Plagiarism, like most dirty laundry, isn’t often aired in the proverbial public square of academia. For the most part, it’s a problem that flies under the radar, reintroduced to students only when papers are due and insinuated at by an ethics policy or, more pointedly, thrown in the spotlight when students are asked to submit their works to the online database, ‘Turn It In’.
Well, the tide has certainly changed. Last year, when I interviewed Jesse Rossenfeld, a former McGill University student who refused to submit his paper to ‘Turn It In,’ he was a lonely voice crying injustice, and although he won the right to a personal exemption, he did not succeed in getting rid of the program altogether.
Recently, Dalhousie University has taken that plunge. Following in the footsteps of a few Southern American schools, its Student Union has won the battle to get ‘Turn It In’ out of the school completely; this means there is no longer a contract between the two parties and professors no longer use ‘Turn It In’ to check for plagiarism.
This was a pleasant surprise, as after talking with the Student Union last winter, I was left with the distinct impression that the fight was proving to be tedious and difficult. Amazingly, student leaders stuck to the fight, citing the protection of intellectual property and necessary privacy.
I consider this to be an incredibly important victory, even though I know many naysayers will scoff at my optimism and call ‘Turn It In’ a useful or practical tool. I would like to make one argument against this; after critically examining the program, its illusion of prestige was blown away. Rossenfeld and other academics all cited that a professor who is on his or her game would be able to nail any sort of plagiarism ten ways to Sunday, and never need the program to find major issues. This is illuminated by the fact that ‘Turn It In’ is infamous for its false positives and questionable algorithm – that’s strike one, as far as I’m concerned.
Next, there’s the issue of intellectual property. Most students, when asked, aren’t particularly over the moon about giving their work to a company that will then use it to build their database and even market their product citing these papers. Strike two.
Lastly, and most importantly, we should be seriously concerned about allowing a business to come into the classroom as teaching mercenaries. The thing to note, of course, about mercenaries is that they have absolutely no stake in improving the situation. For ‘Turn It In,’ the worst possible scenario would be a decrease in plagiarism or, more seriously yet, ethical policies and practices that would bridge the divide between student and teacher which will address the root causes of plagiarism. Strike three.
In the end, although this tiny step may seem insignificant, it’s important to remember that in academic plagiarism shouldn’t be our scarlet letter. It is a real issue, of course, but not one that should make us hang our heads in shame. What we should be judged on, measured by and scrutinized for is how we deal with it. Do we pull together and stress a higher sense of ethics? Do we strive to come up with more creative assignments? Do we reach out and provide more support services for students trying to write papers? Unfortunately, many schools – unlike Dalhousie University – aren’t making the switch.