Anti-Turnitin scholars call for rethink on tackling plagiarism

Company accused of profiting from students’ intellectual property

June 19, 2017
Bag of dollars

Debate over the role of Turnitin in university teaching has been reignited by an essay that accuses the plagiarism checking service of profiting from students’ intellectual property.

In the essay, published by Hybrid Pedagogy, authors Sean Michael Morris, of Middlebury College, and Jesse Stommel, of the University of Mary Washington, question Turnitin’s business model and issue a warning about the effect of its widespread popularity on academia.

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 universities paying a fee to have access to the website for the institution.

“Plagiarism detection software, like Turnitin, has seized control of student intellectual property,” write Mr Morris and Professor Stommel. “While students who use Turnitin are discouraged from copying other work, the company itself can strip-mine and sell student work for profit.”

Turnitin’s practices have been ruled as being fair use in a federal court, and the company 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,” said Chris Harrick, vice-president of marketing. “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.”

But to Mr Morris and Professor Stommel, the ceding of control of students’ 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….we must ask ourselves, when we’re choosing ed tech tools, who profits and from what?” they write in the essay. “Every essay students submit – representing hours, days or even years of work – becomes part of the Turnitin database, which is then sold to universities.”

In an interview, Dr Morris and Professor Stommel said that they wrote the post with a view to rethinking on a pedagogical level how students are taught about plagiarism, and what should be emphasised when teaching students how to write.

“[Turnitin] can be used proactively,” Professor 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?”

Mr Morris said that, rather than prioritising the time spent searching for plagiarism after the fact, professors should build relationships with students in a 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,” Mr 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, Mr 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.

This is an edited version of a story that first appeared in Inside Higher Ed.

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