A Brief History of Turnitin and The Power of Revision Assistant

Turnitin Timeline & Acronyms


As students in the US are finishing up their 2017 – 2018 academic school year right now teachers, professors, teachers’ assistants, and advisors are looking over summative projects and assignments.  These can range from essays, reports, stories, explications and standardized tests just to name a few. When these students finish drafting, writing, turnitin-logo-stacked-rgbrevising and editing that last sentence punctuation mark or citation of the school year right before the freedom of Summer but not before grades come out. “They will have to do something their parents never did: run their work through anti-plagiarism software” as NPR Education’s Corey Turner explains it in his 2014 piece for “All Things Considered” where he names Turnitin as a company that has a database it utilizes to screen for potential similarity/originality, and he comments that the database is big. Really, really big.  Computer technology and the Internet now make plagiarism an easier enterprise. As a result, faculty must be more diligent in their efforts to mitigate the practice of academic integrity, and institutions of higher education must provide the leadership and support to ensure the context for it. This study explored the use of a plagiarism detection system to deter digital plagiarism. Findings suggest that when students were aware that their work would be run through a detection system, they were less inclined to plagiarize. These findings suggest that, regardless of class standing, gender, and college major, recognition by the instructor of the nature and extent of the plagiarism problem and acceptance of responsibility for deterring it are pivotal in reducing the problem.  Chris Harrick, Turnitin’s vice president of marketing, describes it this way: “A student submits a paper through Turnitin’s website. The company’s algorithms then compare strings of text against its massive database. And, as Harrick continues, it doesn’t just check the Internet. Most of the papers, once they’ve been run through the system and scrubbed of student names, actually stay in the system. When all the comparing is done, the teacher gets a report that gives the percentage of the paper that matched other sources. The report never says: This is plagiarism. Just: This is similar” (NPR, 2014).  This part of the product is referred to as the “Originality Checker” and is only one small element of what was previously known as iParadigms and is now the Turnitin LLC empire. turnitin-feedback-studio-logo-primary-rgb

Other than the originality checker product there are several other pieces, the oldest grouping of systems is referred to as The Feedback Studio (TFS) which is considered its core.  As Tom Dee, a professor in the graduate school of education at Stanford examines the usefulness of the product he explains that ‘” these tools are like a hammer or a scalpel,” cautions Dee. “Whether using them is helpful or hurtful depends on the care and discretion with which they’re used”’ (NPR, 2014). Now TFS is just one aspect of what Turnitin can do and one one of its products. It has grown extensively in the previous four years and now includes other products like Revision Assistant, Ithenticate, Write Check and bought one of its largest competitors Vericite in early 2018.  A lot has changed since the company started in 1998 but even since 2015, when Ry Marcattilio-McCracken wrote a commentary piece In the Chronicle of Higher Education; My Love-Hate Relationship With Turnitin, where he begins by explaining how much he loves Turnitin as a tool in his classes but despite the obvious time-saving benefits he had a student come to him with a couple questions that he couldn’t necessarily answer. “The student was nontraditional, and this was his first college course in some years. He was concerned first about accidentally plagiarizing, and wondered (naïvely, but completely understandable) if TurnItIn let students run their work through free to make sure this didn’t happen. Second, the student didn’t like the idea of being forced to surrender his work to a company that would make money from it. He was articulate, respectful, and tentative.”  The privacy concerns of who owns what and after a project or paper enters Turnitin’s database does it now belong to the company? As Ry Marcattilio explains that after little searching turned up surprisingly few lawsuits brought against iParadigms, the (former as of 2016) parent company of TurnItIn. But someone had issued a challenge. Six years ago a court weighed in, and the judge ruled in favor of iParadigms on four grounds, as summarized in the Harvard Journal of Law & Technology: “1) Commercial use can be fair use, and … use can be transformative ‘in function or purpose without altering or actually adding to the original work.’ TurnItIn transformed the work by using the papers to prevent plagiarism and not for factual knowledge; 2) The website’s use does not diminish or discourage the author’s creativity or supplant the students’ rights to first publication; 3) Using the entirety of the papers did not preclude fair use; and 4) TurnItIn’s use does not affect marketability” (2015).  Teachers, parents, and administrators have the right to be concerned about the privacy rights and how software tools like Turnitin are consuming data from students. Educators from the common core era know that tools, where students feel caught or shown how wrong they are, will not feel empowered to do their work. Turnitin in fortunately has evolved and as it grew it also expanded the capabilities.

In this article by Jinrong Li entitled “Turnitin and peer review in ESL academic writing classrooms”, the authors share their experience of using Turnitin for peer review in an English as a Second Language ESL academic writing course and discuss its advantages, its limitations, and how different features of PeerMark may be used to address some of the challenges identified in previous research on peer review in the L2 writing classroom. Throughout a semester, the students were required to complete three peer review tasks through Turnitin. Based on the instructor’s experience and the students’ reports, we found that Turnitin could help shift students’ attention from local to global issues in writing, scaffold students in their effort to provide more helpful comments and to make connections between specific suggestions and holistic advice for writing, and facilitate classroom management during peer review. In this article, we share our experience of using Turnitin for peer review in an ESL academic writing course and discuss its advantages, its limitations, and how different features of PeerMark may be used to address some of the challenges identified in previous research on peer review in the L2 writing classroom. Throughout a semester, the students were required to complete three peer review tasks through Turnitin. Based on the instructor’s experience and the students’ reports, we found that Turnitin could help shift students’ attention from local to global issues in writing, scaffold students in their effort to provide more helpful comments and to make connections between specific suggestions and holistic advice for writing, and facilitate classroom management during peer review.

Another newer product of Turnitin’s which was introduced 2016 is the Revision Assistant which was acquired from Pittsburgh-based LightSide Labs in a deal that kept the company’s office in Pittsburgh and lead to more hiring, and the placing of co-founder turnitin-revision-assistant-logo-primary-rgbElijah Mayfield as a VP of New Technologies at Turnitin.  LightSide Labs, which was founded in 2013, employs machine learning algorithms developed by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University’s Language Technologies Institute to help instructors assess student writing and provide real-time automated formative feedback.  What LightSide brings to the table is greater opportunity to grow the Turnitin brand in the K-12 arena and especially the tough to enter middle schools market and add to the tool’s student-facing interface. Revision Assistant helps students to become better writers by reducing the amount of time spent scoring essays and the number of time students spends waiting for feedback.  From my personal experience as a public school teacher for six years, specifically working with grades 7-11th in the subject of language arts and history I can safely say that immediately after the students finish the last word on their papers they tend to want to turn it in. Getting the students to reread their papers multiple times was like pulling teeth and if and only if I made the task of peer editing and self-editing another assignment in the grade book that I had to grade then the students would be tempted to not do it.  In a study done by Turnitin and presented to me in my new hire orientation, that “57% of students will admit that they receive feedback too late in the writing process and 79% of teachers say feedback is important crucial.” With Revision Assistant (RA) students go through 7.9 drafts per students on average (Turnitin Review). In the revision process, students ask for more signal checks and comments. The more papers, essays, or reports that are collected the better RA is trained, then a team of assessment experts evaluates the initial essays.  The Turnitin curriculum team of veteran teacher crafts actionable comments. And Turnitin’s research team analyzes patterns in sample essays to build a model to evaluate future student work. This all leads to the idea that when students submit new essays, RA provides scoring and feedback.  

Initially, the product hit some skepticism about whether Elijah Mayfield and LightSide Labs was trying to intentionally replace educators.  But unlike human educators, there ra-student-view-comment-expandedare limitations to the software around advanced writing elements. With the software, writing is restricted to responses to prompts.  Examples of prompts include writing about “a time that laughter featured prominently in their lives” and “the pros and cons of social media,” Since the software is primarily aimed at K-12 students and initial community college courses, several of the prompts are framed as responses to pieces of writing.  As Turnitin works with school districts and community colleges that are interested in turning their curricula into writing prompts, the number of prompts has grown to 84 prompts as of May 2018 and are continually growing with the help of the curriculum team at Turnitin. 

Turnitin’s Revision Assistant the uphill battle continues among writing instructors, many of whom philosophically object to turning writing into an activity that can be evaluated by a machine.  Carl Straumshein explains in his 2016 article from Insider Higher Ed that “the National Council of Teachers of English in 2013 issued a position paper on that topic, members of the NCTE’s assessment task force said ‘the ways in which humans and machines analyze writing continue to serve very different outcomes.’ The task force members are also involved in the Conference on College Composition and Communication, the NCTE’s professional organization for writing instructors. “As is the case in K-12 classrooms, teaching writing at the college level that is successful calls for thoughtful response to student writing,” the members said in the statement, naming face-to-face conferences with instructors and feedback on drafts as two examples of responses. ‘Such human formative assessments are essential building blocks supporting writers’ development’” (2016). 

Screen Shot 2018-05-20 at 11.49.23 AMTurnitin doesn’t intend for the software to serve the purpose as the educator, instructor, or even teacher’s assistant. Revision Assistant does not come with a traditional grading feature but gives students a score of one to four in each of the four categories. Turnitin calls those scores “signal checks,” since they resemble wireless signal strength logos.  Continuing from the Carl Staumshein piece, “if [students] spend some time with Revision Assistant, they’ll remember that they have to have a hook, that they have to have transitions. Then instructors can start helping them with the things the computer can’t” (Insider Higher Ed, 2016).  Mayfield a linguist and medieval poetry expert at heart admits skepticism about technology in writing instruction a “valid concern,” and said technology has not yet reached a point where it can be used in upper-level courses teaching advanced, open-ended writing. Mayfield goes on to explain “there is room for technology to help that conversation, but it’s not the most crucial place to have technology insert itself right now.” “We don’t think of [Revision Assistant] as something for upper-level electives where students are able to engage with teachers in a strong dialogue. We see it as empowerment of students who don’t have those skills already.” When I think of Revision Assistant, I think of it as the ultimate writing coach that I never had in my classes.  Before allowing my peers and especially my teacher look over my work a faceless computer would Improve my writing skills this behavior would certainly motivate me and hopefully my students to write.  The discussions that my students and I had were tough at times because they felt they were personally picked on for certain elements of their writing or because of their writing style. Discussions and conferences could change because the data would come from a computer system and so the student’s questions could become “signal checks and spot checks on revision assistant said I need to work on x,y, or z” instead of putting the blame and subjectivity on the teacher when pointing out places were a paper could be improved.   The tools can extend teacher’s reach and save time, checks and tracks student progress helps differentiate instruction is a timesaving piece. On top of that, it creates actionable reports for teachers to deliberate over with their plc, department or administration. Within the Turnitin study of the papers submitted through RA, 53% increase in writing scores from first to last round of feedback, on average and in the study 93% of teachers say that RA improves their students’ writing. It really is a win, win because the students can get receive some initial writing coaching in the form of generic feedback and suggestions.  While the teacher gains visibility to identify gaps in their writing and make informed decisions on what they should be teaching and how they are teaching it. Elijah Mayfield goes on to explain that when he began talking to education companies, it was clear that the emphasis was on measuring student learning. What that does is deemphasize the role of collaborative learning. It de-emphasizes the role of essay writing and communication—the stuff that in fact is probably more valuable for the majority of students.


Coyne, J. (2014, October 7). CMU startup LightSide Labs acquired by California-based Turnitin. Retrieved May 18, 2018, from https://www.bizjournals.com/pittsburgh/blog/morning-edition/2014/10/cmu-startup-lightside-labs-acquired-by-california.html

Li, J., & Li, M. (2018). Turnitin and peer review in ESL academic writing classrooms. Language Learning & Technology, 22(1), 27–41. https://dx.doi.org/10125/44576

Marcattilio-McCracken, R. (2015, September 08). My Love-Hate Relationship With TurnItIn. Retrieved May 9, 2018, from https://www.chronicle.com/article/My-Love-Hate-Relationship-With/232887

McMahon, W. (2018, March 13). How Writing Can Help Close the Achievement Gap: An Interview with Turnitin’s Elijah Mayfield – EdSurge News. Retrieved May 19, 2018, from https://www.edsurge.com/news/2017-01-23-how-writing-can-help-close-the-achievement-gap-an-interview-with-turnitin-s-elijah-mayfield

Straumsheim, C. (2016, January 21). Turnitin, expanding beyond plagiarism detection, launches Revision Assistant. Retrieved May 18, 2018, from https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/01/21/turnitin-expanding-beyond-plagiarism-detection-launches-revision-assistant

Turner, C. (2014, August 25). Turnitin And The Debate Over Anti-Plagiarism Software. Retrieved April 22, 2018, from https://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2014/08/25/340112848/turnitin-and-the-high-tech-plagiarism-debate

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