Turnitin.com, the plagiarism detection website contracted for use by numerous high schools and universities, including Wilfrid Laurier, has been facing severe criticism. Issues ranging from the practical to the ethical have caused some students, teachers and campus organizations to voice their dissent following the program’s use in their classrooms.
Jesse Rosenfeld, former McGill University student, spearheaded this campaign in 2004 by refusing to submit his paper to the website for an economics class. After a lengthy hearing with the university, officials finally allowed him to opt out of the system.
Rosenfeld explains that there were numerous reasons for his refusal to comply, from the nature of the site to the presumption of guilt associated with forcing students to submit papers and prove innocence before even “raising that alarm.” He spoke of one reason that particularly troubled him.
“You have these companies profiting off of this crisis in higher education through creating massive paper mill databases and being able to basically, market their resource on the number of papers they have to check your paper against,” Rosenfeld says. “Effectively, every time you submit your paper, you’re contributing to their marketing strategy and their direct profit.”
Rosenfeld is commenting on the company’s leaflets, emails and website, which boast that Turnitin.com has at its disposal more than 130 million student papers. Papers, Rosenfeld reminds us, which were most likely gathered forcibly, with students given an ultimatum of failure.
For Dr. Jason C. Robinson though, a professor at Laurier Brantford, the system is worth it.
“Indeed it is unsatisfying to know that a company is either directly or indirectly making money from another work,” says Robinson. “I’m not sure how ‘unsatisfying’ leads to ‘unjust.’ As an instructor, I am comfortable arguing that there seems to be far more gained by virtue of Turnitin.com then there is lost. As it is, everybody seems to win.
Turn It In is making money. Students are being justly awarded grades based on performance.”
This brings up the largest and most controversial issue of all. For public education purists, the most egregious problem is what Turnitin.com represents: a private, cost-driven company that has effectively penetrated the inner workings of the classroom. For critics, the sacred line has been crossed.
“If you start looking at a corporation,” says John Farrell, a high school teacher and supporter of the public education system, “and the way in which a corporation is responsible to its shareholders, their legal responsibility is to deliver the maximum profit within the confines of law. It’s one of the reasons why you don’t want corporations running certain services where there are values beyond maximizing profit.”
Patrick M. Scanlon, a scholar and critical analyzer of the issues surrounding plagiarism, in his work “Student Online Plagiarism: How Do We Respond,” outlines the central quagmire. He argues that a mechanical online service unduly simplifies the problem, making it a product in/product out ratio rather than an attempt to holistically better the situation.
“The adoption of increasingly popular electronic plagiarism checkers, although probably effective in the near term as deterrents, could actually prevent faculty from addressing the problem before the fact, as a critical matter of students’ intellectual and ethical development,” writes Scanlon.
“Using plagiarism checkers appears to turn professors into detectives with new and unproven high-tech tools at their disposal, rather than teachers instructing students in what, for many of them, are baffling principles and techniques.”
Rosenfeld goes further, saying that although there may be problems in the education system as a whole (ballooning class sizes, cross budget drops), that Turnitin.com is, in essence, a bandage solution.
“This answer doesn’t address the problem.”
So while there is disagreement on the size of the issue or the proper solution, there is a general consensus that to lower instances of plagiarism is desirable.
Logic tells us then that this is a crisis that a corporation has absolutely no incentive to solve. Strictly through the lens of profit and loss, it would be wholly detrimental for Turnitin.com to fundamentally ‘fix’ the problem. ‘Fix’ meaning to find a way to promote a classroom setting where students understand upfront what plagiarism means and have little want or opportunity to engage in it. This goal would make for a very short business lifespan but arguably, a very healthy learning environment.
Rosenfeld outlines why this is important ground.
“The fact is that if you want to put money into truly tackling sources of plagiarism,” he says, “you’re going to put it into the quality of education. You’re going to have more original assignments that are more difficult to plagiarize, or you’re going to have greater engagement with students, that way they’ll be less inclined to throw a paper out of a paper mill. You’re going to have a greater familiarity between students and faculty. You’re going to know the student’s writing and the student’s work.”
Although these changes may be relatively costly, Rosenfeld, Farrell and other critical scholars point to the notion that this may not be the only factor prompting schools to sign on with big business. The realization that the proportionality of the plagiarism monster may be inflated is seen as a disturbing but likely fact.
“It had this feel of a war on plagiarism, which just seemed rather absurd,” says Rosenfeld. “It was a manufacturing of a crisis of plagiarism that professors were completely capable of dealing with.”
“Did you know that over 50% of unoriginal work comes from other student papers?” reads a passage from Turnitin.com. “With a database of over 135 million student papers, Turn It In is the only technology capable of detecting purchased papers, cheat sites and student collusion.”
Passages like this one can be construed as intimidating to professors, who might otherwise have full confidence in their abilities to manage plagiarism in their classrooms. They often don’t hear from reports like Scanlon’s, in the Journal of College and Teaching, which point out that of students, “10 percent reported copying ‘a few sentences from a website without footnoting them’ and 5 percent admitted to turning in a paper ‘obtained in large part from a term paper mill or web site.”
This numerical representation is much tamer and more manageable than the Turnitin.com statistic, which appears overwhelming simply because of its size. When informed of Turnitin.com’s statistical information and the way in which it is presented, Farrell was offended.
“That’s outrageous. They’re being deliberately alarmist.”
Another point of possible intimidation is the so-called “sophisticated algorithm” that Turnitin.com employs. It is implied that professors and teaching assistants simply don’t have the breadth of knowledge or the instant identification capabilities that this mathematical system does.
Farrell questions the core of this assumption. He says that he isn’t buying the argument presented that Turnitin.com is better than a trained eye.
“Writing is such an organic process, that the idea of being able to detect certain issues with a ‘sophisticated algorithm…’ well, I don’t find that reassuring. I mean, if these sophisticated algorithms, regarding writing, were possible, then surely Microsoft Word would be able to come out with a better grammar checker, and yet they don’t.”
Another serious issue Dalhousie students have recognized is the loss of jurisdiction that often follows corporatization. Beginning in 2008 with serious vocal protest, the Students’ Union there has continued to support a policy that would ban, or at least provide an opt-out system for Dalhousie students when it comes to using Turnitin.com.
“Since the site is hosted outside of Canada… any information that is put into it is accessible beyond Canadian law,” explains Union member, Brandon Laforte.
So while the decision to literally buy into the Turnitin.com solution may seem simple and straightforward, the deeper one delves, the more complex and murky the situation inevitably becomes. And while Rosenfeld attained his initial victory, McGill’s policy on the site has not changed. Other schools around the country have rethought their contracts, including Mount Saint Vincent University, which was the first school to ban the program in 2008. Still, the overall trend of expansion for Turn It In continues. As mentioned, WLU has been a part of that growth.
While most cannot agree on the final structure, plagiarism is certainly a hot button issue, and one that elicits a general consensus that a fixed solution is needed. After thorough examination, students and officials must decide whether or not Turnitin.com, or any other plagiarism detection service for that matter, is capable of being a part of that solution.