As business schools make choices this month and next on their autumn intake, admissions officers are looking even more closely at submissions following the disclosure by UCLA Anderson School of Management that it has rejected 52 applicants to its MBA programme, suspecting they had plagiarised more than 10 per cent of their admissions essays.

Post-financial crisis, schools have been busy refocusing students on business ethics and honour codes, only to find themselves prey to a more mundane violation – copy and paste. And while many believe plagiarism in coursework is on the retreat, business schools are now seeing it increase at the admissions stage.

“Places on exceptional MBA programmes are scarce commodities and the economic return is so substantial that some people are prepared to risk and to try things that would gain them an unfair advantage,” says Dave Wilson, chief executive of the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), which has invested heavily in biometric palm-vein technology to defeat applicants who try to cheat its Graduate Management Admission Test.

Of course, passing off someone else’s work as your own is an ancient practice – and Confucian-based cultures, such as China and Taiwan for example, take a more benign view. But the rise of the web means internet plagiarism has become a significant challenge to the integrity and reputation of schools and universities.

“Ever since Enron and the 2008 crash, there has been a huge amount of attention given to schools introducing discussions on ethics into their curricula,” says Andrew Ainslie, senior associate dean on the MBA programme at UCLA Anderson.

“But I believe it’s equally important that our actions are consistent with our ideals and ensure business schools don’t hand out certification to an unethical person.”

Turnitin software sits on the frontline of this battle against online plagiarism. Other detection software is available, including Viper and Ephorus. However, Turnitin, marketed by Oakland company iParadigms and backed by private equity firm Warburg Pincus, has the largest English-language database: 20bn web pages, 110m “scholarly items” secured through partnerships with publishers, and 200m papers submitted to the service. About 300,000 dissertations have just been added from ProQuest, the clearing house for English-
language theses. Any thesis or dissertation published since 2008 is now indexed in the Turnitin database.

According to iParadigms, more than 70 per cent of higher education institutions in North America and almost 95 per cent in the UK have a Turnitin licence. Faculty staff checking essays against the Turnitin database are given a plagiarism percentage score, leaving it to them, or their institution, to decide what is acceptable.

Patrick O’Sullivan, Grenoble Graduate School of Business’s director of studies, introduced Turnitin to the school having used it previously at Cardiff University in the UK. He says it has resulted in a drop in plagiarism from about 1 in 10 essays to 1 in 100.

“We noticed initially a rise – because we were detecting more,” Mr O’Sullivan says. “And then a fall in the last two years – particularly dramatic in the last year. It seems the word has got out among students.”

At the start of each academic year, in a session on “academic writing”, Mr O’Sullivan takes pre-emptive steps, explaining how to reference properly and thus avoid unintentional plagiarism. He also gives students a demonstration of how Turnitin works.

A recent study by a California State University cognitive psychologist suggested students who knew their work was going to be checked in Turnitin were not deterred from plagiarising. But Mr O’Sullivan says that his experience is the opposite.

“I used to be a rugby referee and was a big advocate of preventative refereeing – warning players in advance not to stray offside,” he says. “With students, I show them the similarity index, and that warning is virtually eliminating plagiarism.”

Turnitin costs about $2 per student per year, but some academics have reservations beyond the cost. Concerns such as accidental plagiarism – two people coming up with the same phrase, or repeating something they had written before. Some have questioned the ethics of a supplier that also markets software to students (WriteCheck) that enables them to check their work against the database – essentially arming both sides in the plagiarism war. And students regularly query how and why their essays end up in the Turnitin database.

“The agreement to store papers in the Turnitin database is part of the end-user agreement,” says Chris Harrick, marketing vice-president at iParadigms. “The student maintains the copyright to the works and Turnitin is able to use the paper for originality- checking purposes only under fair use.”

According to Oliver Matthews, head of MBA admissions at St Gallen in Switzerland, the battlefront has now moved to admissions.

“After a few people are caught in the first few modules, plagiarism rarely becomes a problem during the remainder of the MBA. But there has been a growth in plagiarism for the admissions essays, to the point that all admissions essays are now scanned for plagiarism as well.

“The reasons often come down to applicants trying to save time, either by copying from the internet or other sources, or by paying essay-writing companies to provide them with content. Either way, the number of applications rejected on plagiarism has been growing over time.”

The trend means other admissions officers are debating whether they too should use software such as Turnitin, or reconsider the role of essays in the admission process.

“We talked about the UCLA Anderson story here, to check whether we needed to do something similar,” says Elaine Romanelli, senior associate dean at Georgetown McDonough School of Business.

“We use Turnitin here. but not on admissions essays. However, we do avoid essay questions like ‘explain the role of business schools in preventing another financial meltdown’, because we know they are more likely to find answers to these on the internet.”

Prof Ainslie maintains that the essay still has an important function, but alongside good documentation of work and university experience and letters from referees. “We are really looking for consistency and the essays are one more source of data, so we will continue to use them,” he says.

Fans of Turnitin have suggested a role for a body such as GMAC, keeping a central register of applicants who have been rejected for plagiarism. But schools are wary.

“We can make sure we make every effort to ensure plagiarism really took place, but I don’t have that control over other schools,” says Prof Ainslie. “I’d be very sad if someone’s name ended up on that register by accident.”

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