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Turnitin has announced its latest surveillance product set to arrive in the latter half of 2018.

Most known for their core service of hoovering up student writing and telling instructors how likely it is to be plagiarized, they will soon offer Authorship Investigation, which “will monitor and learn the writing styles of individual students and flag up content which shows considerable divergence from their previous work.” 

Can you hear the sound of my head hitting my desk over and over? There’s a welt. I might’ve even blacked out for a bit, and waking up thought I dreamt up this abomination, but nope, it’s real

Turnitin says they’re reacting to the problem of “contract cheating” third-party produced work which is turned in for credit. This problem has been around forever, but used to be limited to ads in the back of Rolling Stone. Thanks to the interconnectedness of our social spaces and the increased ease of research, it is both easier for those looking for product to find the providers, and for the providers to churn out their products. The Telegraph estimates that the market for purchased papers is at least $100 million pounds in the UK

A CHE article from 2016 explored the “whole course” “New Cheating Economy” in the U.S. (paywalled

It’s no doubt a lucrative industry. In 2016 I calculated that I could earn more working 20-30 hours a week in the “new cheating economy” than I would as a tenured professor.[1] 

So yes, students purchasing papers or hiring out their online courses is definitely a thing, but we should nonetheless resist turning to surveillance and policing systems in response.

Let me count the reasons why:

1. The software doesn’t work. Susan Schorn, writing coordinator at UT-Austin has twice tested Turnitin, and each time the software missed 40% of the plagiarized material. The software is equally notorious for its false-positives.

2. Using the software is pedagogically dubious. As Schorn says, “We say that we’re using this software in order to teach students about academic dishonesty, but we’re using software we know doesn’t work. In effect, we’re trying to teach them about academic dishonesty by lying to them.” 

3. Using the software is ethically wrong and exploits students. Utilizing Turnitin requires students to upload their intellectual property, which then is used to refine a 3rd party product without students receiving compensation for their intellectual property.

4. Using the software helps allow for the ongoing degradation of instructional quality. Plagiarism detection software is a “solution” instructors turn to when they have too many students and not enough time to engage with the work on an individual basis. The money sent to Turnitin for the service should instead be used directly to improve instruction.[2]

Allowing the proliferation of algorithmic surveillance as a substitution for human engagement and judgment helps pave the road to an ugly future where students spend more time interacting algorithms than instructors or each other. This is not a sound way to help writers develop robust and flexible writing practices.

I can only imagine that it will be recommended students be required to upload as much of their writing as possible to Authorship Investigation in order to increase the size of the database and therefore the “reliability” of the score. Soon, we will be told that all student work must be fed into the machine to make sure everything is fair and no one is “cheating.”

But using Turnitin or Authorship Investigation isn’t necessary if we create the conditions under which students are less likely to want to cheat. We know how to do this.

James Lang’s Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty helps point the way. Students cheat not because they are inherently dishonest, or lazy, or don’t want to learn. They cheat when cheating seems like a rational thing to do because the work appears to hold little to no meaning.

If we create assignments which are intrinsically interesting, which students believe matter, and which are oriented around “mastery” as opposed to grades, they will not be so tempted to cheat.

I have not had a plagiarism case in more than a decade. I know dozens of other instructors who can say the same because we follow some very simple principles:

1. Concentrate on creating assignments which require students to draw from their own experiences.

2. Focus on process.

3. Require students to show evidence of the journey on the way to the destination.

The problem is not the contract cheating industry itself, but the rise of a culture of credentialism where there is not sufficient time for meaningful contact between students and instructors. Authorship Investigation only exacerbates this problem by further distancing that relationship.

Imagine the student who is seeking to experiment with or stretch their writing, but fears coloring outside the lines previously drawn by the algorithm.

Imagine the student who has made a leap in their work and is told they must be cheating.

We know more than enough to inoculate against plagiarism, rather than trying to stop the virus once it’s already spread. Every dime sent to Turnitin and their ilk is a step in the wrong direction.





[1] The marginal employment prospects of those with advanced degrees also feeds this phenomenon. People who would otherwise be employed inside academia are instead making a living feeding purchased content back into the system.

[2] At some point, it may require an ethical stand among instructors, a refusal to “do more with less” by not assigning writing when instructors are not given sufficient time or resources to assess the writing in ways consistent with professional norms.

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