New Salvo Against Turnitin

Essay argues the age of big data is the time for professors to reconsider their reliance on the anti-plagiarism business.

June 19, 2017
 

Turnitin has received its share of complaints regarding its accuracy, although it still remains the standard bearer for plagiarism detection for high schools and colleges. Likewise, some writing professors have long said that they fear reliance on the service has led colleges to abandon efforts to teach students about academic integrity.

However, a nearly 4,000-word essay published last week -- which has attracted considerable attention since going online -- has reopened debate surrounding Turnitin. While tapping into growing concerns in society about the control and use of people’s data by corporations, the authors question Turnitin’s entire business model, as well as the effects on academia brought on by its widespread popularity.

In the essay, published by Hybrid Pedagogy, an online journal affiliated with Digital Pedagogy Lab, authors Sean Michael Morris, of Middlebury College, and Jesse Stommel, of the University of Mary Washington, decry Turnitin’s model of profiting off students’ work and intellectual property, especially in the age of big data.

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“Every day, we participate in a digital culture owned and operated by others -- designers, engineers, technologists, CEOs -- who have come to understand how easily they can harvest our intellectual property, data and the minute details of our lives. To resist this (or even to more consciously participate in it), we need skills that allow us to ‘read’ our world (in the Freirean sense) and to act with agency,” the authors write.

Regarding Turnitin specifically, they offer a grim view. The company operates by checking papers submitted by students against its ever-growing database of previously submitted papers, offering plagiarism reports after the papers have been checked. The service is free for students to use, with high schools and colleges paying a fee to have access to the website for the institution.

“A funny thing happened on the way to academic integrity. Plagiarism detection software, like Turnitin, has seized control of student intellectual property. While students who use Turnitin are discouraged from copying other work, the company itself can strip-mine and sell student work for profit,” they wrote.

Turnitin itself offers a different perspective on its operations.

“When students engage in writing and submitting assignments via Turnitin’s solutions, students retain the copyright of the submitted papers,” Chris Harrick, vice president of marketing, said in an emailed statement. “We never redistribute student papers, or reveal student information via the service. Because a majority of plagiarism results from student-to-student sharing of work, we do produce matches between submissions in our database and new student papers. Without the ability to compare [a] submission against existing student work, plagiarism detection systems would be ineffective.”

Turnitin’s practices have been ruled as fair use in federal court.

But to Morris and Stommel, the ceding of control of students' work -- and their ownership over that work -- to a corporation is a moral issue, even if it's legally sound. Time spent on checking plagiarism reports is time that would be better spent teaching students how to become better writers in the first place, they argue.

“This is ethical, activist work. While not exactly the Luddism of the 19th century, we must ask ourselves, when we’re choosing ed-tech tools, who profits and from what?” they wrote in the essay. “The gist: when you upload work to Turnitin, your property is, in no reasonable sense, your property. Every essay students submit -- representing hours, days or even years of work -- becomes part of the Turnitin database, which is then sold to universities.”

But Turnitin is widely used across the education world, and provides convenient plagiarism detection for instructors at 15,000 institutions, according to its website. Even if those institutional barriers could be overcome, would educators be interested in taking a moral stand against something as seemingly -- and debatably -- innocuous as a plagiarism detector? On top of it all, the question comes as data are constantly being shaped and sold by a variety of everyday vendors -- Google, Amazon, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter -- that many in society often take for granted or turn a blind eye toward.

Speaking to Inside Higher Ed, Morris and Stommel said they didn’t write the post with the hopes of shutting down Turnitin, but rather rethinking on a pedagogical level how students are taught about plagiarism, and what should be emphasized when teaching students how to write.

“[Turnitin] can be used proactively,” Stommel said. “But I also wonder, why not just start those conversations in the classroom. Why do we need to farm these papers out to an algorithm that spits these scores back us, before we just have the human conversation -- between student and teacher, between student and student, or between teacher and teacher -- about what it means to own our work, what it means to send out work out in the world?”

Beyond questioning Turnitin’s business model, they argue for re-examining what professors’ priorities should be when it comes to plagiarism.

“I don’t think the job of teachers or the job of schools is to detect students’ plagiarism,” Stommel said. “Our role should be to meet students on the playground and have conversations about their work … Certainly if there’s an obvious case of plagiarism -- and I notice it, and usually I don’t need Turnitin to help me notice it -- having a conversation with students about where they’re at [is] very important.”

Morris agreed, saying that rather than prioritizing the time spent searching for plagiarism after the fact, professors should build relationships with students in way that promotes ownership of their work in the first place.

“I think plagiarism is a red herring for what we should actually be concerned about when teaching,” Morris said. “The problem that needs to be addressed is the relationship between teachers and students, communication between teachers and students. And again, that sense of students' ownership of their own learning and their own education -- that they understand that this is theirs, and not something that belongs to a teacher who’s going to grade it.”

Turnitin, Morris said, is a retroactive policing practice, and -- while sympathetic to professors with oversaturated class sizes and workloads -- asking how to detect plagiarism is asking the wrong question.

“The basis of [handing over students’ essays to Turnitin] is devaluing students’ work,” he said.

Stommel said he was aware of the uphill battle that he faces in the age of big data.

“It’s not about not ceding any territory -- we would be nothing on the web if we didn’t give our data out,” he said. “Ultimately it’s about thinking what does it mean that who we are on the web is commodified? The answer isn’t necessarily to cede the turf, but to draw lines. I will give this, but I won’t give that. I will shop at Amazon, but I’ve made a decision never to submit my work to Turnitin. That decision for me is about agency and empowerment.”

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