It’s that time of year again, the second term is now behind us.  Turnitin submission and online marking figures are set to rise for the 15th year in a row.  The attention of some academics, administrators and students turns, once again, to the topic of providing students with access to Turnitin Originality reports.

What does Turnitin do?

Turnitin allows tutors to check students’ work for poor academic practice; including improper citation, poor research, and potential plagiarism, by comparing it against continuously updated databases.

The Turnitin databases against which each student submission is checked contains:

  • Over 62 billion web pages
  • Over 734 million previously and contemporaneously submitted student assignments – including over half a million submitted by students at Royal Holloway
  • Over 165 million academic documents from books and publications

The output of this checking, the Originality Report, is a visual, numerical and textual indication of the similarities between a submitted piece of work and content stored the Turnitin databases.  This portable document provides instructors with the opportunity to teach their students correct citation methods, as well as to check and further investigate the academic integrity of their students’ work.

A key component of the report is the Originality Index, a figure which shows the percentage of a submitted text which matches content in the Turnitin databases.  An assignment which has no similar content would generate a score of 0% while a verbatim copy would generate a score of 100%.  The overwhelming majority of reports here have Originality Indices of between 1 and 25%.  As an aside, an index built upon the proportion of similar content AND the number of sources would be much more useful.  Two essays with Originality Scores of 15% may be very different; that score could be generated by content from fifteen sources, or just the one.

Royal Holloway students, typically, do not have access to Originality Reports generated by their submissions to Turnitin.  This is a default position arising from traditionally low levels of staff engagement with Turnitin.

Why provide students with access to reports

There have been a variety of requests to allow students to view their Originality Reports.  While any initiative which progresses College’s use of Turnitin from a punitive model to an educational and developmental one is welcomed, this approach does not come without its challenges.  Before these are discussed you might wish to consider the following questions:

  • What is the purpose of allowing students to view Originality Reports generated by their submitted work?
  • Is there a clear pedagogic aim in allowing access to Originality Reports?
  • Is there sufficient academic resource and capability to support students in the interpretation of Originality Reports?
  • Is there sufficient administrative resource to support the necessary creation of multiple assignments with varied deadlines and settings?

Known isues

  • Allowing students to view the reports generated by their submitted assignments without allowing for a chance to edit and resubmit the work is likely to cause great concern.
  • Without ongoing access to information and support students may fail to appreciate that Turnitin does report false positives in the form of referencing and quotations.
  • Allowing unsupervised and unguided access to the reports and multiple resubmission attempts before a due date renders the system as nothing more than a ‘Laundry Room’, where students may spend their time correcting or disguising plagiarism – as opposed to writing original work in the first place.
  • This may encourage students to aim for an unrealistic Originality Index of 0%.  Such an approach to student access may undermine the advantages of using Turnitin while making no inroads into changing poor academic practices.
  • Tutors, or support staff, may not be able to distinguish and act appropriately upon a report which generates an Originality Index of 10% after several ‘informed edits’ from one generated on the first submission.  Another danger is that very low scores may be misinterpreted as attempts to disguise cheating.
  • The low uptake of staff development opportunities and the potential for misunderstanding Turnitin may be explained by time pressures.  Providing a supervised and individualised approach would be challenging in larger departments, while failing to do so may damage the student experience.
  • Informing a plagiarist that they have plagiarised is pointless, while telling a struggling international or home student that they have plagiarised is hardly conducive to a positive, progressive and trusting student experience.

Potential models of providing access to Originality Reports

Below are five models in which students are granted access to the Originality Reports generated by their submissions to Turnitin.  These are briefly described and critiqued with reference to their effectiveness.  Alongside this is an interactive tool to allow you to map and compare the models according to their pedagogic crediblity.

Essay laundry

Students are permitted to repeatedly submit work to Turnitin in advance of a coursework deadline to receive an early report on the similarity index and matching sources. The work can be resubmitted an unlimited amount of times. This approach requires a single Turnitin inbox and a slight adjustment to the settings, while students are able to generate reports for their work every 24 hours.

Each time the student receives a Turnitin report, they are able to edit their work and resubmit. This enables students to see if they have plagiarised or ‘accidently’ copied unattributed work and then repeatedly edit the work to remove instances of similarity.  Each resubmission overwrites the last, and this makes it impossible for markers, when presented with two pieces of work with the same Originality Score, to tell how many times each one has been uploaded and edited.

However, students may use this approach to slowly edit directly copied work, to reduce the similarity index to lower levels, and to obscure where the copied work may be sourced from.   While this model requires no tutor supervision or input, the academic integrity of the behaviour it facilitates is pedagogically dubious.  It is also questionable that students who are already struggling with academic writing will be able to take advantage of early pre-deadline access to originality reports.

One-time check

For a single piece of work only, students are able to submit their work once to Turnitin, before the assignment deadline, to a Test Assignment. The Test Assignment opens a few days before the deadline. Students then receive an Originality Report and are able to reflect and address any issues with academic integrity.  The Test Assignment is closed before the formal deadline, giving students time to edit their work ahead of submitting it to a Final Assignment.

The approach enables students to see what markers see, and provides an opportunity to learn how plagiarism is detected and reported, thereby disincentivising it. This can promote better student referencing and writing. This should help students to manage their time around assessment too; developing a draft in advance and editing it generally alongside any academic integrity issues. This approach stimulates students to think critically, unlike with the essay laundry approach.

Again it is also questionable that students who are already struggling with academic writing will be able to take advantage of pre-deadline access to originality reports, and do so without tutor supervision or input.

Another downside of approach, as with the option above, is that the administration time involved in setting up and closing the Test Assignment is, at least, doubled.


It is possible to provide students with their Originality Reports as part of a rich blend of feedback alongside rubrics, inline comments, markers’ summaries and numeric marks.  This has the potential to help students understand why their grade may be reduced and can illustrate markers’ comments on the use of sources.  Beyond this, it could be useful for students to reflect on the report, or to discuss it with their personal advisor to improve their work for later submissions.

While this approach may be useful retrospectively, and requires limited little academic or administrative input to achieve, it is not as useful in helping students to respond to academic issues in the assignment to which the report refers, and to improve that piece of work.

Success clearly depends upon student engagement, with the risk that that those who could benefit most from it may not make use of this feedback.  Markers often lament that students ‘only look for the mark’ and ignore the feedback if they are satisfied with what they received.  An acceptable mark may occlude academic issues that may not be acceptable in subsequent levels of study.

Early warning

It is possible for students to submit a draft assessment X days in advance, of the formal deadline, similar to the ‘One-time check’ approach. In this case, however, students are not automatically provided with access to the report. Instead, markers monitor and analyse the Originality Reports as they are generated. Those students whose work has academic integrity issues are then contacted.  They could be invited to discuss their work with the marker or a Personal Tutor, or provided with advice remotely.

While this gives students opportunity to improve their work, the increased workload for academic staff would be considerable.   It is also doubtful, again, whether those students who require such input would be able to manage what is effectively a doubling of hand-in deadlines, with a short turnaround time to improve their work.

This is not practical in larger departments, or when hand-in dates are clustered.  There is also the potential for an increased administrative overhead in creating and managing Turnitin inboxes.


This model attempts to blend the best of the four models while accepting that significant administrative and academic input are central to success in any digitally enhanced learning initiative.

Rather than submit an entire assignment, dissertation or thesis, students agree to a diet of regular, incremental submissions or re-submissions of their work.  The Originality Reports these generate are used as the basis for meetings between students and their personal tutors, supervisors or markers.  However small or large these increments are, the reports are considered to be a conversation piece in the first instance; and that support and feedback is provided to aid the understanding, interpreting and acting upon the results of the reports.

Students submit their work to Turnitin and, along with their personal tutors, supervisors or markers, are provided access to the report ahead of meeting.  After a discussion and agreed action points relating to the work, students then reflect, re-write and resubmit the work as is necessary.  The cycle continues with this submission until any academic issues are considered to have been resolved.

Originally conceived and delivered with PhD candidates in mind, and later adapted for PG students, this approach requires high levels of tutor and student engagement with the Originality Reports and the required behavioural changes that these highlight.  The challenge is re-imagining and resourcing this for routine use in UG courses.

This requires a great deal of academic input and as such is potentially the most pedagogically sound approach.  It does, however, raise questions regarding equity both between and within departments.


Where would you place each of the five models on the tension-pair chart below?

Posted by Martin King

Senior Learning Technologist; MOOC Producer; Moodle, Turnitin, Grademark, Peermark, Panopto, Turning Technologies expert.

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