MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Students are heading back to campus and when they finish that first paper of the year, a growing number will have to do something their parents never did - run their work through anti-plagiarism software. One company behind it is called Turnitin. And as Cory Turner of the NPR team reports, the database it uses to catch potential cheaters is big.
CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Really, really, really big.
CHRIS HARRICK: Automatically that paper gets checked against about 45 billion web pages, 110 million content items from publishers, scientific journals, et cetera, and 400 million student papers to provide an originality report.
TURNER: Chris Harrick, he's VP of marketing for Turnitin. He says the company is used by more than half of all higher ed institutions in the U.S. and by roughly a quarter of all high schools. They're not the only company doing this, but they are the biggest. Here's how it works. A student submits her paper through Turnitin's website. The company's algorithms then compare strings of text against its database. And as Harrick said, it doesn't just check the Internet. Most of the papers, once they've been run through the system and scrubbed of student names, stay in the system. When all the comparing is done teacher gets a report that says...
HARRICK: This percentage of this paper matches the sources that we crawl and index in our databases.
TURNER: The report never says, this is plagiarism - just, this is similar. And one complaint is that the service turns up false positives. The report color codes suspect passages and gives links to the material they matched so a teacher can decide for herself, instead of the old way.
JENNIFER SCHROEDER: I would basically have to do Google searches.
TURNER: Jennifer Schroeder teaches biology at Milliken University in Illinois and she has embraced Turnitin in a big way. The reason...
SCHROEDER: I saw a lot of cases of students that simply didn't know what to do.
TOM DEE: It's not necessarily bad intent, it's just bad practices.
TURNER: Tom Dee is a professor in the graduate school of education at Stanford. He also co-authored a study exploring why students plagiarize. When Dee's team gave students an early tutorial on what is and is not plagiarism...
DEE: We saw a substantial reduction in plagiarism.
TURNER: He found lots of students simply don't understand the rules of proper citation. That's one reason Rebecca Moore Howard, a Professor of writing and rhetoric at Syracuse University, is not a fan of Turnitin. Here's another reason.
REBECCA MOORE HOWARD: The use of a plagiarism-detecting service implicitly positions teachers and students in an adversarial position.
TURNER: Howard says it is policing without probable cause.
HOWARD: The students have to prove themselves innocent before their work can be read and graded.
TURNER: Stanford's Tom Dee also has this caution.
DEE: These tools are the hammer or a scalpel. Whether using them is helpful or hurtful depends on the care and discretion with which they're used.
TURNER: For Jennifer Schroeder, the software is a scalpel. She asks her students to use Turnitin on rough drafts so they can learn from their mistakes - no penalty, no trip to the Dean's office. But Emma Zaballos, a senior at American University, says she had a professor who used Turnitin like a hammer against suspected plagiarists.
EMMA ZABALLOS: And like, would report them to the academic board, would attempt to have them expelled. He was very serious about it.
TURNER: Plenty of plagiarism is intentional, though it's hard to know how much cheating is really happening. Many of the matches Turnitin finds come from paper mills, cheats sites, and its own paper database. And as the technology improves, some students intent on cheating will find ways to outsmart it. But with the company adding 300,000 student papers a day, intentional plagiarism is riskier than ever. So Zaballos has some advice for students who find themselves in a cold sweat, deadline approaching but no paper to show for it.
ZABALLOS: A zero will ruin your GPA but it won't get you thrown out of school.
TURNER: And you can quote her on that. Cory Turner NPR News, Washington.