Monday, February 25, 2008

Shorter Chronicle: Turnitin--Spawn of Satan or Grader’s Friend?

The Chronicle has an article (behind the subscription wall--sorry) about John Barrie, the founder of, the plagiarism detection site, the gist of which is the title of this post. The founder sounds as though he’s on a mission to stamp out writing-related moral turpitude before “another Enron”:
"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 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 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?


heu mihi said...

I adjuncted a course at a school that used Turnitin, and I confess that I (rookie that I was) never thought about the ethical issues. But it did save me time: in a class of 25 students, I caught 5--yes, 5--plagiarizers, one of whom plagiarized twice. And no, my assignments weren't (I don't think) very general; in a paper that asked them to compare two texts, for example, a student might lift a paragraph that analyzes Text A from the internet, and other students (most of the problem ones, in fact) just copied off of each other--but in such a way that I probably wouldn't have noticed it on my own. The advantage to the system was that I then had clear evidence of plagiarism with which to confront the student without having to go through all kinds of annoying googling or trying to remember what student L said in her last paper that student Y might be repeating in this one.

So while Turnitin does cast a general pall of suspicion over students, and maybe just contributes to their coming up with new and exciting ways to cheat (most of my students, it turned out, didn't know what the program did, which at least partially explains their stupidity in getting caught), it certainly made things easier for *me*.

I don't know. I'm generally for treating students as adults and giving them the benefit of the doubt; Turnitin does neither of those things. But it does have benefits. I wouldn't want to use it for upper-level major courses, though; in those cases, I think the program could be seen as infantilizing and disrespectful.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to agree with Lowe 100% but for large lower level courses with a lot of people taking them for a gen ed requirement, I'm reluctantly for it. People plagiarize *so much*.

Chaser said...

People like Lowe tick me off, frankly. Typical excuse-making. When he says "quit being lazy and design plagiarism proof papers," I want to say: oh please. At what point, exactly, does student bad behavior stop being MY fault for not designing the work right and start being their fault because they have demonstrated a bad moral choice--namely, to cheat. "Read a book that is found only atop Mt. Everest and videotape yourself doing an interpretive dance in the middle of DuPont Circle. Use camel and Plah-Doh." Man, I walk in every day without body armor, making it so easy for them to punch me. If one of them does, it's because I made it so easy for them to do so, and thus it is my fault. They just can't be responsible for not doing something wrong when I make it easy for them to do something wrong, and when I have given them the motivation to do something wrong.

I had a student find a way to plagiarize on an in-class essay test. No notes were allowed. He found a way. So that's my fault, right?

Finally, why are students exempt from having their work/deed scrutinized as a group? Heck, by gum, the IRS just assumes we'll all lie about incomes by requiring both employers and employees submit W2 forms. They should just believe me. My employer won't reimburse me for travel expenses without itemized receipts. No itemized receipt? Tough crap for you. They think I'll cheat if I'm not policed! Woe is meeeee! My self-esteem! All these messages that I might not be inherently whole and perfect and have to comply to a standard set to a group's general moral pattern instead of tailored to precious me and my exemplary moral conduct! If money weren't so neat and exciting, I would never fudge my expenses anyway, so it's actually my *employer's* fault or the gummint's fault if I even think about cheating, and they had better design their reimbursement and payments system to be foolproof. Otherwise, if I steal, it's their fault. After all, we're operating on the logic that individuals can't be expected to have any self-control at all.

Anonymous said...

Regarding concerns about submitting students' work to Turnitin, why not ask their permission? Include with the syllabus a statement they should sign acknowledging that they understand their work will be given to Turnitin, and may also be re-used as examples (with names removed) by the instructor, or some such. I know I've seen syllabi with similar statements.

Anonymous said...

Servant-of-Clio--my syllabus has a statement that I claim the right to share anonymous writing examples with the class, with an opt-out clause, and I feel on safe ground both morally and copyright-wise. But I think the issue here is that Turnitin charges. And it's not cheap. Offering up your work for collective betterment is different from letting someone else make a profit on it.

However, I should think that a university could make it a policy that they consider they have a legal interest in student work, rather like a publisher claims copyright, and argue that student essays are parallel to collecting grade data, medical records, ability to read your email, etc, and that by enrolling the student agrees to be subjected to Turnitin. If the university were to back profs up, I guess the same could be done on a per-class level.

The_Myth said...

TurnItIn would not exist if there was no need for it.

It's profitable because it is FACT that students cheat.

Not all of them. But enough that it is a HUGE hassle for instructors.

Ever notice a lot of the worriers about such services tend to be former hippies [and their children]? They seem to be the sort who cannot fathom that their grandchildren are lying little cheaters. The kids live a different ethos than the one they live with.

As anecdotal evidence, I once used TurnItIn for an essay writing class. Out of 25, TII caught about 5...I used my good sense and Google to catch another 4. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, that's over 1/3 of the class who plagiarized despite clear instruction on how not to.

I am not a bad person for assuming students MIGHT cheat. But maybe it's time for EVERYONE to start considering that the student who cheats might actually be a bad person. Perhaps plagiarists might start making better ethical choices if they get called out for the bad ones more often.

Theophilus Punk (PLStepp) said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Theophilus Punk (PLStepp) said...

We've just started using it, and I love it. I'm completely on the Turnitin side, and I don't see an ethical problem. As Chaser says: Turnitin is essentially like the metal detectors at the airport.

I hadn't thought about the money / copyright thing, but I'm not troubled by it.

Oh, and the idea that we're supposed to turn ourselves inside out to design "plagiarism proof" assignments is pure bovine excrement. Cheating will ALWAYS be easier than doing the work; that's one of the reasons that doing the work is an achievement, something worthwhile.

undine said...

heu mihi, that clear evidence of plagiarism is a real benefit; otherwise, it's google and highlighters for a few hours until I find everything. Ironically, although I didn't find much plagiarism in the lower-division courses, I did find some (and still do, though a modest amount) in the upper-division courses.

cero, that part about gen ed is especially true if there are teaching assistants doing the grading. If they've got 100 papers to grade or whatever, is it reasonable to ask them to avoid Turnitin?

chaser, I read your post on this before your comment, and I totally agree, especially about the "test them all for plagiarism or test none." You said it better than I could.

undine said...

servant-of-clio, I used to do what dance does: have an opt-out clause with an alternate assignment. (Our school doesn't have Turnitin now.) I also explained it to the students at the beginning of the semester as an issue of basic fairness: if they were working hard and others were slacking off and plagiarizing, it penalized honest students instead of the dishonest ones. dance, it is expensive, which is probably why the school doesn't have it. They have a statement saying that it is available as a resource--as long as we pay for it ourselves.

undine said...

the_myth, I do think they'll make better choices if they know there's a consequence attached to cheating. The thing is, even if I get on top of a desk and shake my fist to tell them that plagiarism is bad, the whole class may nod but some just don't believe it. If they do believe it, they think it's one of those bad things that everybody does, or maybe they're just willing to take a chance because they're out of time or pressed by concerns that they think are more important to them than my silly prejudice against copying another person's words.

To be honest, although I'm idly curious about why they cheat and ask them about it, knowing why doesn't change their behavior or mine; I attend to their actions, not their intentions. They did action A, and I follow with action B, as I said I'd do. I don't yell at them, but I do explain what was wrong, why they got an F, and how this will be reported--and then I do it.

undine said...

theophilus_punk, that's the thing--the ones who are putting forth the effort to write a real assignment are getting undermined by those who are taking the easy way out.

Anonymous said...

I, too, have mixed feelings. Although I would in general not subscribe to the argument that you are not oppressed if you don't feel oppressed, I have never heard a student object to it on the basis that their work was being used without compensation. (although I discuss this on the first day of class.) I hear them object on the basis of the tool being a pain to use, and also on the grounds that they don't like being suspected of plagiarizing before they even start.

I personally have followed a compromise: I make them do the turnitin thing, but I only look at the results if I have other reasons for suspecting plagiarism, i.e., if I look at the assignment and come to the conclusion that it might be plagiarized. In that case I am using it as a timesaver for myself. In general, however, I don't think it is a timesaver, especially if it identifies a lot of demonstrable plagiarizers--yes, that 2 hours is saved, but not the 10 hours you spend writing the case out, running it by the student services people, getting the student's signature on the papers, etc., etc. The real timesave would be if we just buried our heads in the sand.

It is also not foolproof. I had a case where i was convinced that an assignment had to be plagiarized, but neither turnitin nor I found the source.

In sum, I guess i feel angry enough about plagiarism that I feel it balances it out with the potential ethical objections. I teach in a field where there are a few texts that can't simply be switched out every semester to thwart lazy students--these have to be read, they have been read for at least two centuries, and although I try to be creative with my questions and assignments I can't really be expected to think of a new one every semester. At some point if the student is going to learn he-she has to decide to take that step. In this sense turnitin is "forcing them to be free"--distasteful, but maybe necessary.

ms. baby said...

I've only ever taught introductory courses and have thought that maybe turnitin would be not be so appropriate for upper-level seminars. In any case, I present its use to my students this way: I hate having to worry about plagiarism when I'm reading your work so we're employing turnitin to do the policing for us--the policing is present, but it allows me to frame it as a security check that is not part of our relationship.
It's not exactly true in that if I find something that strikes me as weird, I don't dismiss that feeling if turnitin doesn't confirm it, but I think the thing is helpful in that it puts the students on notice--sometimes I think they respect tii's capacity to detect an instance of plagiarism more than mine.

What Now? said...

One of the things that I love about is that it actually allows me to read student papers without suspicion, since I don't have to be on the lookout but rather can count on Turnitin to be on the lookout. I found this made grading more pleasant and improved my relationship with students.

I really appreciate your point about plagiarism-proof essay topics. I get frustrated because I actually think that learning how to write an explication of a passage in "My Last Duchess" is a very useful lesson for beginning lit students, one that will help them considerably in future critical endeavors. And yet these basic skills papers are now off-limits because they are so easily plagiarizable. Very frustrating. And when people argue that we should write plagiarism-resistant paper topics, I always think there's an implicit criticism that we all keep doing the same kind of assignments, but darn it, these assignments are classics for a reason!

undine said...

servetus, you're so right about the time it takes to write everything up. That, added to finding the sources, is what makes the process so onerous.

Anonymous said...

Chaser said almost everything I wanted to say, better than I could say it -- so, hear, hear, Chaser!

I've never worked at an institution that used Turnitin so I don't have direct experience -- but I've often longed to have it. Like last week when I caught the student who copied word-for-word the Wikipedia entry on Bahktin. Makes me crazy.

Unfortunately, the fact that so many students cheat means that they're all under suspicion. It's absurd to pretend otherwise. The teacher/student relationship has changed but the pretense that "once upon a time" teachers had implicit trust in their students and students felt like they were wrapped in warm, cozy blankets in the classroom is a complete fiction.

I'd use Turnitin if I could. No guilt involved.

undine said...

ms. baby, I wish that plagiarism never happened in those upper-division seminars, but it does. That saddens me more, because by that point they should know better.

What Now, I like teaching "My Last Duchess," too, for what it can do for close reading skills. I've just moved more of that to an in-class exercise.

the bittersweet girl, I think plagiarism may have been prevalent even back in the warm and fuzzy days, although maybe it wasn't caught as much. It'd be interesting to know. It's hard not to take plagiarism personally, but I try to think of it as water seeking its own level: some students will go for anything that will save them time, if they don't get caught. They think of it as rational, not criminal. Checking for plagiarism keeps them honest, maybe, or perhaps it just makes them think twice, like putting a barrier in place so the water can't seek its own level.