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Turnitin flagging checks offered on Chinese website Taobao

Services that appear to enable students to check if their plagiarised essays will be flagged by Turnitin have been paid for thousands of times, according to the Chinese website Taobao.

Photo: pexels

Turnitin is an internet-based plagiarism detection service that is used in 98% of UK universities, according to the company’s website.

The online shopping platform Taobao is the host for one service that is offering a Turnitin plagiarism check report for eight yuan (roughly 92p at the time of writing).

Another advert is offering “direct detection on the official website“.

“Just three steps: open the official website, upload articles, view the report Official website authenticity testing… Applicable to graduation thesis, Essay, Paper, SCI and other journals, professional title papers, etc,” the advert says.

According to Taobao, the four most popular of these services have been used over 10,000 times and many other services have been used over 1,000 times.

Many of the services say they can check for AI detection.

And numerous adverts were listed on Taobao for similar services.

Turnitin plagiarism checking services have also been advertised on social media.

“Turnutin check services, fast response and fast processing,” one account on Twitter advertised.

The PIE News contacted Turnitin for comment but did not receive a reply.

“Used in 98% of UK universities, Turnitin has been a partner for higher education in the UK for over 15 years,” the internet-based plagiarism detection service says on its website.

“Our journey has taken us from plagiarism detection to academic integrity, evolving to support new and emerging misconduct threats. We are committed to continuing to collaborate with you to address current and future issues facing the sector,” the company says.

Speaking on the services advertised on Taobao, Thomas Lancaster, a computer scientist and expert on contract cheating and plagiarism at Imperial College London, said that it was difficult to know exactly what the services are doing.

“It reads to me as if they have access to someone in the UK with a Turnitin account and they’re running essays through that account,” he told The PIE.

“Those kinds of services can be found advertised in English as well, but the apparent scale here is huge.”

AI detection 

It was recently suggested in the Telegraph that Turnitin will help flag papers that have been written with the open source AI tool ChatGPT.

Lancaster said he thinks Taobao services are advertising more towards the traditional originality checking side of Turnitin, rather than AI detection.

However, he said that AI detection is problematic regardless.

“The systems are not always accurate. They can say that work has been written by AI when it was done by hand. So, my experience is that UK universities are being cautious about using those systems,” he said.

“There are other approaches that UK universities need to consider, including thinking about how to include AI systems in teaching and considering what types of assessments work best for students in an AI world.”

“We need to rethink both assessment and plagiarism detection in the new world of AI. There’s a debate going on about this at the moment,” Nick Hillman, director of HEPI told The PIE.

“Some people would be content to see more oral examinations, but they are labour intensive and don’t test every important skill.

“Others would like to see a return to traditional hand-written examinations, which are far from completely reliable. And some favour a return to teacher assessment.”

Hillman suggested it might be necessary to use a mix of assessment techniques in the future.

“In the meantime, the plagiarism detectors need to up their game or they’ll be out of business,” he added.

A spokesperson for The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education told The PIE that current detection software often fails to accurately identify AI generated text, sometimes even wrongly flagging student-written work.

“The plagiarism detectors need to up their game or they’ll be out of business”

They added that as generative AI tools develop, detection software will likely remain one step behind the latest advances.

“We believe the sector’s efforts are better spent partnering with students to decide what is appropriate use of AI, upskilling staff and students on its use and designing authentic assessment that prepares students for life after graduation,” the spokesperson said.

A spokesperson for Universities UK told The PIE that universities are “absolutely committed” to academic integrity and have become increasingly experienced at dealing with the issues raised by new technology such as AI.

“They work with students from day-one to underline the implications of misconduct and how it can be avoided. We are sure universities will look forward to considering the potential of the new services like Turnitin to support these efforts,” the spokesperson said.

UPDATE: May 30, 10:00am. Turnitin has responded to The PIE News:

A Turnitin spokesperson said: <

“First, it is important to note that AI writing and plagiarism are two different issues, related to two distinct types of potential academic misconduct. AI writing tools like ChatGPT develop “new” content based on selecting the next, most probable word based on a prompt from the user. Plagiarism requires a reference text or texts that the plagiarising individual or plagiarism tool can pull from – you can think of this as copy/paste cheating. 

Turnitin detects AI writing by tracking the statistical signature of AI writing tools based on the extraordinary predictability of the language that is selected. With potential plagiarism, Turnitin detects similarity of the submission to existing documents or texts. In both cases, the information provided to educators is not a determination of cheating. It is designed to facilitate conversations between educators and students about academic integrity and formative assessment. 

Selling access to information on whether Turnitin will detect plagiarism or AI writing is not the same as making a given text undetectable. All that being said, the claims that these companies are making are not based on how we actually detect AI writing and therefore they cannot accurately perform the services they claim. To determine whether a paper will be flagged for AI writing or plagiarism, the user would require an active and approved license with Turnitin.”

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