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MBA Admissions Staff Monitor for Plagiarism in Application Essays

Following the disclosure earlier this year by UCLA Anderson School of Management that it rejected 52 applicants to its MBA program under suspicion of plagiarism, more business schools are turning to paid services that can detect when prospective applicants try to pass off pre-canned work as part of their own application essays, a Financial Times article reports this week.

At UCLA Anderson, detecting plagiarism among applicants was an unanticipated result of going digital with its application process. Anderson’s admissions staff this year began reviewing all applications using iPads. “Once we went digital, all kinds of possibilities opened up, including the option to run admissions essays through Turnitin,” Andrew Ainslie, Anderson’s senior associate dean, told the FT. 

Turnitin, one of several detection software programs available to higher education institutions, has the largest English-language database with 20 billion web pages, 110 million “scholarly items” secured through partnerships with publishers and 200 million papers submitted to the service, the FT reports. According to iParadigms, which markets Turnitin, more than 70 percent of higher education institutions in North America and almost 95 per cent in the United Kingdom have a Turnitin license.

Used initially more for coursework, admissions staff at institutions that have a Turnitin license can check application essays against the database to receive a plagiarism percentage score. At UCLA Anderson, the decision was to reject applicants whose scores suggested they had plagiarized more than 10 percent of their admissions essays.

According to the FT report, plagiarism among MBA applicants may be on the rise even as business schools attempt to refocus  matriculated students on ethics and honor codes following the financial crisis. “Places on exceptional MBA programs 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,” Dave Wilson, chief executive of the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), which owns and administers the GMAT entrance exam, told the FT. For its part, GMAC has invested heavily in biometric palm-vein technology to deter cheating on the GMAT.

Some schools find that simply introducing Turnitin or another detection software leads to a drop in plagiarism, according to the FT. At the UK’s Grenoble Graduate School of Business, Turnitin’s introduction has led to a drop in plagiarism from about 1 in 10 essays to 1 in 100, Patrick O’Sullivan, the school’s director of studies, told the FT. “We noticed initially a rise – because we were detecting more,” he said. “And then a fall in the last two years – particularly dramatic in the last year. It seems the word has got out among students.”

Not all schools have decided to use plagiarism detection software for the application process, but more are considering it, the FT reports. “We talked about the UCLA Anderson story here, to check whether we needed to do something similar,” Elaine Romanelli, senior associate dean at Georgetown McDonough School of Business, told the FT. “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,” she said.

For the full Financial Times article, click here.