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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.

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A Final Nail in the Coffin for Turnitin?

I didn't think it could get more absurd.

September 18, 2019
 
 

Three years ago I mused that I could make far more money writing essays for contract cheating paper mills than teaching writing.

According to reporting from the Chronicle of Higher Education at the time, I could earn $1800 per week writing “reference” materials for paper mills, in contrast to the $2850 per semester-long course adjunct wage I was receiving from College of Charleston.

I thought we had reached peak absurdity, but thanks to being alerted by Ben Williamson on Twitter, I now see things can get stranger.

 

 

In case this isn’t clear, paper mills are now using Turnitin/WriteCheck to certify to their customers that the essays they’ve purchased from the paper mill will successfully pass the Turnitin/WriteCheck report at their institution.

As Ben Williamson says in the article, “The WriteCheck service was supposed to be used by students who want to check that they haven’t too closely paraphrased sections in their work, In this case, it appears to be granting organizations that are at the center of the essay mill industry the ability to use the Turnitin name when selling essays.”

As I say right here: What a racket!

Turnitin now sits at the center of a perfect little marketplace, a plagiarism singularity if you will, where they get paid coming and going to certify work as “original,” even though the very circular nature of the arrangement means the software itself is worthless when it comes to detecting originality.

Think of how much they can now save on research and development. The purpose is no longer to detect possible plagiarism, but merely for the software to spit out the same answer when presented with the same text, therefore certifying its originality.

Turnitin is now as useful as the “time machine” my friends and I made out of a cardboard box when we were children that involved stepping into the box, changing into some old-timey costumes, then pretending we’d emerged into colonial America speaking like we’d swallowed the Declaration of Independence. 

Like our time machine, with Turnitin, it doesn’t matter what happens as long as you’re willing to believe the result. Never mind that it doesn’t work. Never mind that it distorts pedagogical practices, demoralizes students, and uses their actual original work to advance Turnitin's intellectual property (not that this matters with their new business model). As long as we get that certified originality check, we must be doing the job.

Right?

In my institution’s learning management system, when I establish a dropbox for student work I am given the option to engage the Turnitin Originality Check feature, and it irritates me every single time because it reminds me that some amount of money is going toward a charade.

Or worse than a charade. The case against Turnitin has been clear for years. Jesse Stommel and Sean Michael Morris made it here in 2017, compiling evidence available long before.

It’s not that there aren’t alternatives. There are many.

In his book Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty, James Lang shares techniques and approaches that obviate the use of software like Turnitin. 

I haven’t had a suspected plagiarism case in over a decade, and I’m not alone in that because we’ve learned that as Lang writes in his book, privileging the process and giving students work they wantto do because it is challenging and intellectually rich means they don’t even consider cheating. 

I have no position, no authority or sway, so I am no threat to the Turnitin business model in all its devious elegance, but I honestly cannot believe that institutions spend even a dime on this software, knowing what we know. 

At this point, believing Turnitin “works” requires a willful blindness.

Let this be the beginning of its end as a tool used by educators and educational insitutions.

 

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