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learning.now: at the crossroads of Internet culture & education with host Andy Carvin

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The Politics of Plagiarism Detection Services

Today’s Washington Post includes a fascinating story about a group of students rebelling against their school’s use of plagiarism detection services (PDSes) to catch students taking shortcuts in their work. It may seem like sour grapes at first, but these high schoolers aren’t alone in their fight against the practice.

McLean High School in northern Virginia is well-known in the region for its high academic standards. To ensure that these standards remain rigorous, administrators at the school have contracted with a California company called Turnitin. (As in “Turn It In”. Get it?) The company specializes in assisting schools to detect plagiarism by maintaining a database of more than 22 million essays written by students in the US and abroad. Turnitin allows educators to scan electronic copies of their students work and compare the content with the essay database, along with numerous academic databases containing scholarly materials. The teacher then receives an electronic “originality report,” which summarizes Turnitin’s findings, giving side-by-side comparisons of questionable text, along with a numerical score estimating the percentage of content matching other sources.

Turnitin’s business has been quite successful, with clients in more than 80 countries. So McLean High is hardly the first school to invest in the technology. They’ve become notable, though, by the organized student response. Angry students quickly organized a protest group known as the Committee to protect students, collecting nearly 1,200 signatures demanding that the school cancel its relationship with Turnitin. “It irked a lot of people because there’s an implication of assumed guilt,” senior Ben Donovan told the Washington Post. “It’s like if you searched every car in the parking lot or drug-tested every student.”

The committee insists that they are not condoning plagiarism; instead, they argue that Turnitin violates their intellectual property and privacy. That’s because the service keeps a copy of every essay uploaded by educators. It doesn’t matter if a particular essay contains plagiarism or not; they all get added to the ever-growing database, just in case a future student decides to submit work based on them.

And that’s beginning to make even some adults nervous. Intellectual property experts at the Conference on College Composition and Communication recently published a position paper raising multiple concerns about PDSes like Turnitin.

Because some PDSs routinely incorporate student work into their databases, the use of PDSs can undermine students’ authority over the uses of their own writing. Even when students sign release forms, they do so within an unbalanced power differential which can be experienced as coercive. At a minimum, before prospective students are accepted at an institution that uses such services, they should be informed of submission requirements and the nature of the PDS’s use of their work.

The position paper also takes issue with PDS companies sharing newly submitted student work with third parties, raising concerns about privacy:

Most PDS licensing agreements give companies the right to “reproduce, display, disclose, and otherwise use” student work for their business purposes. In addition to student papers, “work” includes “questions, comments, suggestions and other data and information” submitted to the site. Even with the promised exclusion of “personally identifiable information,” such blanket permission to circulate student work presents risks which students might not anticipate or fully understand.

Meanwhile, two weeks ago at Michigan’s Grand Valley State University, three professors issued their own open letter against the use of Turnitin.

Because Turnitin compares student writing against a database of articles, previously submitted student writing, and web pages, it’s most easily used as a plagiarism detection service. Such use emphasizes the policing of student behavior and texts over good-faith assumptions about students’ integrity, and can shift attention away from teaching students how to avoid plagiarism in the first place. In “Defining and Avoiding Plagiarism: The WPA Statement on Best Practices,” the Council of Writing Program Administrators urges teachers to “use plagiarism detection services cautiously,” for they should “never be used to justify the avoidance of responsible teaching methods.” We recommend that teachers work toward implementing the WPA’s best practices as a long-term solution to eliminating plagiarism and building a culture of responsible participation in the creation and circulation of academic knowledge. The Writing Department and the Fred Meijer Center for Writing will be happy to host a workshop on sound pedagogical practices for eliminating plagiarism.

And if pedagogical arguments don’t sway the university, the three professors pull out the L Word: Lawsuits.

Students have intellectual property rights to their writing that make problematic Turnitin’s compilation of student texts. Claims of fair use by Turnitin put aside, teachers may want to consider their own opinions about requiring students to give away their work to be used by a third party, for-profit vendor. Faculty should consider the legal implications of using a service like Turnitin. A McGill University student sued the university and won his right not to submit assignments to Turnitin.

McLean’s administrators seem to be taken somewhat aback by the student protest. Assistant principal Kimberly Carney acknowledges there have only been isolated cases of plagiarism among the 1,700+ student body, but feels that the service can be used to educate students about the importance of citing sources. “There wasn’t a landmark thing that happened that we said we need to adopt this,” Carney said. “Plagiarism is a problem at every high school nationwide.” She also explained that students would be allowed to submit drafts of their work to Turnitin as a way of detecting their own citation mistakes; only the final copy of their work will be graded and scrutinized. That way, she said, the service works more as a deterrent rather than a “gotcha” tool.

The Committee for Student Rights, however, isn’t backing down. They continue to argue that Turnitin is a violation of their rights and a waste of money. Teachers, they say, shouldn’t rely on software to teach students about the ethics of plagiarism.

What do you think? Has McLean High School gone too far or is this a necessity in the “cut-and-paste” Internet age? Do PDSes send the right message to students? I’d be particularly interested in hearing from educators who use these services, as well as students who are held accountable by them. -andy

Filed under : Policy


I feel that Turnitin is a short-cut and lazy teaching. The easiest way to detect plagiarism is to know the students. Be familiar with their style and knowledge base. If a paper doesn’t seem to fit what you know about the student, then you should become suspicous.

I agree with the IP concerns mentioned. The students are given little choice but to enter their papers into the Turnitin database if they are going to avoid a failing grade on that particular project. Why should the Turnitin company be allowed to use their papers for it’s own commercial interests without some form of compensation going back to the students actually writing the papers?

I would like to to add that students, people, cheat because they think that they are not capable of doing the work. As H.S. teachers that is the problem that we should be trying to fix, not playing a game of gotch ya.

Also teachers need to assign topics that are virtually impossible to cheat on. Again lazy teaching allows students to turn in a Wikipedia article to satisfy the terms of the assignment.

I think this article has certainly given me some food for thought - there are issues here that I had not considered.

However, I really must take exception to the posts which refer to the use of a service such as turnitin as “lazy teaching.”

There is an assumption in this that the teacher would use turnitin in lieu of common sense. This technology is a tool, much in the same way that a spell checker is a tool. Just as you wouldn’t rely on a spell checker alone to proofread your paper (lest it be left as “you’re pay per”), a wise teacher would not switch off his or her own judgement and experience because the machine is taking care of it. It doesn’t make a writer “lazy” if he or she uses a spell checker - it is just one more way to scrutinize what is there.

Furthermore, the argument that “people cheat because they think they are not capable of doing the work” is a naive oversimplification, and often wrong. It may, indeed, be one reason for a student’s lack of judgement, but there are other factors, too, such as the attitude of “everybody does it,” or the impression that cheating is the only way to keep up with “everybody” and to stay caught up in the student’s own time management.

A service like Turnitin doesn’t have to be about “gotcha.” Our school has an honor code, but we also subscribe to turnitin. It is extremely rare to “catch” a student with it - instead it acts as a statement about how seriously we take plagiarism, and it can be a starting point for conversations in our classes about plagiarism. We encourage students to use turnitin to check their own work, to be sure that when they quote or paraphrase from the book they are citing it correctly. Using a service like this makes the act of attributing ideas less abstract and, incidentally, it sends the message that just as they could use the internet to find uncited resources, their teacher can use the internet to find it too.

Could a teacher use a service like turnitin in a lazy fashion? Most certainly they could. But to call it a “short-cut” (as opposed to performing a google search on every paragraph of every paper submitted) and “lazy teaching” to use it is a sweeping generalization.

And speaking of generalizations, I would challenge anybody to come up with a different, original essay topic on The Scarlet Letter for each of their students every year for the rest of their career before they call other teachers “lazy” for not writing questions that are impossible to cheat on.

I think the overwhelming argument against the use of Turnitin is copywrite law and requiring students to submit to its use.

I agree that one cannot label the teachers who use it as ‘lazy’ because it probably takes them a lot of precious time to submit every paper.

As a teacher who has caught a student plagiarizing, I can assure you, that I thought the writing just seemed out of character with this student’s other work. Sure enough, her reasons were that she felt she had to do it to keep up and felt that everyone does it. Because of that, I checked on some of my other students work, but didn’t find anything, leading me to conclude that ‘everyone’ doesn’t do it.

I agree with the comment above, about the technology being a tool, that can—as with any tool—be used well or poorly.

As a First-year Composition instructor, if I suspect a student of having plagiarized, I am faced with spending 3-4 hours, at least, to find the source text(s) and document everything. That’s 3-4 hours I can’t be using to respond to the legitimate work of students who didn’t cheat.

That’s in addition to the 10%-20% of the class’s total clock-time that I spend every semester teaching just research and citation, accompanied by repeated written and oral explanation of what constitutes plagiarism.

As I recently told a friend when we discussed this issue, there is no single smoking gun behind the tidal wave of students who admit (in anonymous surveys) that they’re cheating their way through school.

Yes, there are sloppy, lazy teachers. Yes, the educational system itself is set up in such a way that many students see no option but to cheat. Yes, we live in a society that values success—period, at any cost, as long as one isn’t caught. And, finally, yes, cheating is unquestionably wrong. Students who cheat should be severely punished for what is ultimately an individual ethical choice.

The problem with PDSes and the media frenzies that feed them is that they often portray themselves as a one-stop solution for a problem that arises from many, many causes. They know fear sells, and they’re out to make money, pure and simple.

All that being said, I won’t be using Turnitin, though my university subscribes to it, until the courts rule definitively on the intellectual property rights issue, or until the PDSes come up with a better way to do what they’re doing.

The “L-word” cited above is a very real issue. I wholeheartedly support the students’ right to stand up for their interests, and to demand that the courts produce a usable definition of their legal rights in the matter. As a Graduate Teaching Assistant, I can’t risk being named as a co-defendant in one of these lawsuits.

Plagiarism detectors such as TurnitIn actually PRESERVE the intellectual property rights of the author by giving attribution to the original and blocking theft. Teachers simply have no time to investigate each paper. I know my students’ writing, but I must also provide PROOF of my assertion of plagiarism if I level the charge. The inordinate amount of time it takes to investigate a suspected case often discourages teachers from assigning meaningful writing assignments. It’s not lazy teaching—it’s “Trust but verify.”

I’m a senior at McLean and just wanted to update you on the situation here. Yesterday, the administration decided to make turnitin required for only freshmen and sophomores. Since the seniors are the most involved in the legal aspects of our school battle, I believe that the administration decided to do this to relieve the tension. But beginning next year, all students will be required to use this. The Students Rights Committee is still not fully happy with this action though since freshman and sophomores are still faced with this website. The school also decided to begin to implement turnitin at the start of the second semester. All of this was announced on September 28 at Back To School Night. I think it is great that students are fighting for their rights. Go Highlanders!!!

I agree with K. Pegues that Turnitin “preserve[s]the intellectual property rights of the author…” Of course it can be used as a substitute for teaching, just as any other teaching tool, however - and more importantly, it is a deterent to students who consider cheating. I use it with my middle school students for just that purpose; students who plagiarize are given a review lesson and required to rewrite the paper. Yes, I am familiar enough with the writing styles of invidiual students to spot a plagiarized paper, and for years I spent countless hours tracking down the source in order to have my claim of plagiarism stand up to the scrutiny of parents. Nevertheless, each year approximatley ten percent of my students submitted work that was not their own. With the advent of using Turnitin, that number dropped to one percent. Students who may have otherwise plagiarized (usually a result of waiting until the last minute to complete an assignment) took the time to write an original paper and to cite sources.

Dan said: I feel that Turnitin is a short-cut and lazy teaching. The easiest way to detect plagiarism is to know the students. Be familiar with their style and knowledge base. If a paper doesnt seem to fit what you know about the student, then you should become suspicous.

As others have pointed out, services like Turnitin become very useful when you have realised that the work isn’t the same as other work the student has presented before (though that’s not always possible if it’s the first submission - or a 200+ cohort. Changing styles in the middle of a piece of work are also very obvious (sometimes as glaring as a change of font, or switch from US to UK spellings!)
Services like Turnitin can save hours of trawling through Google in order to present the sufficient evidence for a plagiarism hearing.

It’s not always possible to create a plagiarism proof piece of coursework - going back to the 200 cohort class - it’s impractical to give them all a 10 minute viva based on their essay.

As for the issue of IPR, I’m not sure about Turnitin, we’ve used MyDRopBox, which only compares submissions in the same institution (and with the Internet of course) - and, should a lecturer choose, all can be submitted as “draft” (when they aren’t saved, as it’s expected that drafts will match with final) -and it’s also possible to clear out all submissions at the end of a course.

I tend to just use draft, and only upload those documents that “feel wrong”. Invariably the work has been plagiarised. Pre-submission then I can return the work with suggestions to the student. Post submission then it’s not possible and it has to be followed up.

The notion that TII protects students’ IP sounds a little like saying that MP3 downloaders protect the musicians’ IP because they don’t remove the artist’s name. TII is still using students’ work to generate profit, and students generally have no control over that.

I also tend to go along with the “unreasonable search” argument, especially if you’re routinely running ALL papers through it. Yes, that will reduce the incidences of plagiarism - but at the cost of presumption of innocence. Generally that sort of ends-means rationale is frowned on in this culture.

IMO, it’s a handy tool to use when I suspect plagiarism and/or to help teach students what plagiarism is - but always in conjunction with other methods and pedagogies. But I am watching the IP issue.

Note - TII has been the object of quite a few pieces in The Chronicle over the past few months.

To believe that knowing your students is a viable alternative for using TurnitIn is truly naive. Knowing your students is just the beginning. As a college Freshman English instructor, I can vouch that once you suspect plagiarism, you spend hours tracking down the source or sources so you can document the plagiarism, and you must document the incident these days. Just search “essays” to get a glimpse of the resources available to students today. Even doctoral dissertations can be purchased for the right price.

If a copy of a composition is kept in TurniIn to be checked for plagiarism, it should not be copied any more. Therefore what kind of intellectual rights are being violated? If students—and parents and teachers—are protesting that students themselves are being assumed guilty by the use of TurnitIn, the blame can be placed on those many, many students that have sought the “easy out” by copying right off the Internet, off sample essays, or off purchased essays, and used up the precious time of teachers who would much rather be teaching those who really care to be learning.

The premise of turning in all students’ papers as being some sort of “treating all students equal” leads me wonder if every student should be arrested and questioned when one student is found to have drugs in their locker. What about believing in a student’s personal integrity. All I hear is ethics, ethics, ethics, but you are not giving us the chance to prove to you that we are ethical. This is a double standard by teachers.

I do think it is a time-saving tool for teachers who suspect plagiarism. I only wonder what constitutes plagiarism to TII. After reading 20 to 30 articles on a subject or person, at what point do I know as a student that what I am writing was a “captured” thought by my brain during the sleepless nights trying to meet the teacher’s demanding schedule. Is not thought the same as energy, in a closed cycle, simply broken down and used again and again…How does TII know that it was not my original thought but structured in the same logical manner we are all conditioned to think and write.

I wonder if TII happens upon a truly genious student’s work and “leaks” it to one of these professor’s who are so “supportive” of TII, for that professor’s next research paper…hummmmmm
just thinking out loud!

I just came across an absolutely eye-opening article with tons of proof. I had no idea how much Turnitin violates students’ rights.

The Well-Known Secret about Turnitin.com

Dan makes some good points. I have also found that some students cheat because they believe that they cannot do the work. In my view, that makes it all the more imperative for us to identify those students and confront what is obviously a huge barrier to their development.

I can easily detect most cases of plagiarism on my own, but suspicion is not enough to confront a student. I need to know, and a Google search is a pretty crude tool. A skilled teacher can look at a Turnitin originality report and diagnose the kind of plagiarism she is dealing with—insufficient paraphrase, phantom citations, misunderstanding of quotation and citaiton rules, etc. The use of these reports actually increases our understanding of the wide variety of ways that plagiarism can occur as well as the make us question the boundaries of acceptable use of sources. In my opinion, this actually leads to more a more nuanced understanding of writing development among educators. A “zero tolerance” policy does not make much sense when confronted with the evidence that even very good writers who in no way intend to plagiarize may write a few insufficiently paraphrased sentences.

Dan, you are wrong to suggest that encouraging students to do their own work because they need to know that they are capable is anywhere close to being an adequate response to this problem. We should do that, but, frankly, there are students who will never realize that they have done something unacceptable until they are confronted in a very rigorous manner. I am afraid that the truly lazy teachers are the many teachers who come up with excuses not to take a closer look at student papers. Some of them believe that they are advancing an enlightened teaching policy when, in fact, they do not want to do the work it takes to deal with this. In the process, they are creating a small but growing culture of impunity. It starts at the high school, Dan, and I see the results in college.

I am a student at a college university. I have recently been accused of plagiarism and after having my professor show two separate program results tell me my paper was plagiarized. I still disagree. The problem comes when a teacher gives up their judgment to run a paper through a system and trusts that its accurate and fair to the student. This particular paper was written in three pieces by a group of four students. I now have to write a paper on why what we did was plagiarism and take a 20 point doc on the paper itself. When I still don’t think what we did would be considered plagiarism (at least not based on all the definitions and examples I’ve found in two hours of searching the Web). In the mean time we all are 12 days to graduation and it was either accept the “slap on the wrist” and sign a statement agreeing, or hold up graduation (some of us have job offers and other certifications contingent on graduation). Maybe I don’t truly understand the definition of plagiarism, but I don’t see how it could be when 90 percent of the items these programs brought back were not only in quotations, but cited in text and in a bibliography. I’m almost ready to write my paper on why what we did WASN’T plagiarism, since I can’t find any reliable sources that support my teachers view point.

I am taking a digital information fluency course and came across Dan’s article in the lesson on fair use and plagiarism. I taught high school English for 25 years and I am currently a high school principal. I think I know what is being referred to with the label, “Lazy Teacher.” I have found plagiarism when I taught the research paper in my English classes years ago before TII.

The students at Mc Lean High School have a good point about their integrity being questioned without reasonable suspicion. Back in the 70’s and 80’s or the Pre-Web research era, English teachers took their students to the library to do research. With the expanse of unlimited research sources on the web, the key is to teach students how to access it an evaluate it as a reliable source and how to use it legally. I only had to do this with printed material in hard copy sources and microfilm. In the mid 90’s, I began teaching students how to access internet sources and correctly cite these.

I agree that teachers need to connect with a student’s writing, and have a good grasp of their personal style and vocabulary ability to be able to “Red Flag,” plagiarism in a paper.

I feel somewhat confident that I was able to prevent most of the plagiarism in my English classes. If I was teaching in the English classroom today, with the unlimited web sources available to students and the pendency to cut and paste, I know I would be looking for help trying to prevent plagiarism.

Is TII the answer? Back in the day, I used peer editing when teaching research and writing, and I wonder how many of the Mc Lean high school students who are alleging an infringement on personal rights and freedoms would turn in a fellow student if during the peer editing process one of their fellow classmates was discovered to be copying and pasting text? This would be the real test of integrity and honesty for these kids. Would these students agree with “Turn your classmate in.” Then plagiarism may be stopped before it becomes cheating.

well and I have to write an essay about turnitin and i have no idea what i should write about it cause this topic is soo confusssing

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