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A Closer Look at the Unplag Plagiarism Checker

By Michael Yarborough / September 2016

REVIEW: SOFTWARE, TYPE: EMERGING TECHNOLOGIES
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What makes you try a new tool that performs the same functions as the one you're already using? Perhaps there are some inconveniences with your current tool that you'd rather do without. Or maybe you've heard from others the new tool is easier to use and more powerful. After all, it's always good to try something new once in a while not to get stuck in a rut.

As a teacher, I'm as keen on new technologies as you probably are, and I know the real value of using the best plagiarism detectors available. With added capabilities to help with grading papers, scheduling assignments, and creating interactive discussions, many checkers have blossomed into powerful systems that mimic the functionality of a Learning Management System (LMS). But the plagiarism checking software market has remained unchanged with such frequently used options as Turnitin and Urkund.

Can these tools really be considered ultimate solutions? Perhaps not, but they're getting closer to being worthy of that designation. While they continue to evolve into more powerful systems, it's still important for teachers to judge each student work on a case-by-case basis and determine whether or not plagiarism has taken place. And while no plagiarism checker can anticipate or meet the needs of all educators around the world, they certainly seem to be trying to do just that.

The software companies most serious about meeting an educational institution's needs offer customization upon request. I was frankly surprised to find out Unplag is among this class of providers. A colleague mentioned the software to me after learning about Unplag at the last year's International Conference of Education, Research and Innovation. I decided I ought to check it out myself.

First Impressions

Launched in 2014, the Unplag checker was claimed to be developed based on the feedback received from a wide sampling of teachers and students. I contacted the Unplag support team and asked them to arrange a brief online presentation. This way I learnt how to navigate around inside a teacher's institutional account.

What caught my eye first was its simple user interface. The way a paper submission and its checking process are organized was very easy to understand compared to Turnitin, which requires a number of trainings before you can use the full extent of its functionality.

The report Unplag generates upon completion of each scan highlights similarities, replaced characters (if there are any), citations, and references, so you get a quick visual take on what's happening in the document. In addition, text matches are revealed on the original sources as well, making it easy for you to see the similarities between the student's work and its sources.

Now let's dive deeper into a more comprehensive description of how Unplag differs from other tools on the market, the way its university account is organized, what types of checks it offers, and what features its users can find inside their accounts.

What Sets Unplag Apart?

"How does it differ from others?" is the main question that bothers me every time I try out a recently launched tool. As for plagiarism checkers, I usually focus on their accuracy, privacy (since these tools must ensure copyright safety for each paper stored in its database), and their pricing policy, of course. That's what I'm going to outline here.

Briefly, there are plagiarism checkers that have their own databases with academic papers and scan student submissions against them, and those that use web index for that.

Turnitin does the former, thanks to a very huge database. Hence it has been in the market for more than 10 years and has successfully stored lots of academic works. The latter group is where Unplag belongs, checking academic papers across a real-time web index, which means that no outdated sources are said to be found in its reports. (Other types of the Unplag checks are described below). Urkund offers both database and web index checks, but its price tag starting at €2 ($2.5 USD) per file remains rather costly.

According to the Unplag team, their tool uses only document index preventing authorship or copyright claims from taking place. There is even a "Sharing Files" option in the account settings allowing the user to enable or disable sharing their documents with the tool. This option makes Unplag safe for individual users as well as those academic institutions that don't want their databases to become a part of a checker's database.

So, which option is better: database versus real-time web index? Both have their own advantages. Although tools like Turnitin store all submitted papers in their databases, which has been the reason for many copyright infringement issues so far.

As for pricing, Unplag seems to be more consistent than the previously mentioned market leaders. Unplag offers a 12-month pricing plan at $4.99 per month for individual users, and individual price quotes for academic institutions with a free trial option.

Types of Checks Unplag Performs

Unplag also offers three types of checks to academic accounts only. They allow for the scanning of one or several (up to five files when comparing documents, or up to six files when checking against the Internet) papers at a time. You can run a check that compares a piece to online sources, to all the documents uploaded by educators and students using Unplag, or choose mixed checking to compare one or several papers to both online sources and all the files in the account of the academic institution. The latter becomes available right after Unplag is integrated with an academic database of the university.

All those checking papers with Unplag as individual users can take advantage of the two types of checks: a document (s) against online sources and a document (s) against a document or a folder (s) against a folder (s). At this time individual users cannot scan their files against academic databases.

With customization, a fourth type of check can be added to compare submissions against the digital database/library of an educational institution.

Universities Using Unplag

The Unplag corporate account for educational institutions has three user access levels: Administrator, Instructor, and Student. The Administrator supervises all instructor accounts and tracks the overall budget spent on checks. This role can add, ban, or delete instructor or student accounts. Instructors manage student accounts and have the ability to add, ban, unban or delete these accounts. By default, Students can only upload their works to the system, unless educators allow them to pre-check their written pieces. The pre-check option is available for academic institutions' accounts only. It allows students to run plagiarism checks prior to final submission to correct some citations and references before their teacher reviews and grades their papers. This option becomes available for students, if their instructor decides to turn it on in his or her profile settings.

To enable interaction with students, the instructor invites them to join Unplag via emails (either one by one or by groups). Newly added students will appear in the "User Manager" section inside instructor's account.

The instructor may adjust "System Settings" to do the following:

  • Set a definite number of allowable pre-checks a student can make before submitting a final version of an assignment.
  • Adjust the sensitivity of checks by indicating the exact percentage of similarities to be disregarded by the system, meaning an allowable amount of similarity.

To enable student submissions, the instructor must create and share folders with students. The moment the student uploads their work to these folders, the instructor will be able to scan the paper for similarities. Post-check similarity reports can be then viewed by both instructors and students.

Reporting with Unplag

Similar to Plagscan, Turnitin or Urkund, and some other tools, Unplag delivers check results in the form of a report, which is equally available to any type of account . It shows the text being scanned as well as a list of links to original sources along with originality and similarity scores.

Text matches are highlighted in yellow for citations, in blue for references, in purple for replaced characters, and in red for text duplications. As I've mentioned, any text duplications are also spotted on each original source a student failed to cite.

Not so long ago, Unplag introduced a new capability for instructors to enable citations and reference detection for all future scans. By activating the option once, an instructor won't have to switch it on before every scan. As for citation styles, the checker can handle Turabian, Chicago, MLA, APA, and Harvard.

The Unplag report also includes "History" and "Exclude" tabs. The former saves information from previous checks, whereas the latter shows percentage of citations and references found. If needed, it's possible to omit sources from the search results and the originality rate will be immediately recalculated. Plagiarism reports can be downloaded as .PDF files.

Other Available Features

In this section I'll focus only on the features that may help professors and teachers reduce their daily workload. Here's a shortlist of the options available to instructors:

  • Quick checks. As a rule, one-page scans take four seconds.
  • Simultaneous scanning. Teachers can select a few files of different formats and sizes to be checked at once.
  • No changes in document formatting. Report results will be presented in a comprehensible form after the scan is completed.
  • Checks are available in several languages. Unplag supports English, Spanish, French, German, and a several other languages.
  • Custom development. Unplag can develop custom features to meet a university's needs.

What is Lacking and What Needs Improvement

For the moment, Unplag doesn't have grading and commenting systems, which would help simplify interactions between teachers and students. If commenting was supported students would be able to see what exactly in their papers must be improved. More than just avoiding text duplications or uncited passages, such systems could include suggesting stylistic, structural, and word choice improvements.

The "editor" function is one of the things I value most in checkers, because it offers students the opportunity to make corrections to their assignments online before turning in final versions. At the moment, Unplag doesn't include this functionality, but their customer manager assured me it is on their implementation schedule.

Although Unplag's checking speed is surprisingly fast, it still holds true that the bigger the file the more time it will take the tool to analyze it. According to Unplag, the maximum processing time usually takes at most several minutes, even for large files.

But the good news is the Unplag team encourages everyone to share their feedback and concerns, so the system can be further developed for better convenience and utility to its users.

And a Few More Words in Conclusion

Despite being a relatively new system on the market, the Unplag team appears to be committed to continually adding functionality and evolving the system. Although it still needs improvement in some areas, I recommend you give it a try. However for an educational institution, only one department can trial the university version before the school decides whether or not to take it on for good.

Plagiarism detectors certainly assist in decreasing academic cheating rate, though they alone won't solve the academic dishonesty problem. Although plagiarism checking services can play an important role in decreasing the incidence of academic dishonesty, educators must still teach students the proper way to cite and reference sources, and how to avoid the different kinds of plagiarism to which students fall prey.

It's also worth teaching students how they can use these checking tools to strengthen their writing skills and not think of them as policing tools. Once students realize that similarity finders are here to boost their academic writing skills, they will be less likely to dream up new ways to trick their search algorithms.

About the Author

Michael Yarbrough is a former Language Arts teacher with more than five years of overall teaching experience. Yarbrough has been working at public and private secondary schools in the U.S., and currently is reaping the benefits of private ESL tutoring. He recently launched his own blog, Cultivating Education. Besides, you can send him a tweet @mick_yarbrough.

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