if they are rarely disputed.
Yes. The NPS Academic Honor Code, NPSINST 5370.4C (11 February 2016), violations section, defines plagiarism as: “Submitting material that in part or whole is not one’s own work without proper attribution. Plagiarism is further defined as the use, without giving reasonable and appropriate credit to or acknowledging the author or source, of another person’s original work, whether such work is made up of code, formulas, ideas, language, research, strategies, writing of other form(s).”
[Department of the Navy, Academic Honor Code (NPSINST 5370.4C) (Monterey, CA: Naval Postgraduate School, 2016), Enclosure 1.]
Academia at large and the publishing world do not distinguish between inadvertent and willful misattribution in assessing whether authors are guilty of a violation. Authors are expected to know the rules.
Likewise, the NPS Honor Code definition of plagiarism does not differentiate between inadvertent and willful plagiarism; however, part 2.c. of the Honor Code, the procedures section, states that a charge must be referred to an Honor Board when “there is some credible evidence of a willful violation.”
Regardless, Thesis Processing will not knowingly publish a thesis that contains plagiarized material.
By the Honor Code rules, when a Final Draft thesis has been submitted to Thesis Processing and the student has signed the Thesis Release and Approval Form, the student is henceforth responsible for any instances of apparently willful plagiarism and must be referred to the Honor Board if instances are discovered.
Final Drafts with potential plagiarism may be discussed with the advisors and chair. The GWC/TPO Director determines whether to forward the case to the Dean of Students for an Honor Board or to work with the student to correct inadvertent plagiarism.
A 2013 study of U.S. colleges indicated that plagiarism occurred for four major reasons:
1) Lack of research skills (34%)
2) Lack of time (26%)
3) Careless notetaking (22%)
4) Confusion about how to cite sources (18%)
(Rob Greenburg, “The Problem of Plagiarism among Students,” HubPages, Intellectual Property Law, last modified March 11, 2013.)
- Evidence of shortcuts in other areas (sloppiness)
- Few or no citations
- Sudden changes of tone or style
- Change in formatting, including font size or style, margins, and citation style
- Text indicates an outside source, but there is no citation with or near the text
- Weak organization and argumentation
- Quite a bit of information but little analysis
- Inclusion of irrelevant material
- Clearly borrowed figures and table data with no source listed.
Often, the literature review, which is most dependent on existing literature, is where most plagiarism occurs. It’s less likely to be found in the original research chapters. But we’ve seen theses that are littered with misattribution throughout the document, including, even, in the abstract, introduction, and conclusion.
We also see plagiarism more frequently in figures and tables than in other areas.