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by Valerie Balester, Executive Director
We were informed this past summer by Instructional Technology Services that students should not include identifying information on work submitted to Turnitin.com. ITS is concerned about reservations expressed by the U.S. Department of Education regarding student privacy and FERPA regulations. However, some professionals within the field of composition instruction have other concerns: plagiarism detection software like Turnitin does more damage, many of us fear, than violating privacy. One of the most influential professional organizations in composition, the Conference on College Communication and Composition (CCCC), for example, suggests that plagiarism detection software “undermines students’ authority over the uses of their own writing” (http://ccccip.org/files/CCCC-IP-PDS-Statement-final.pdf).
Why, you might ask, should we care? After all, student writing is just practice writing, and it doesn’t really count for anything. It’s not like our writing, by which we make our bread and butter. But when we treat student writing as inconsequential, so do students, and the result is the careless, poorly written drivel that we have been trying to obliterate with W courses. Students who do not feel pride of ownership and control over their work will not give it the time and attention it needs to be excellent.
Beyond this basic concern is the atmosphere plagiarism software detection programs can create, the expectation that students will cheat, that they are basically dishonest in their work. This atmosphere undermines trust and make writing even more distasteful. It’s just another trap, another hurdle to jump before graduation. Students are encouraged to see writing for college as a game rather than as an integral part of their education. We don’t want that.
The CCCC also worries that programs like Turnitin will make college faculty complacent by shifting responsibility for detecting plagiarism onto technology. It’s only a matter of time before students learn to beat the software. I have personally tested it with my students, asking them to cheat; many of their transgressions went undetected by Turnitin. Students who run originality reports that come out clean may still have made mistakes, but if they rely too heavily on the report, they will not know it.
After all, learning citation properly is far more than learning a set of rules, a style, the correct placement of commas and capital letters. Learning citation is first and foremost learning how a discipline creates and disseminates knowledge. It is subtle, takes many years to master, and is the mark of a professional.
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Writers, we composition specialists know, is often learned by imitation. We examine the work of the masters; we analyze it, practice it, are critiqued as we attempt it, and we keep it up until we can do it as well as our betters. In the process, we make mistakes (thus the critiques). As instructors, we cannot let a technology find all the errors, then, without remarking upon them, expect students to correct them. Besides the fact that Turnitin can lull students into a false sense of security—they may have errors the software did not catch—it does nothing to help them correct errors it discovers. It cannot teach how to work a citation into a text without distracting the reader, nor can it teach the difference between direct or indirect quotation, or when or why something might be considered common knowledge. It cannot explain why in some citation styles dates are foregrounded while in others they are not, nor show why in some documents citations within the text are provided while others omit them.
I am advocating responsible use of Turnitin.com. Syllabi should always make it abundantly clear from the first day of class if students are expected or required to use it, and they should be informed of the privacy issues raised by ITS. They should be told what “identifying information” means.
Better yet, I suggest you do not require Turnitin.com, but make it available to students to use in the drafting stages of their writing. Offer help in interpreting results. Most important of all, devote some time in class to discussing the logic of citation and the ways that knowledge is disseminated in the discipline of the class.