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Uni plagiarism site buckles under crush of last-minute essays

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Student-sniffing site Turnitin went down in the UK for 24 hours over Monday and yesterday, leaving last-minute essays piled up in the plagiarism spotter's inbox.

Turnitin is a software service that checks through student essays for instances of plagiarism based on searches over the net, and some universities now require knowledge-seekers to put their papers through the online checker before submitting them. Over 160 universities use the service in the UK.

The site went down on Monday, the first day back at uni after the Easter break for a lot of scholars and the deadline for coursework at many schools as the summer term is devoted to studying for exams.

"While I understand that this will have placed a large load on Turnitin's servers, the same thing happens nearly every time there is a major coursework submission deadline and I feel that it needs to be brought to the public's attention as it is causing students unnecessary stress at a time when they should be revising for exams," one student told The Reg.

He added that the service was now so unreliable that lecturers were advising students to hand over their work to Turnitin before the deadline – rather defeating the purpose of a deadline.

The University College London's e-learning environment posted that Turnitin had been down since lunchtime on Monday:

For information, the Turnitin service had severe technical problems between approximately 12.30pm and 5.30pm on Monday 23 April, with ongoing problems till 2am on Tuesday 24 April. During this time, students may have been unable to submit work or view originality reports.

We apologise for the substantial inconvenience this has caused on what has been a very busy coursework submission day.

Goldsmiths University of London's teaching news site also reported the Turnitin fail.

We've just found out that Turnitin UK is experiencing outages (it's broken basically).

Turnitin reported the outage on its Twitter feed around 1pm:

Turnitin UK is experiencing a system wide issue affecting all users. This is being urgently investigated by engineering we will update ASAP.

A Turnitin spokesman told The Register that the outage had been fixed by 8am yesterday and had only affected Turnitin UK.

"There was intermittent service but for most customers it felt like an outage and we severely regret that. The cause was a database issue that slowed report generation," he said.

He added that including all of Turnitin worldwide, the service processed over 300,000 papers a day.

"We are able to accommodate peak submission volume at critical times during the academic year," he claimed. "In 2011 Turnitin had over 99.5 per cent uptime – which equates to less than 11 hours of downtime a year.

"While service disruptions are unfortunate, it is a reality for even the best of online services," he added.

Turnitin, along with other pieces of software that offer to test for plagiarism, has received a lot of flak over inaccuracy.

Critics say Turnitin can't distinguish between a student's words and their properly cited quotes, so it often returns an unnecessarily large unoriginality score. The service also stores all student essays submitted – with the result that students are often accused of plagiarising themselves.

Turnitin is also known to return topic terms as plagiarism, for example, returning the phrase "drink driving" in an essay on drink driving. And of course, everything that's ever been written is not online, so the service can't check for plagiarism performed in an actual library.

Nevertheless, plagiarism services are becoming more popular because of the difficulty of ensuring original work when there are millions of pages of information available online. ®

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