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Turnitin Sucks

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Turnitin Sucks

It's with a great deal of interest that I've been following the most recent uproar in the blogoshpere about and about whether or not higher ed is taking the proverbial low ground in the ethical battles by the increasing use of Turnitin. It is my opinion and always has been that there is something fundamentally wrong with the whole process of requiring students to turn in their work to the plagiarism police.

I think this graphic from the Honk Kong Polytechnic University is especially humorous. I didn't have their permission to show it on my site so I created my own sign at the Ronald McHummer site.

About 2-3 years ago we had the conversation on campus about whether we should license (or is it subscribe to) the Turnitin service. Of course there were some people who were in favor of it, but the majority was put off by the same things that have always bothered me about the deal. The arguments at that time against using Turnitin appear to still be the main arguments. In no particular order, they include:

"I am currently taking a course that requires me to submit my papers to Turnitin. My objection to Turnitin is that they are not only infringing my copyright, but that they are doing so for commercial profit. If they want to make money from storing my paper in a database, they should pay me for a license." (EricSmith comment on Slashdot)
"Why are we violating authorial integrity to teach students that violating authorial integrity is wrong?" (by Bob, first comment)
"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.”
"I find it more than a bit ironic, that this company works with WebCT and Blackboard, who argue that one should use Course Managment software to protect student's privacy (alah FERPA) when fundamentally violates student's rights." (Dave, Sept. 7, 18:05)
"It's just like music composition. People with similar music education backgrounds end up producing similar music. That's just how it is. Are you seriously going to argue that the standard educational texts HAVEN'T been mined for every bloody original idea they contain a thousand times over?" (read the whole comment by Cadallin)
"The entire problem with these systems is they represent a gross distrust of alot of innocent students. If 25% or thereabouts cheat, it means 75% do not. And that 75% are entirely entitled to be pissed off at there essays being kept in some stupid anti-student database."
"On the other hand, it did find matches for small contentless strings of words in completely irrelevant documents. It several times made false accusations of plagiarism, but missed by far the greater part of the material I really had plagiarized, missing 15 of 18 plagiarized passages in one of the essays." (Royce, see here)
Some of the craziest stuff I've read about it include:
"There is a danger that if you "pre-submit" your work, and then it is later submitted for a course, your course submission will appear to have been plagiarized from your earlier submission."
Defending the ethics of this practice: "As long as the ownership is not separated from the content, then storage of papers submitted for academic credit is an acceptable practice."
"Agreeing to provide your work in order to substantiate or rule out a suspected case of plagiarism is a responsible act that affirms our institutional reputation."
"The putative "copywrite" issue is bogus. Turnitin was developed at U California- Berkeley, which has a preeminent group of legal scholars at the law school. Due to Silicon Valley and Hollywood, California has some of the top copywrite-expert lawyers on the planet, and they've vetted it." (yowser)
Due to the obvious imbalance of power between faculty/admin and students, students clearly are coerced into this act and so all the rhetoric about how they "freely" submit their work to the service is completely bogus.

The CCCC-IP is taking a stand on this issue - they chose the best side IMO.

I think the major source of my discomfort would go away if this was a higher ed-sponsored initiative being operated as not-for-profit. I'm still not too crazy about the whole "guilty until proven innocent" dealeeoh, but I might be able to live with it if we got corporate America out of our classrooms. Of course I would hope that higher ed would build a service like this that emphasizes the possible teachable moments rather than the punitive nature of catching criminals. I still think that an informed/skilled Googler can do just about as good a job as Turnitin (or better) and only apply the tool when there is reason to suspect that a student isn't writing (or properly citing) the text that they have submitted. Yes, I realize that Google also represents corporate America but they aren't directly profiting if I enter a search string to look for matching text. They also don't capture a copy of the students' works unless the students publish their work to the net.

Posted by Barry Dahl

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