Guarding against PhD Plagiarism – an unmet need?

PhD nightmare cropPoor academic practice and academic misconduct cases are much more visible and frequent among taught undergraduate and postgraduate assessment than they are in PhD work. However cases do occur and the consequences are potentially catastrophic and extremely distressing for all concerned. Cases we are aware of have involved the external examiner identifying plagiarised material with an almost forensic level of rigor – exactly what we expect of any external examiners doing their job. It has struck us that there is currently an unmet need to help protect students and supervisory staff from this occurring in the first place.

This academic year we have piloted the use of Turnitin in the School of Education to screen PhD work at four points in the PhD lifecycle. The time points are;

Pre-supervision 1. PhD Proposal Not saved in Turnitin repository
During Supervision 2. Year 1 progression paper
3. Completed manuscript version
Post-PhD 4. Final accepted version of thesis Saved in Turnitin repository

In this role Turnitin is not primarily intended as a deterrent or as evidence for academic misconduct investigations. Instead it provides information for supervisory teams to use as part of the research training process for the students they supervise.

Use of Turnitin in this way should help;

  • Alert supervisors to poor scholarship habits in new postgraduates arriving at Edinburgh, and
  • Protect against problematic student work leaving the university destined for external examiners and the wider academic community.

Our pilot of this approach has already proved valuable by identifying patterns of poor scholarship including plagiarism among year 1 progression papers; issues we have identified would definitely land students in trouble if they had submitted work for UG or taught PG assessments. We then alerted the supervisory teams to these observations so that the student practices and understanding can be addressed at the supervisory level.  PhD Supervisors found this useful

   “…very helpful indeed…… forewarned is forearmed.”

We would urge great caution if supervisors are tempted to use ad hoc Turnitin dropboxes to ‘see what is happening’ in their doctoral students’ work; it is important that drafts of PhD work are not saved to the Turnitin student repository as this interferes with future similarity checking. Instead, organising these efforts within PhD programmes at School level involving the School Academic Misconduct officer (SAMO), may be the best way forward. If the SAMO, as well as the supervisors, view submissions this would ensure a uniform level of scrutiny. This is simple to do, uses existing resources and involves little effort.

This approach may help ‘nip in the bud’ problematic studying and writing habits which may be really difficult to spot without the help of Turnitin. Undetected problems could persist within a final submitted thesis and this could be catastrophic; in 2013 the Education Minister for Germany had their PhD rescinded because of plagiarised content.

PhD theses are still a special case and the nature of similarity needs to be interpreted from an academic perspective. It is common for students to publish sections of their work and in these cases a degree of similarity between thesis chapters and published material is inevitable.

Next steps:

Find out more about using Turnitin at the University of Edinburgh

Read the Teaching Matters post on Improving Academic Practice with Turnitin

Dave Saunders

Dave is Programme Director for BMedSci(Hons) Sport Science Medicine and previously Programme Director for BSc(Hons) Applied Sport Science at the Moray House School of Education. Dave is also the School Academic Misconduct Officer for the School of Education (

Tonks Fawcett

Tonks is the Professor of Student Learning for Nurse Education in the School of Health in Social Science and the Associate Dean Student Conduct for the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Science (

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