Pennsylvania State University knows if you really wrote that essay. Or at least it knows if you copied it word-for- word from a publically available source. Earlier this month PR Newswire gleefully announced that,

iParadigms, the global leader in plagiarism prevention, today announced that its Turnitin for Admissions service has been selected by the Penn State Smeal College of Business. Applicants to Penn State’s Master of Business Administration (MBA) program will have their admissions essays verified by Turnitin for Admissions.

Penn State became the first college in the country to publicly announce that it uses a plagiarization detection program in its admissions program.

One of the obvious problems with this decision is that the essay doesn’t really matter much in the admissions process. The most important factors in the admission decisions at MBA programs have long been applicants’ undergraduate grades and scores on standardized tests. This is at least somewhat appropriate. Indeed, if businessmen write at all in the course of their careers their writing mostly consists of material copied and then altered from administrative assistants, interns, and lower-level staff.

Another problem, however, is that Turnitin, like any other software, isn’t perfect. According to an article by Scott Jaschik in Inside Higher Ed:

Others worry about due process: Current students accused of plagiarism on the basis of a Turnitin (or a competitor company’s) review have whatever rights their colleges give those accused of academic dishonesty. Colleges almost never tell applicants why they are rejected, however, so some fear that this system could lead to some would-be students being rejected on the basis of “false positives” for plagiarism on their admissions essays — an accusation that they may never know about.

In fact software that’s supposed to detect plagiarized material often either can’t detect it when it does occur or does detect it when it actually isn’t there. Turnitin in particular frequently calls common phrases like “there is not enough money to go around” plagiarizing even though it isn’t, it’s just making use of a cliché. Most software can also only catch material if it appears on a website. If the text only appears in a published book the software can’t tell.

About 9,000 high schools and colleges are customers of Turnitin.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer