Turnitin as a Writing Tool: The Ins and Outs

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Tools amplify human skills and abilities, making complex tasks like building houses easier and quicker, with more precise results. They’re an indispensable part of daily life, particularly in the era of modern technology. Why then, given the value of using technological tools such as Microsoft (MS) Word or Grammarly, do students sometimes overlook using Turnitin for writing? Perhaps they believe it’s only useful for “catching” plagiarism, or they’re unaware that Purdue Global (PG) offers fast, free access to Turnitin through PG411. In fact, these views represent both a misconception and a missed opportunity, because Turnitin is a simple, effective tool PG students can access to improve academic writing (Mphahlele & McKenna, 2019). Indeed, writers who understand how to use Turnitin, its benefits, and its shortcomings will be on their way to “constructing” better results.

Understanding Turnitin: A Brief “Tool Manual”

Using Turnitin requires understanding of the program’s purpose, function, and availability. Essentially, it identifies unoriginal content in writing (Turnitin, 2021b). In other words, it finds and highlights information, whether quoted or paraphrased, that originated from outside sources such as textbooks, websites, or peer-reviewed articles. Turnitin (n.d.-b) says it does so by scanning and comparing submissions to an online database which includes material like books, periodicals, and internet sources. Then, the program immediately generates a “similarity report.” The report highlights parts of the document that “match” content in the database. This highlighting function comes in handy for academic writers, who need to pay special attention to using sources, both to support their analysis of topics and to ensure authors of sources receive proper credit. Since PG students have free, unlimited, 24 hour-a-day access to Turnitin through PG411, it’s also an accessible and cost-effective tool, especially because it includes a grammar checker. Therefore, students can use Turnitin as they revise their writing.

Building Better Results: Benefits of Turnitin for Academic Writing

During revision (the process of fine-tuning and polishing), specific features of Turnitin allow writers to revise with an eye toward using sources effectively, meeting APA guidelines for citations and references, and correcting grammar errors. Although working with sources can be challenging, writers who keep Turnitin in their “toolkit” will have an advantage.

Working with Sources Like a Pro

For instance, it’s necessary to maintain a balance between sources in a paper and a writer’s own interpretation or analysis of a topic. Academic writers should follow The 80/20 Principle, where 80% of content consists of the writer’s own voice, and the remaining 20% or less originates from sources (Clements, n.d.). Although calculating these numbers alone would be inconvenient and time-consuming, Turnitin makes things simple. It calculates a “similarity score,” or overall percentage of “matched content” in a submission and breaks that number down for each individual source (Turnitin, 2021b). High similarity scores show the need to reduce the use of sources, while low scores might remind writers to better support ideas with evidence. Addedly, high percentage calculations for individual sources can alert writers to overreliance on a particular source and the need to better balance sources.

Turnitin’s highlighting feature is also beneficial for spotting opportunities to paraphrase more effectively. That’s because it highlights “matched” content, and color codes each source, showing which sections of the writing came from which sources, and providing the exact snippets of text in the database which “matched” parts of the submission, along with corresponding weblinks if available (Turnitin, 2021b). Writers then have a chance to compare their writing side by side to the original passage. If the two passages match too closely, that’s a good indication the writer should revise/rephrase content by paraphrasing more effectively. 

Double-Checking to Meet APA Standards

Since academic writers must also check their writing carefully to meet APA standards for citing and referencing source material, writers can review highlighted content in Turnitin similarity reports to:

  • check for and add missing citations or reference entries (avoid plagiarism),
  • find (and correct) formatting mistakes in citations or reference entries,
  • ensure citations and reference entries match one another,
  • locate quoted material with missing/forgotten quotation marks and add them,
  • notice when quotes lack signal phrases and revise accordingly, and
  • identify long quotes and reduce them if necessary.

Hammering Out Good Grammar

Along with a similarity report, Turnitin also generates a “grammar report” which highlights grammar errors. This report is helpful for understanding grammar mistakes because it includes links to an online handbook explaining errors and providing correct usage examples. Students can consult the handbook to correct errors and avoid future ones.

A Word of Caution:  All Tools Have Shortcomings

However, like all tools, Turnitin has potential shortcomings. Student writers should know that Turnitin doesn’t actually find plagiarism, but only identifies “matched” content (Turnitin, n.d.-a). Interpreting reports to determine whether academic dishonesty occurred is up to individual instructors. Here are a few other limitations of Turnitin:

  • Some web browsers are incompatible for uploading submissions, including iPhone, iPad, and Android devices (Turnitin, 2021a).
  • According to Turnitin (n.d.-b), it “will not accept PDF image files, forms, or portfolios, files that do not contain highlightable text (e.g. scanned file – usually an image)” (Adobe PDF Section). 
  • Some parts of PowerPoint files can’t be checked, such as speaker’s notes, images of text, or other text with visual images (i.e., animation) (Turnitin, n.d.-b). 
  • The program might highlight content from instructor mandated templates if previously submitted by others.

Adding Turnitin to the Writer’s Toolbox: The Bottom Line

After considering the benefits and drawbacks of Turnitin as a writing tool, it’s wise to remember that tools are only as effective as their users. Paying equal attention to elements of good writing and assignment instructions is also vital. Finally, just as a homebuilder wouldn’t rely on a hammer alone, it’s best to use Turnitin alongside other resources and tools (Orlando et al., 2018). Writers who do so will “build” the best results. 


Clements, K. (n.d.) Working with sources: The 80/20 principle. Purdue University Global Academic Success & Writing Resource Center & Blog. https://purdueglobalwriting.center/80-20-principle/

Mphahlele, A., & McKenna, S. (2019). The use of Turnitin in the higher education sector: Decoding the myth. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 44(7), 1079–1089. https://doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2019.1573971

Orlando, J., Hanham, J., & Ullman, J. (2018). Exploring intentional use of a technological proxy, Turnitin, to enhance student academic literacy practices. Australasian Journal of  Educational Technology, 34(4), 44–56. https://doi.org/10.14742/ajet.3575        

Turnitin (n.d.-a). Does Turnitin detect plagiarism? https://www.turnitin.com/blog/does-turnitin-detect-plagiarism#:~:text=Turnitin’s%20software%20takes%20what%20a,and%20we%20look%20for%20similarities

Turnitin (n.d.-b). File requirements. https://help.turnitin.com/feedback-studio/turnitin-website/student/submitting-a-paper/file-requirements.htm

Turnitin (2021a). The use of Turnitin on iPad and Android web browsers is not supported. https://supportcenter.turnitin.com/s/article/The-use-of-Turnitin-on-iPad-and-Android-web-browsers-is-not-supported

Turnitin (2021b). Understanding the similarity report: A student guide. https://www.turnitin.com/papers/understanding-the-turnitin-similarity-report-student-guide

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