"The disturbing thing," he told the newspaper, "is that Princeton is producing our society's future leaders, and the last thing anyone wants is a society full of Enron executives."
Countering his view is Charles Lowe, who makes good points:
But critics say that's a fact to be lamented, not a cause for celebration. Not only does Turnitin grab student papers for use in its database without compensating the students, they argue, but it also encourages professors to spend time policing their students instead of teaching them. "Turnitin does sound wonderful on the surface," says Charles Lowe, an assistant professor of writing at Grand Valley State University, "but a lot of faculty members aren't even aware of why they might not want to use it."
Lowe's argument is that Turnitin.com uses student work for its own profits and generally without the consent of the students; it may create a climate of suspicion wherein students are presumed to be cheating; and instructors should stop being so lazy and make plagiarism-proof assignments.
I agree with Lowe, to an extent, but would note this: the idea that you can easily make a plagiarism-resistant assignment is true for writing courses but not for literature courses. In fact, a lot of the arguments I’ve seen against using Turnitin.com have come from rhet/comp people, and they are completely right in what they argue. A lot of the arguments I’ve seen in favor of using it come from lit people, and they, too, are right. It depends on what you’re teaching.
There are two separate issues here: the utility/morality of using Turnitin, and the necessity to create plagiarism-resistant (no such thing as plagiarism-proof) assignments. Both are connected, however.
About the assignment: These days, probably only a rookie would give a general assignment to write a 750-word out-of-class explication of “My Last Duchess” or “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”; it’s just too easy and too tempting for students to dump in material they’ve copied and pasted from the numerous sites that deal with well-known works. I’ve seen arguments saying that students feel insulted by such assignments and plagiarize as a means of expressing their contempt.
Most of the students I’ve caught plagiarizing, however (and never for an assignment like this, which I wouldn’t give), have had the same explanations: they ran out of time, or they thought the arguments they saw online would make their papers more impressive--mostly the former. But once in a while students will try to plagiarize even when given a well-designed assignment, one that engages students and requires drafts, unique perspectives, and so on. Yes, this occurs even in the best of all possible worlds, and it’s not proof of a lazy and disengaged instructor, a bad assignment, or even a bad student. That’s where people who make the case for Turnitin say that their product comes in handy.
About the utility/morality of Turnitin: I’m leaving aside the whole copyright issue with students’ papers, although it’s certainly a big one. I’m concerned primarily with how Turnitin affects individual classes.
Morality: One argument says that having students submit papers to Turnitin assumes that all students are cheaters, and I’ve heard instructors say that they only submit “suspicious” papers. Isn’t this more insulting to the individual student, however—to assume that he or she is cheating? If you were a student, wouldn’t you be distressed to learn that your instructor had singled out your paper because she was suspicious of it? Wouldn’t you wonder why she had submitted it and whether her suspicions had more to do with you as a person and maybe your gender/race/social class/attitude in class than with the paper itself?
Utility: Another argument says that you can get just about the same results using Google, so, why use Turnitin? Answer: it saves time. I have used it in the past, early in its development, and don’t do so now, but it did save huge quantities of time. (Yes, when I used it students could opt out of having their papers submitted by doing an alternate assignment, though no one chose that option.) Most instructors hate plagiarism because it violates principles of ethics, but they also hate it—or I do—because it wastes my time, and I hate any activity that wastes my time.
So here’s the question: is it all right to use something like Turnitin, which may be questionable ethically, if it saves you a lot of time? Is it all right to use something that may be profiting from students' work without their consent if it helps to stamp out a greater problem, namely plagiarism?