Recent findings from The Citation Project (http://site.citationproject.net/), a multi-institution research project responding to educators’ concerns about plagiarism and the teaching of writing, revealed (http://site.citationproject.net/?page_id=27) that students focus on the mechanics of citation and on the form for citation but not on the spirit of research. That is students use little summary of sources and tend to quote heavily, often dropping in quotes, creating what Rebecca Howard calls patchwriting (see for example “Writing from Sources, Writing from Sentences.” Writing and Pedagogy 2.2 (Fall 2010): 177-192. [http://writing.byu.edu/static/documents/org/1176.pdf]).
A counter argument to these findings might be that getting students to master mechanics is necessary for the prevention of plagiarism; if students can master mechanics to start, it doesn't matter much that there writing is dull and void of point of view, voice, evidence of careful reading, curiosity, and other intellectual values and habits of mind that writing instruction seeks to promote.
But we also know that one the reasons for plagiarism comes when students get lost in their sources, when they, in the words of Keith Hjortshoj fall into theft and fraud because of a loss of voice. Separating mechanics from argument, turning the research assignment into a check list -- X number of pages, Y number of sources, with Z number source type A, type B, -- and so on, and focusing on that above all else pushes students into the kind of shallow writing the Citation Project warns us about.
And perhaps that's one way to think of things: research assignments and how they're presented, and research writing and how students do it, can run on a continuum from rhetorical rich at the ideal end to rhetorically shallow and dull and mechanics driven at the opposite end.
On this continuum, Turnitin.com is a tool that is predisposed to foster writing that is shallow. That's not to say it has to make writing more shallow or that there are not ways of using it that help promote rhetorical rich research projects, but in its default mode, at its roots, it's a tool that focuses on shallow, and in when used in a TSA-style way, also works against bringing students into the academic community research writing represents.
As Mike Palmquist describes in The Bedford Researcher, research is about joining a conversation, an academic conversation. It's about using sources to frame a discussion, using sources to discover, using combined sources to create new insights, and most of all about engaging the sources as writer and thinker who is also a speaker in the conversation. To use sources by patching them into a sequence of paragraphs for the sake of meeting an assignments requirements on the number of sources, number of pages, and strict adherence to mechanics robs thinking and discovery; to read projects written to requirements instead of for discovery in the context of purpose that invites the writer to think and to speak to a vested audience, robs teaching of the pleasure that comes from seeing students learning how to think and discover.
Joining a conversation is about entering a community. And it's hard to join a community if you're invitation begins with and focuses on threats of excommunication for breaking major rules. Those rules matter, and they need to be taught and understood. But there a ways of doing that, even ways that include using Turnitin.com, which foster invitation more than warning, allow for the discovery of voice and excitement for ideas more so than the fear of a mechanical error.
Ironically, even Turnitin.com knows this. They have in the past described an alternative that to their services that helps make students better researchers and also makes, in their own words, "the chances of plagiarism vanishingly thin."
Starting with their premise as one end of a better continuum, we'll start the discussion of how alternatives to, and better practices with, Turnitin.com and do more to help students find their voices and to help them write better and richer research papers that are plagiarism free because students know how to and want them to be free.