Tuesday, 18 April 2017

iThenticate - it's here to help (Helen Young)

Photo by Jimmy Chang | unsplash.com
We all know not to plagiarise, but managing ethical publication isn’t as simple as saying ‘don’t copy’ like we got told in primary school tests.

Anyone can make a mistake, get a reference wrong, or forget to put quote marks in their notes and think the passage is a paraphrase months later. And what about quoting and citing yourself?

In this day and age of impact and engagement, we often write about the same research more than once as we try to reach the biggest audience we can. It can be hard to find new words to do it in, especially when time is a commodity nobody has enough of.

So, what’s a time-poor researcher to do?

One answer – and it’s a good one – is to take advantage of a new piece of text-matching software that La Trobe is rolling out for researchers: iThenticate. Essentially, what it does is compare the text in a document you upload with a central database of webpages, journal articles, reports, etc, and identify matching strings of words and possible sources. It can’t tell you whether that matching text is plagiarised or a problem (although it can register direct quotes). You have to work that out for yourself using your own informed judgement (and possibly that of a mentor or your peers). It tells you there’s something to think about, but doesn’t do the thinking for you.

Does this sound familiar? iThenticate is made by the same company as Turnitin, which you might have come across as an undergraduate student or in your teaching.

Before you recoil in horror, there are some big differences.

The first – and perhaps the most important – is that iThenticate doesn’t save your documents to its central database. This means that your intellectual property is protected, and you don’t’ have to worry about someone else reading your drafts.

The second difference is related to the first. iThenticate is aimed at researchers, so the database of sources it compares text with focuses on published research not on student work.

The third difference is that you as the user have control over who can see the reports iThenticate produces. The standard set-up for Turnitin lets anyone teaching a unit see the reports of all students who have submitted work. iThenticate lets you decide who else can see your reports. You can choose to share individual documents or whole folders, for example with your supervisor or perhaps co-authors. You can also make a PDF of them to share with co-authors or mentors who might not have an account.

Plagiarism might be more a moral panic than a major problem, and some scholars have suggested that ‘self-plagiarism’ is a contradiction in terms because you can’t ‘steal’ an idea from yourself. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t need to pay attention and understand what’s going on around us.

The scholarly publishing landscape has changed profoundly in the last twenty years or so, partly because of digital technology – that’s within the professional lifetimes of many of us. It’s easier to cut and paste than when you had to use actual scissors and glue, but it’s getting easier to find out when someone has done this as well.

Journal editors in particular are often very concerned that the submissions they received haven’t been recycled from elsewhere – either whole or in part. Some run all submissions through iThenticate (or similar software), while others use it to check if something raises their suspicions.  Running a final draft through iThenticate could save having to make an embarrassing explanation if you’ve made a mistake somewhere.

Disciplinary norms have changed as well. When I finished my PhD in English ten years ago, it was no problem to include chunks of text from one of my articles in it. I had a footnote somewhere in the chapter saying it was based on the publication, but that was it. Doing that now would breach University policy and could have potentially major consequences. But in all the drafts of an early thesis chapter, then the article, then the final thesis, it would be very hard to keep track of where my words originally came from.

It’s easy to come up with the same phrase twice when you’re writing about the same material. This is the kind of thing that iThenticate can be useful for. It can also help HDRs learn about the norms of their particular discipline and develop their own judgement if they use it.

iThenticate isn’t infallible. Using it can’t guarantee that your final document doesn’t contain plagiarism or another form of academic misconduct. What it can do is help you manage your publications better.

Accounts for La Trobe graduate researchers are being created. If you are currently enrolled PhD or Masters by Research candidate you will receive a welcome email with log in details by early May 2017, or within the first month of your candidature. La Trobe staff can request can account by emailing ithenticate@latrobe.edu.au 

You can find more information about academic integrity for researchers and iThenticate on the RED team webpage here.

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Helen Young has worked in research in the humanities, social sciences, and biomedical sciences. She is currently part of the Research Education and Development Team at La Trobe, and also runs a small research consultancy https://writingresearchanalysis.com

She has previously held a Discovery Early Career Research Award at the University of Sydney (2012-2015). 

Her research interests include race and whiteness, popular culture, and historiography.

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