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Can Students Trick Turnitin?

Some students believe that they can "beat" Turnitin by employing various tactics.

Audrey Campbell
Audrey Campbell






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Some students believe they can “beat” Turnitin through various means. If you google “can students trick / cheat / beat Turnitin,” chances are you’ll find plenty of results suggesting ways to do so.

We want to assure educators that we stay on top of this information and regularly update our algorithms to take such “tricks” into account. Turnitin understands that because plagiarism changes over time, we must always evolve to adapt to the latest academic integrity needs.

Since we’re well aware of these “tricks,” why are they even out there? The authors of these “tricks” are mostly essay mills. This is no coincidence: essay mills, whose end game is for students to purchase an essay, have a vested interest in attracting students back to their services.

Essay mills are likely unaware that we have a suite of products that combat the entire spectrum of cheating, which includes contract cheating. If students purchasing an essay is a concern, Turnitin products have capabilities to address essay mill papers, including data insight panels highlighting deep document metadata and flags that point out text manipulation like hidden text and character replacement.

Bottom line: reviewing our Similarity Reports, regardless of the percentage shown as the Similarity Score, is the best practice for ensuring that students aren’t able to “beat the system.”

By looking at the Similarity Reports, educators have complete transparency into whether or not academic misconduct has occurred.

What tricks do students try?

Over the years, we’ve become aware of hundreds of rumors. Here are a few “tricks”:

SWAPPING LETTERS: One commonly proposed trick is to replace a common character like "e" throughout the text of their paper with a foreign language character that looks like an "e" but is actually different (for example, a Cyrillic "e"). Turnitin’s Response: We identify text manipulation issues like character swapping and when students have swapped characters with a symbol or letter from another alphabet to circumvent integrity checks. Turnitin’s Flags Insight Panel provides instructors with the number of instances and places in the document swapped letters occur.

MACROS IN DISGUISE: Others advise using Word Macros or pdfs to disguise copied text.

Turnitin’s Response: Turnitin’s algorithms strip macros from Microsoft Word Documents for Word 2003 and prior. When we strip a macro from a Word or pdf file, whatever character the student originally had in the file will appear. If a student starts with a “~e” and replaces it with a standard “e” using macros, Feedback Studio will strip the macros and the original “~e” will appear in the paper. This means the “~e” will appear in the Similarity Report and the file available for educators to download. For Microsoft Word 2007, we don’t accept macros-enabled (.docm) files. (We do, for the record, accept standard .docx files).

THE CLOAK OF INVISIBILITY: Replace all the spaces in a paper with invisible (white) text. Orxlikexthisxwithxthexxxwhitedxout.

Turnitin’s Response: Turnitin products like Feedback Studio offer the Flags Insight Panel, which identifies white on white text. Turnitin’s Flags Insight Panel will tell the instructor how many instances of each flag appear and highlight questionable characters within the document to show where and how they are being used.

THIS IS “MY ESSAY”: Put quotation marks around the entire document.

Turnitin’s Response: This does not work because Turnitin does not automatically exclude quoted material. Only the instructor can change the default setting to exclude quoted material from Similarity Reports. The Similarity Report would also show the quotation marks at the beginning and end of a paper in the same size text as the rest of the paper. If the instructor chooses to exclude quoted material, Turnitin displays a warning when a large percentage of a paper appears within quotation marks.

A PICTURE IS WORTH A THOUSAND WORDS: Insert an image of the text so it looks, for example, like a 5-page essay.

Turnitin’s Response: Our algorithm detects paper and word length. And will flag such a paper.

Turnitin algorithms are updated on an on-going basis to make the Similarity Reports more accurate and informative. We encourage all instructors to review students’ Similarity Reports for deeper insights to support student learning and uphold academic integrity. Furthermore, Similarity Reports offer data that can help transform instances of plagiarism into teachable moments.

All of the "tricks" discussed here rely heavily on the assumption that the instructor will not look at the Similarity Report and will instead simply glance at the score number. Including a review of the Similarity Report a part of your standard practice when evaluating papers is an opportunity to support formative learning.