Interview | The Original Chris Caren

Chris Caren is the President and CEO of Turnitin, a company dedicated to originality checking and plagiarism prevention. Chris joined iParadigms, the company behind Turnitin, in 2009 as President and Chief Executive Officer. His career has focused on software businesses and he comes from a family of scientists and educators—a background which helped draw him to iParadigms. Chris previously worked for Microsoft Corporation as General Manager of Microsoft Business Solutions and Office Business Applications. His previous experience includes VP of products and marketing at Business Objects (now part of SAP), product marketing at Manugistics Group Inc., head of sales and marketing at an Oracle financial applications company, and a leadership position at Accenture. He holds an MBA with distinction from Kellogg Business School and a bachelor of science in engineering from Stanford University.

As Chris tells it, Turnitin’s founder, John Barrie, was a biophysics graduate student and a teaching assistant for very large university classes. These classes tended to be pretty cold and impersonal because everyone was so competitive. So the students were not very engaged in anything other than trying to get a good grade—preferably better than the next guy.

It occurred to Barrie that it might be more engaging if he helped them get answers to the questions that all students have about their written work, namely: ‘What did everyone else in this class write about?’ and, after their papers are returned with cryptic or illegible comments, ‘So what did I really need to do to get a better grade?’ or ‘What does an ‘A’ paper look like?’

Barrie decided to use the technique of peer review, which all researchers and academics use to evaluate one another’s work before it’s published. He assigned a 10-page term paper on how chocolate affects the brain. Students had to submit their papers to a class website he’d developed where all names would be stripped off the papers. Then, they could each read as many of their classmates’ papers as they wanted. In addition, they were each assigned two papers on which to write reviews. Then he delivered the kicker: they would be graded on the quality of the reviews they provided, not the quality of the reviews they received.

They loved it. Each student got back a graded paper from John that also had several printed pages of substantive, legible feedback from their peers. Since everything on the class website was anonymous, everyone could see what a good paper looked like.

The results of this highly successful experiment were published in a Science magazine article, “The World Wide Web as an Instructional Tool” (Volume 274, 18 October 1996). In that article, he considered that the Internet, while creating many benefits for education, might also create issues that might not be so good. The biggest problem he could foresee was that the amount of information available to students would be so huge and easily accessible that it would be impossible to tell if a student wrote a paper or just “cut and pasted” it. He based this prediction on his classroom experience: his students had come to him and told him that other students were using his class website to cheat—copying papers from their classmates and selling or giving them to others.

Needless to say, this was pretty upsetting.  Since his doctoral research involved using technology to search through huge databases to find patterns in brainwaves, he developed a pattern matching technology for text. In 1995, when he put his creation into use in his courses, he couldn’t believe the results: thirty percent of the papers contained plagiarism. He wondered if his class was unique. A quick Lexis/Nexis search about academic plagiarism revealed that there was indeed a broader problem and no good solution.

He collaborated with several friends to further develop the technology—and Turnitin was born.

Victor: What else can you say about what motivated your founder to create Turnitin?

Chris: In the beginning, Dr. Barrie was not interested in plagiarism prevention or detecting cheating. He was interested in using the power of the web to get students engaged with each other, the core concepts in a course and their instructor. This was back in 1994—long before the web’s widespread use in education or the use of “social networking” as we know it today.

Today, Turnitin includes much more than just plagiarism prevention tools. Turnitin includes three interwoven tools for evaluating written work and delivering rich feedback to students:

— OriginalityCheck for plagiarism prevention

— PeerMark for setting up and managing peer reviewing online – where students are most comfortable and receptive (including a customizable question library)

— GradeMark for paperless mark-ups and grading of written work (including a customizable rubric library)

All together, these tools make up Turnitin, a complete solution for engaging students and addressing plagiarism in written work.

Victor: What does the name mean?

Chris: That’s what you do with term papers: you turn them in. With our technology, that process become 100 percent paperless and uses the power of the web to hold student accountable and make sure they receive rich, substantive feedback on their papers. Our technology has been used by millions of educators and students and has changed the workflow in many, many classrooms and schools. Some schools even require that every single paper be turned in through Turnitin. Instructors save time and students can really engage through Turnitin’s online tools to learn and produce higher quality written work.

Victor: How does Turnitin work?

Chris: Institutions license Turnitin on an annual basis. Institutions are encouraged to communicate with students about their use of Turnitin and how their academic integrity policies work. An instructor sets up a class and an assignment in the Turnitin service. Students or instructors then submit papers to Turnitin via file upload or cut and paste. Turnitin’s proprietary software then compares the paper’s text to a vast database of 13.5+ billion pages of web content (including archived internet content that is no longer available on the live web) as well as over 133 million other papers in the student paper archive, and articles from over 90,000 professional, academic and commercial journals and publications. We’re adding new content through new partnerships all the time.

Turnitin determines if any text in a paper matches text in the Turnitin databases. The service does not detect or determine plagiarism – it just detects matching text to help instructors determine if plagiarism has occurred. Note that the text in the student’s paper that is found to match a source MAY be properly cited and attributed. It is recommended that instructors carefully review the Originality Report and all matches before making any determination of plagiarism. Such determinations of plagiarism require human judgment, and instructors and students alike should understand their institution’s academic integrity policies before turning in written assignments.

After the originality of a paper has been checked, the paper can be peer reviewed using PeerMark (anonymously or not) or marked up and graded by the instructor using GradeMark. Feedback from all these activities can be viewed in layers on top of a fully-formatted image of the paper.

Victor: What is it?

Chris: Turnitin is a web-based application that includes OriginalityCheck, the leading originality checking and plagiarism prevention service used by millions of students and faculty, and thousands of institutions worldwide. OriginalityCheck plus GradeMark and PeerMark are all integrated together in a course management environment that includes an assignment library, discussion boards, a gradebook and other tools. Turnitin OriginalityCheck encourages best practices for using and citing other people’s written material. Turnitin offers a complete web-based service to manage the process of submitting and tracking papers electronically, and providing richer –and faster – feedback to students. PeerMark and GradeMark enable the delivery of rich feedback to students, and facilitate greater engagement and interaction through their written work.

Victor: What does it do? What are the benefits?

Chris: Turnitin OriginalityCheck generates a color-coded Originality Report that highlights any text in the paper that matches any source(s) found in the Turnitin databases. Note that unoriginal material may or may not be plagiarized; a match might be properly quoted and cited – in which case, it is NOT plagiarism. The Originality Report helps the instructor rapidly determine if the paper has issues with plagiarism or not.  Using Turnitin OriginalityCheck is many times faster than manual methods for detecting plagiarism. And because of our unique and far-reaching database of content (such as our ever-growing archive of previously-submitted student papers), we will find matches that regular search engines such as Google would not.

PeerMark gives instructors the ability to create peer review assignments that students use to evaluate and learn from one another’s work online. Instructors can assign questions for students to answer in their reviews to help ensure that students give each other substantive feedback. Instructors can select questions from the included library or create their own. Peer reviews can be assigned as online homework rather than taking valuable class time for a face-to-face paper-and-pen activity. These assignments provide a unique and valuable framework for students to develop critical thinking and writing skills.

We have instructors such as John Mitterer at Brock University in Canada that do peer reviews with very large courses: “PeerMark allows me to deliver the considerable cognitive benefits of the peer review experience with my introductory class of 1,000 students. Only this brilliant tool allows me to do so without being swamped by administrative overhead.”

GradeMark is a paperless mark-up tool that lets teachers grade papers in a fraction of the time they spent doing hand–grading. Teachers can create and save their own custom library of frequently-used comments and then drag and drop them onto a paper. This time-saver is one of our users favorite features. And students love it because they can actually read the teacher’s comments.

Victor: How is it unique from other similar products/services? What companies do you see as in the same market?

Chris: Turnitin is unique in a number of ways.

1) Turnitin OriginalityCheck is the ONLY plagiarism prevention solution that shows matches on an image of the fully-formatted student paper including layouts like columns, styled text, images, tables and charts. Other products will show a text-only version of matches but a fully-formatted student paper is what users expect to see; Turnitin is the only solution that does that. And by seeing a fully-formatted student paper, instructors can evaluate whether students have used correct formatting for references such as block quotes.

2) Turnitin OriginalityCheck is the only solution that checks for matches against not only web content but also a massive database of subscription-based content (like the content found in library databases) and a growing archive of previously-submitted student papers.

3) Turnitin offers numerous options for use as an instructional support tool – including letting students see their Originality Reports before the teacher does and giving them the opportunity to address any issues that Turnitin helps identify.

4) Turnitin is about much more than just plagiarism prevention. Turnitin includes OriginalityCheck, GradeMark and PeerMark: three tools that are integrated into a single application interface that can show all the feedback on paper in superimposed layers that can be turned on and off easily for greater insight and learning.

5) Turnitin is used by more educators and students than any other service of its kind: it is used by nearly 10,000 institutions worldwide, with nearly a million active instructors and nearly 20 million students under license in over 120 countries.

6) Turnitin integrates with all major course management systems including Moodle, Blackboard, WebCT, ANGEL, Desire2Learn, Pearson Learning Studio and Instructure Canvas. We have an array of partners that offer complementary solutions as well like e-portfolios.

7) Turnitin is available in English plus 9 other languages.

Victor: Where can you get it now?

Chris: Turnitin is a web-based application—nothing to download, install or maintain. It is licensed on an annual basis for entire schools based on their student count. The license allows an unlimited number of submissions.

It is available directly from Turnitin. Visit our website at or call 510-764-7602 (866-816-5046 extension 239) for a no-obligation price quote.

Victor: How much does it cost? What are the options?

Chris: It costs about $2 per student per year. In the price, we include live, online training sessions, a complete library of documentation and training videos, as well as technical support. We offer also offer free weekly professional development webinars called “The Turnitin Academy” on curriculum integration topics.

Turnitin can be easily integrated with a course management system such as Moodle or Blackboard via our custom API (an extra fee applies).

Victor: What are some examples of it in action?

Chris: We have lots of success stories … Millard Public Schools, Miami Palmetto High School, Mt Olive High School, Lake Washington School District, San Mateo High School District, Brea Olinda High School and Cushing Academy to name a few.

We encourage its use as an instructional support tool—to help students learn how to work with source materials and cite their sources— rather than just a plagiarism detection and deterrence tool. We encourage our users to use GradeMark and PeerMark to really get students engaged and create a learning environment that is rich in substantive feedback.

One of the really cool things about PeerMark is that teachers can use assign peer reviews as homework; students get rich feedback without taking valuable class time or adding to the teacher’s workload. Students learn as much from reading other students’ papers and giving feedback as they learn from getting feedback on their own papers. This kind of rich feedback is very hard to accomplish with pen-and-paper methods.

Victor: Who is it particularly tailored for? Who is it not for?

Chris: It is designed for use with students who are in middle school, high school, and college or university worldwide. Turnitin is available in 9 additional languages.

Turnitin is number one in trust with customers because of the reliability, speed and security of paper processing and student paper archives. Educators can trust that Turnitin’s use of archived student works to assess originality of newly-submitted papers constitutes a fair use under U.S. copyright law and does not infringe student copyrights in any way. Recent legal opinions affirmed that such use “has a protective effect” on the future marketability of the students’ works and “provides a substantial public benefit through the network of institutions using Turnitin.”

Victor: What are your thoughts on education these days?

Chris: Education is undergoing massive changes related to funding, accountability, school governance, technology usage and much more. Trends in the U.S. that we are watching in particular are the emergence of the Common Core standards for writing, methods for assessing student writing and evaluating program effectiveness, and uses of social media tools for social learning and collaboration. We are also a global company and we see a growing concern with academic integrity issues in other countries.

Victor: What sort of formative experiences in your own education helped to inform your approach to creating Turnitin?

Chris: Our founder came from a higher education background where he instituted what I think was the first web-based peer review process for papers. From this experience, he learned the positive and negative aspects of “sharing” written work online: while students learn better in a collaborative environment, it is difficult to ensure the uniqueness and originality of their content. Turnitin originated out of this experience and has morphed into what it is today as the technologies to develop web-based applications have grown along with teacher acceptance of these applications in the classroom.

Today, educators from middle school through college are able to use Turnitin to automate and expedite the student paper review process and to access performance data over time in order to better focus their instruction on areas where students need improvement.

Victor: How does Turnitin address some of your concerns about education?

Chris: All students need to learn to write and communicate and build on the work and ideas of other people responsibly; this is true for college-bound kids as well as all kids who will be joining the 21st century workforce immediately after high school. Turnitin offers a unique and powerful set of tools to help all students master these essential communication skills.

Victor: What is your outlook on the future of education?

Chris: While the value of classroom learning can never be fully replaced, education will become more virtual at all grade levels, and more global—particularly at higher education institutions. By virtual, I mean leveraging content and tools on the Internet for learning and gaining feedback from instructors and peers; and global, in terms of learning from great teachers and exchanging ideas and experiences with students Internationally.

Teachers will continue to be stretched for time, and technology will continue to focus on improving their productivity and their effectiveness. These trends will result in vast amounts of data on student learning and performance being produced, which will be “mined” to help students and their teachers improve outcomes.

Victor: What else can you tell educators and other leaders in and around education about the value of Turnitin? What makes you say that?

Chris: Our most important measures of success are our customer satisfaction and renewal rates—and both are near all time highs. The data on the effectiveness of Turnitin show that the longer our customers use Turnitin, the lower the levels of suspected plagiarism in student work. Instructors who use our service to grade papers electronically are up to 40 percent more efficient vs. more traditional methods.

Our product strategy in summary: For students —Provide a full set of tools and resources to help improve written work. For instructors—Remain the most effective way to prevent plagiarism, and deliver a solution to support the entire assessment and feedback process for student work in all study areas.

A new aspect of our strategy is to provide our customers with insights on measuring class performance and help teachers identify focus areas for instruction.

Victor Rivero tells the story of 21st-century education transformation. He is the editor-in-chief of Edtech Digest, a magazine about education transformed through technology. He has written white papers, articles and features for schools, nonprofits and companies in the education marketplace. Write to:


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