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Turning on Turnitin

April 16, 2013

Software to detect student plagiarism is faced with renewed criticism from the faculty members who may confront more plagiarism than do most of their colleagues – college writing professors.

Members of the Conference on College Composition and Communication passed a resolution at their annual convention last month to denounce plagiarism detection services, including products like Turnitin.

According to the resolution, "plagiarism detection services can compromise academic integrity by potentially undermining students' agency as writers, treating all students as always already plagiarists, creating a hostile learning environment, shifting the responsibility of identifying and interpreting source misuse from teachers to technology, and compelling students to agree to licensing agreements that threaten their privacy and rights to their own intellectual property."

The resolution formalized a long-simmering faculty resistance to the services, which come in the form of software. While many faculty members use the software enthusiastically, some -- especially in composition -- argue that the software oversimplifies a complex issue, shifts responsibility from people to technology and breeds mistrust between students and teachers.

CCCC Chair Chris Anson said there were a number of problems with the detection services, including instructors who rely on the software to do key parts of their job.

“Their job is to pay attention to assignments," Anson, a professor at North Carolina State University, said of faculty members. "They shouldn’t be finding ways to get around that responsibility, which is an important one."

The makers of Turnitin, a product that is used to check 80 million student papers for plagiarism and other issues, called the vote by the CCCC the action of a vocal minority.

“Like any technology that is highly adopted, it is going to have its critics and we have a small, vocal minority in the four Cs [as the composition group is known] that, we believe, misinterpret how the technology is used,” said a company spokesman, Chris Harrick.

It’s unclear how many CCCC members voted on the resolution, but the vote took place during a "business meeting" that Anson said was attended by a smaller group. 

Why wouldn’t professors want help detecting cheating in an age where students can copy and paste material from the Internet, turn in others’ old work as their own or even buy custom term papers?

Anson said plagiarism could be reduced and made easy to detect with the human eye if professors gave students unique assignments and worked with students rather than cutting them loose with a deadline.

“Those kind of practices can help teachers teach better and help students subvert the possibilities of plagiarism, which can often happen because they are unsupported,” Anson said.

He said professors can cut down on the necessity or possibility for plagiarism by tweaking assignments. For instance, instead of asking about characterization in King Lear, Anson suggested professors ask students to write letters from the point of view of Cordelia, Lear’s loyal but shunned daughter.

“The most easily plagiarized papers are the ones on the most stereotypical projects,” he said.

Anson said CCCC members also feel the goal of software like Turnitin is to “catch and punish” students rather than to teach them. He said some cases of suspected plagiarism the software flags are not plagiarism but poor citation or students who do not understand academic conventions.

Renee Swensen, a professor at Saddleback College who does consulting work for Turnitin and responded to questions about CCCC’s resolution on behalf of the company, said she uses it as a tool to help students.

“It’s an opportunity for discussion rather than some sort of ancillary tool for the instructor to see what the students have been doing behind closed doors,” Swensen said.

Swensen, who has attended CCCC's convention in the past, said this year’s vote was “somewhat myopic” and the product of a vocal few who have been agitating against the technology for years.

“It’s a tool," she said. The important question is "how do you use it?”

Anson also complained about Turnitin’s practice of building its database by including submitted student papers. The company says it has “300+ million archived student papers” to aid its plagiarism detection efforts. The practice has been the subject of unsuccessful litigation against the company.

“Talk about taking work without attribution – they are taking students’ work without compensation. So it’s a strange, underhanded violation of intellectual property rights on behalf of students,” Anson said.

 

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