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I submitted my Anthropology paper about abortion in the United States to my teacher, and I saw the Turnitin report being 40%. Needless to say, I almost got a heart attack (figuratively, but it felt like an extreme jumpscare).

I looked at my Turnitin report to see how I got 40% and saw that it consisted of my entire bibliography, common words (for example, Republican and abortion), and the quotes I cited.

Would my teacher be suspicious of me plagiarizing even though I didn't? I made sure to cite all my sources (in-text and bibliography), and I even checked Grammarly's anti-plagiarism checker. Plus I made sure they were all in MLA as my professor requested.

40% feels like a very high score. How do I explain to my professor that it was mainly my bibliography? Should I just be upfront with it? (And I'm wondering how did all of my citations ended up being flagged in turnitin).

Edit: My professor let me know that it was mainly my citations and told me there was nothing to worry about, but that was still definitely a scare.

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    I wouldn't say anything, your professor should be smart enough to realize that quotes and references aren't plagiarism.
    – sErISaNo
    Dec 8, 2023 at 8:53
  • What is your motivation to check your own paper?
    – user111388
    Dec 10, 2023 at 18:53
  • @user111388 could you clarify what you mean? Dec 11, 2023 at 2:40
  • @strawberrycow: As I understand it, you checked your own paper if there was plagiarism, right? Wouldn't you know if you plagiarised? Or did someone else contribute to the paper?
    – user111388
    Dec 11, 2023 at 5:43
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    Ah, so this turnitin report comes automatically when you submit a paper? Then it makes sense. I thought you yourself put it into some tool to.check if you plagiarised. Sorry.
    – user111388
    Dec 12, 2023 at 22:06

6 Answers 6

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40% is very high for body text, but that should exclude references and quotes for the obvious reasons you mention.

There are options in TurnItIn for excluding the bibliography and quotes from the score, but depending on how your system is set up that may need to be done by your professor.

I'd say double check that you haven't overlooked this option somewhere, and that your bibliography and quotes are clearly marked as such. If they are, and you can't turn off the scoring in those sections, then I wouldn't worry too much - your professor will probably be seeing this with every single submission.

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  • Phew thanks a lot! I thought that a high turnitin score would ALWAYS be bad. Dec 8, 2023 at 9:20
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    Just like a high turnitin score does not always equal plagiarism, a low turnitin score does not always prove the lack of plagiarism. I had a student paper a few years back that presented the arguments in their own words, but had lifted every single image and figure from a published paper (without attribution). Turnitin score was 4%, as turnitin did not check images.
    – penelope
    Dec 8, 2023 at 12:37
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    As mentioned in another answer, a high turnitin score by itself should never be a strict rule, but only prompt the assessor to look in more detail to determine if it's real plagiarism or not. I've heard stories about some people who do have a strict "more than X% similarity is a penalty" rule, but that's not really good practice. Dec 8, 2023 at 13:40
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    @strawberrycow Turnitin works by looking for the same pattern of words/characters in your paper as in their database of papers. When you say "I'm wondering how did all of my citations ended up being flagged in turnitin", a citation would be flagged by turnitin if someone else in the world has ever cited that work in some other paper they wrote. Unless you're using a software setting like Stephen mentions to exclude the bibliography, I'd find it a lot more worrying if no citations were flagged than if all were.
    – Bryan Krause
    Dec 8, 2023 at 16:26
  • @BryanKrause: makes me want to use unicode aliasing.
    – Joshua
    Dec 8, 2023 at 19:19
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A TurnitIn similarity score should only be used to decide whether or not it is worthwhile to look at the entire report. So as long as your teacher isn't incompetent, they might be mildly suspicious of your submission for the minute it takes them to read the actual report, and then see that there isn't an issue here.

What constitutes a high similarity score will depend on the area. For example, in non-theoretical computer science there typically wouldn't be any quotes or other identical parts in the text itself, which leads to low similarity scores. In theoretical computer science, similarity can be higher due to definition and theorem statements being identical. In both areas, 40% sounds like a lot to me, but I don't know about anthropology.

Ending with a side remark: I don't think there is any point in running similarity checks on ones own writing. You've written it, you know what is going on.

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  • Sometimes students are encouraged to run their own work through checkers. When thresholds are used as more than grounds for investigation it's likely to be a good idea as common or even standard ways of stating things can contribute a lot and lead to false impressions that it was actually copied
    – Chris H
    Dec 9, 2023 at 17:43
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40% for me would be a reason to check the Turnitin report, which of course shows how they arrive at 40%. In your case I'd then see that there is no problem (assuming that there isn't;-). I'm well aware that large percentages can occur for no serious reason, and I'd assume that everyone who works with this in such cases will look at the report to find it out. So I don't think the 40% alone will get you into trouble. They may raise suspicion but the report should show that you're fine.

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If the words of others are in quotations and properly cited and the ideas of others, when paraphrased, are properly cited, it's not plagiarism. Your professors know that.

However, a "cut-and-paste" paper made largely of quotations with little original work may earn a low grade for that reason.

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It doesn't look like either you or your professor are mistaken on this point, but it bears repeating: TurnItIn and related software are not plagiarism checkers, and 40% is not the amount of plagiarism. They are similarity checkers, and 40% is the amount of similarity. Similarity and plagiarism are quite different; a piece of text can be highly similar to another without plagiarising from it, and likewise a piece of text can be plagiarised without having similar wording to the source it plagiarises from. Ideally everybody who uses TurnItIn should know this, but I've met some teachers who don't.

That said, plagiarism is not the only reason to be concerned about similarity. If your paper's similarity score is 40% due to the bibliography and quotes, but not plagiarism, then either:

  • Your bibliography is almost as long as your actual paper, which isn't necessarily a problem depending on the kind of paper, but it could suggest that some of your sources are redundant, or that some are not as relevant as others you could have chosen. For example, perhaps to support some claim you cited five sources which all agree, where one or two authoritative sources would have been enough. Or perhaps you made several related claims and cited different sources for each, where one or two more directly-relevant or comprehensive sources would have been enough to cover multiple claims. It's not necessarily a problem to use more sources than necessary, or some broader sources with less direct relevance to your paper, but it is a problem if you missed the more authoritative or relevant sources.
  • Or, a high proportion of your paper is verbatim quotes from cited sources. This probably means you are using quotes where it would be better to give your own summary, or you are using long quotes where shorter ones would be sufficient. (Either way, you still need to cite the source you're summarising or quoting from.) Quotation is appropriate where the exact words used by somebody else are necessary for the point you're making, or where the same meaning couldn't be conveyed in other words. However, using your own words means you can also make connections or comparisons between what multiple sources have said. Also, keep in mind that particularly in an educational setting, the real goal of writing a paper is to demonstrate your learning of the subject; giving your own summary of something shows your own knowledge, whereas giving quotes without enough of your own writing only shows that you know what other people have said.

Neither of these would be academic misconduct, but they are aspects of the quality of your work. Personally I've seen papers with scores around 40% which clearly weren't trying to pass off the similar work as the student's own; but I don't think I've seen any good papers like that. On the other hand, this will vary by subject, so it's possible there are no problems with your paper's quality.

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Your professor can turn off having Turnitin check the bibliography in the similarity report. It will save them time looking into it and you clutching your chest.

I turn it off for my students because the first two assignments they write in my course are on the same topic and it skews the report.

If I see a 40%, it wasn't because of citations or the bibliography.

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  • I hope you at least look at what is actually identified and not just assume that 40% means it's not just citations and bibliography. OP described where their 40% came from - would you call that plagiarism?
    – Bryan Krause
    Mar 16 at 14:20

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