16 December 2011

Turnitin.com, a Pedagogic Placebo for Plagiarism

Note: I originally wrote and published this on June 5, 2001, and archived it on the Web in Technotes, a Web site I used to keep at http://bedfordstmartins.com on June 13, 2001. A few months ago, Bedford/St. Martin's reorganized the site and lost the original. I reclaimed this copy from the Way Back Machine. Since publishing the piece below in 2001, Turnitin.com has won legal cases concerning its use of student essays, and has added features which allow instructors to let students submit writing as drafts, drafts which can revised if matching text that needs citation is found.

However, I still regard relying on Turnitin.com for plagiarism as a pedagogic placebo that can do more harm than good in the classroom. This belief is reconfirmed by three things: two recent articles on Turnitin.com, and an old statement on copyright that Turnitin.com used to share with instructors. 

The articles are:
"(Moral) Hazards of Scanning for Plagiarists: Evidence from Shoplifting" by David Harrington, an economics professor, at http://davideharrington.com/?p=594

"NYU Prof Vows Never to Probe Cheating Again—and Faces a Backlash" by Marc Parry, a writer for the Chronicle of Higher Education, at http://chronicle.com/blogs/wiredcampus/nyu-prof-vows-never-to-probe-cheating-again%E2%80%94and-faces-a-backlash/32351  Parry covers the story of Panagiotis Ipeirotis, a computer science professor at New York University's Stern School of Business who wrote a detailed blogpost about what happened when he tried to pursue cheating. See also by Parry "Software Catches (and Also Helps) Young Plagiarists," which looks at WriteCheck, software Turnitin.com sells direct to students to pre-check papers on their own at http://chronicle.com/article/Escalation-in-Digital/129652/

Finally, the thing that convinces me most that Turnitin.com isn't necessary is Turnitin.com's own words, as captured in their statement on copyright, which they used to distribute to instructors who were concerned about how students papers are used in their database of submitted papers. You'll see from the quoted portion of the statement here http://bedfordstmartins.com/catalog/static/bsm/technotes/workshops/plagiarism.htm, that even Turnitin believes that if one teaches writing and research using standard writing process and good research teaching strategies that the chances of plagiarism are "vanishingly thin." So they admit that good teaching makes their product unneeded. I agree.

Turnitin.com, a Pedagogic Placebo for Plagiarism

If you attended the Conference on College Composition and Communication in Denver this past March, you may have noticed numerous flyers for a Web-based plagiarism detection service called Turnitin.com. If you didn't attend the conference, you most likely have seen them referenced in a sidebar--along with other plagiarism detection Web businesses--in one of the recent articles from the flurry of news coverage about the incident at the University of Virginia where 122 students are being investigated for possible plagiarism. In that story, a physics professor, Louis A. Bloomfield, wrote a small program that compared student papers for matching phrases, and found 60 matches (double that and add 2, and you see why there's 122 students being investigated) that were more than coincidental-in some cases papers were almost exact duplicates.
In any event, if you haven't heard about Turnitin.com--or a service like them--through the press or at a conference or campus mailing, you likely will soon, perhaps from a colleague or a teacher in another department or from one of your campus deans. These folk might come to you because they know you teach writing, most likely first year composition, a course that traditionally includes a research paper and therefore addresses plagiarism. And they might also want your view in particular because you're a teacher, writing center leader, or writing program administrator familiar with online learning strategies and the Internet.
Given the likelihood that many of us will be asked to advise and comment on Turnitin.com, I thought it would be useful to visit the site and devote a couple of Teaching with Technology Tips to Turnitin.com in particular and to plagiarism in general. This week, I'll focus primarily on Turnitin.com, offering a review of the site and service based on my own visits to the site; in a later Teaching Tip, I'll take a broader look at plagiarism and how computer technology offers opportunities for better understanding and teaching it.

What is Turnitin.com?

Turnitin.com was originally founded by John Barrie -- a neurobiology graduate student -- as Plagiarism.org, which still exists as a marketing arm of Turnitin.com. The site's FAQ (http://www.plagiarism.org/faq.html) explains their anti-plagiarism technology, detailing that it's "a new technology called document source analysis, which uses a set of powerful algorithms to make a digital 'fingerprint' of any text document and then compare it against millions of other sources on the Internet." They compiled their database by "continually cataloging and indexing online academic works with automated web robots" focusing on online paper mills and archiving papers from participating courses.
Sounds impressive, right? This is a fancy way of saying that they compare one text (a student's) to others in their database or on the Web. 

But here's the kicker, according to a 1999 article in Salon: the comparisons don't always work so well. In "The Web's Plagiarism Police," (http://www.salon.com/tech/feature/1999/06/14/plagiarism/), Andy Dehnart writes:

Plagiarism.org's site insists that "only cases of gross plagiarism are flagged. This means that papers using some identical quotes or papers written on similar topics will NEVER be flagged as unoriginal." But that wasn't exactly my experience. I put a friend's research paper in the system as well, and it found five phrases that matched other sources found on the Net. The report said the "paper probably contains plagiarized material from the given manuscript." But a quick check showed that the indicted sentences were all legitimate excerpts, appearing within quotation marks and citing sources. Again, the service came across like a hanging judge.

Plagiarism.org's Barrie -- a neurobiology graduate student at UC-Berkeley -- acknowledges that the service fails to properly differentiate between quoted materials and original writing.
This, of course, means anyone who trusts Turnitin.com blindly, risks being made the fool, and if they charge a student with plagiarism without careful double-checking, they can get into administrative hot water. For adjuncts especially, who are more likely not to be renewed if their teaching is questioned, relying on Turnitin.com when it can't read or judge, is dangerous. The software merely compares. It is to teaching students how to write well with sources what a spell checker is to proof reading. However, the whole rhetorical pitch and presentation of the site, the reports it makes on student papers, as Dehnart notes in his Salon piece, presents its findings as if plagiarism is almost certain.

Detection as Placebo

If you look at the Turnitin.com Web site, its rhetorical appeals are twofold: to teachers' fear of plagiarism ("Almost 80% of college students admit to cheating at least once," "33% admit to using electronic technologies to cheat regularly"; and to teachers' indignation at the act ("our goal is to return integrity to higher education"). The alarmist rhetoric is shrill, like those ads for home burglar alarms that feature a menacing man with a crowbar outside the windows as mom tucks her daughter into bed while dad's away on a trip. It plays to worst fears in the worst way.

Why the worst way? Turnitin.com doesn't distinguish between cheating--intentionally cutting and pasting in elements from other electronic documents--from the inevitable mistakes in paraphrasing, summarizing, file management, note taking and so on. Cheating is wrong and should be punished. Mistakes in using and citing sources -- which can be technical, mechanical, rhetorical, and evaluative -- are in fact a necessary part of learning how to write with and from sources. To automatically and as default position equate these mistakes with fraud and cheating undermines learning. Novice writers need to be able to make and correct mistakes, in much the same way an athlete makes mistakes in practice, or in a game, and then practices some more to get it right. Turnitin.com doesn't convey any patience or make any distinctions in this regard. And thus it makes the challenging of addressing plagiarism harder.

The service is not about teaching, it's about catching. In that, it's a pedagogic placebo. And teaching students how to wisely use others ideas--how to distinguish when and why to cite a source, how to introduce them into conventions for doing so--is hard enough with adding in the threat of constant surveillance, which Turnitin offers in the guise of peer review. 

Turnitin.com offers archiving and 'peer review' services that invite instructors to have students post all their work on the site, under the argument that doing so will stop students from cheating because they'll know that every time they upload a paper it will be checked (and also copied and made part of the Turnitin.com database in case some future student uses the same paper). But this approach is akin to learning how to drive for the first time by always being tailed by a state trooper.

It assumes the worst about students and the worst about teachers. It assumes students have no honor and need always to be watched and followed electronically, a big brother welcome to academic traditions. It assumes teachers are too beleagured and inept to design classroom assignments and practices that teach students how to write responsibly. Much of what Turnitin.com proposes to detect can be avoided by careful assignment planning and teaching (a subject that will be covered in the next Teaching Tip), by paying better attention early on to students and the work they do.

But even in the best of all pedagogical circumstances, there will be times when students do cheat, when they do go beyond making mistakes in learning how to write with sources and cross over into deliberate fraud. When this happens, teachers do in fact need to try to find the originating source, and do need to challenge their students on authenticity of their work. It's at this point, when the need to do some digging is upon them, that even the most concientious teacher might be tempted to use Turnitin.com, or a service like it.

Before taking that step, however, a savvy teacher can spend a bit of time on a good search engine trying subject searches, and if a student took something from the Internet, chances are pretty good you'll find it there. But sometimes that doesn't work. And so, the next logical step might be to use something like Turnitin.com, as a last ditch attempt to find the smoking gun.
But I wouldn't even then. I simply think Turnitin.com is unethical. I think using it to ferret out plagiarism--an infraction against intellectual property--is unethical because Turnitin.com co-opts students' intellectual property in order to sell its service.

Turnitin.com keeps a copy of every paper submitted and adds it to their database. Students have no choice in the matter; if a professor submits a student's paper for a check, it's archived -- essentially inhouse-published -- for future use by the Turnitin.com database. The Turnitin.com privacy policy and user agreement say nothing on this that I could find. And that in itself is problematic in my view.

I'm troubled by this co-option of student writing on human subject grounds. Most universities have protocols for getting permission to study humans, whether medically, chemically, or socially (i.e. interviewing, surveying, ethnographies and so on). Under these protocols, researchers must submit plans for how they will collect and use student works, and must work out permission to do so. As a teacher and textbook author -- and now as someone who works for a publisher -- I would never use students work in a book, at a conference, or in any professional capacity without students' written permission, which permission must be freely given and not co-erced as a condition of the course. 

With Turnitin.com, students' work is captured and held without their permission. This goes against the grain of most writing pedagogy, which premises that students are 'authors' and 'authorities' and owners of their own work (coincidentally, the assumption used to establish copyright). It also goes against the grain of one's right to their intellectual property that Turnitin.com, in its pursuit of plagiarists, seeks to uphold. So using Turnitin.com presents students with a double standard. 

If one uses Turnitin.com, they say to students something like this:

Plagiarism is wrong because it's the theft of another person's intellectual property. Yet we don't trust you to follow that ethos, so we're going to violate it ourselves to save you from your own perfidity. We're going to take your property--your writing--and check it here, in this place that will keep a copy of your work whether you give permission for this or not. Sorry, it won't be just your property any more, it will also belong to Turnitin.com's database.
And why, ultimately does Turnitin.com do this? 

For two reasons. One is a pedagogical misunderstanding, the other is based on a business plan. 

Pedagogically, their underlying assumption is that the student will cheat, or will let his or her paper be used for cheating, or that someone will take it without permission and cheat from it. The underlying assumption is one of guilt. But they also do it so they can boast at their Web site and in their advertisements and come-on's to colleges and school districts how comprehensive their database is.

Their business plan is best examined in the May issue of Perspectives Online, the newsletter of the American Historical Association. There, Kate Masur quotes John Barrie, founder of Turnitin.com, as saying that his company will "become the next generation's spell checker . . . There will be no room for anybody else, not even a Microsoft, to provide a similar type of service because we will have the database." 

That's just wrong. Gathering the intellectual property of students for profit, without their permission, and assuming they'll cheat is unfair. The whole Turnitin.com approach, an approach other Web-based detection services follow, is the wrong way to teach students about plagiarism, copyright, and intellectual property.

(Emailed 6/5/01; Archived on the Web 6/13/01)

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