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Issues Raised by Use of Turnitin Plagiarism Detection Software

This past week, I worked with a couple of other members of the Writing Department at GVSU to prepare a position statement on plagiarism detection software. GVSU only recently acquired a subscription to Turnitin, and myself and the other teachers were concerned that teachers in other disciplines would be unware of the issues surrounding plagiarism detection services. The following is the full text of the statement which has been distributed on our campus.

Note: CCCC-IP has begun a resource page on plagiarism detection services.

Issues Raised by Use of Turnitin Plagiarism Detection Software


Recently, Grand Valley State University purchased a site license to plagiarism detection service Faculty members who use this service can require students to submit writing assignments electronically to Turnitin, which compares student texts against Turnitin’s database of Internet sites, academic journals index, and previously student submitted papers and prepares a report indicating where in the text plagiarism has been detected. Writing submitted to Turnitin is maintained in the database for comparison against future submissions by other students.

Scholars and teachers in the field of Rhetoric and Composition, as well as other academics, have discouraged the use of plagiarism detection services. We recommend that before using this service, faculty members consider several important issues raised by the use of Turnitin.

Turnitin Discourages Good Pedagogical Practices Concerning Writing

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.

Turnitin Can Be Ineffective for Detecting Plagiarism

Experimentation by researchers and instructors has indicated that Turnitin can be ineffective in catching student plagiarism of Internet sources or can produce otherwise inaccurate results (e.g. Carbone, Royce). Teachers may have better luck using a mainstream search engine such as Google or Yahoo to find evidence of plagiarized text.

Turnitin Makes Questionable Use of Student Intellectual Property

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.

For these reasons, we recommend that the university consider having Turnitin globally configured at GVSU so that students’ papers are not stored in the database.

Because the issues outlined in this document are of great importance to faculty, we hope that ECS and other faculty groups at GVSU will discuss the implications of the various features and uses of Turnitin.

September 6, 2006
Charlie Lowe, Assistant Professor of Writing
Ellen Schendel, Associate Professor of Writing
Julie White, Affiliate Faculty, Writing Department


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