Turnitin: Arming both sides in the Plagiarism War

by on September 7, 2011 at 7:10 am in Current Affairs, Education | Permalink

The internet has made plagiarism much easier and by most accounts plagiarism is increasing rapidly. As a result, over a million instructors now use services like Turnitin, a plagiarism detector that compares submitted manuscripts against a large database of material, including previously submitted manuscripts.  What is less well appreciated is that Turnitin also sells its services to students. In fact, students whose professors use Turnitin are encouraged to pre-submit their work to Writecheck which will analyze and “verify” for the students that their paper has “properly quoted, summarized or paraphrased” previous work and it will also relieve students from “worrying that their paper will be recycled without their knowledge.” Uh huh.

In other words, WriteCheck will tell students if their essays will pass Turnitin! David Harrington summarizes nicely:

Turnitin is playing both sides of the fence, helping instructors identify plagiarists while helping plagiarists avoid detection.  It is akin to selling security systems to stores while allowing shoplifters to test whether putting tagged goods into bags lined with aluminum thwart the detectors.

1 Anon September 7, 2011 at 7:41 am

Isn’t it more akin to allowing customers to verify that each item was properly paid for?

Ideally, compliance requires citations for quotations and paraphrases. Once the paper does that, it is no longer plagiarism.

2 another_anon September 7, 2011 at 4:24 pm


Ideally. Hmm. Ideally plagiarism would be treated as fraud, as crime. It would be prosecuted by the courts in the same way. Pragmatically we could legitimately be lenient by not being literal in the application of the famous principle — ignorantia juris non excusat (ignorance of the law does not excuse). Everyone knows that to steal and cheat is wrong.

Just to be sure, however, since one can’t take for granted that school teachers and parents performed their basic functions (i.e. they might have de-programed the child’s natural and universal instincts about right and wrong), the definition of plagiarism could be provided to undergraduate students in big bold letters on day one of university. There’s nothing complicated about plagiarism. It’s really simple to define. And it’s a crime by any classical philosophical standard. It goes beyond the odd sentence error. It is systemic and habitual.

The analogy with capitalist commerce is apt indeed. Steal from a store or cheat in business and you face prosecution under the law or exclusion from the group.

There may one day be a great book of the 21st Century, equivalent to Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and it might be called the Decline of Western Civilization. In that book I predict that student plagiarism, and the tolerance of it by criminally-negligent politically-correct or plain lazy teachers, will have a lengthy index entry. If not a whole chapter. And from then on it might even become quite legitimate for historians to blame the current economic crisis on the tolerance of plagiarism in universities. But that’s another book…

3 lemmy caution September 7, 2011 at 6:30 pm

Plagiarism is a problem for teachers, but is not in general a major social problem. Truth is very important, origination is not. Wikipedia is full of plagiarism with the result that it is even more useful than if that material was omitted.

4 Richard Gadsden September 11, 2011 at 5:01 pm

Credit matters. Plagiarism only matters in education and in research because the objective in education is to get the student to think their own thoughts, and to demonstrate that they have learnt the topic, rather than just the ability to regurgitate other people’s words. It matters in research because the objective is to find out new things, and repeating someone else’s idea and pretending it’s your own means that it’s not original.

But even outside of that, it’s a reasonable value that people should get credit for their contributions; not every contribution to society can be paid for properly, but there are all sorts of benefits that come from getting credit which offer some compensation for not being paid the value of your work.

As for wikipedia, it doesn’t let wikipedians get credit for their work. It doesn’t claim to be original; indeed, it prohibits original work, but insists it get published somewhere else before appearing in wikipedia. Plagiarism is taking someone else’s work and claiming it to be your own. Don’t see wikipedia claiming anything to be theirs or the wikipedians.

5 Arlen September 14, 2011 at 5:54 pm

I agree with the magnitude of danger to civilization that plagiarism poses. Fundamentally, a plagiarist excuses him/herself by reason that ideas belong to everyone and are communal property. Not just plagiarism, but collectivist reasoning in general will be the decline of western civilization, … if we can still argue we have not already fallen.

6 icanmakeyouaman September 9, 2011 at 12:27 pm

I think this is more like people who’ve had a bit to drink having their own breathalizer – if they’re below the legal limit, great, if not, they can adjust (in this case wait a while or get another driver) until they pass.

it’s helping students *not* plagarize: I mean, if you’ve paid or coerced someone else to write your paper, you should at the very least check to see if it’s legal.

7 Luc de Villepin September 7, 2011 at 7:43 am

I’m a student, and I love it. Certainty is worth the cost. You can be more risky in what you use, without worrying about Turnitin.

8 Carl September 7, 2011 at 7:50 am

Risky in what sense? You put stuff in quotes add a citation and TADA, it’s not plagiarism anymore. You need to pay $5 to be told that?

9 Andrew' September 7, 2011 at 8:24 am

I never understood plagiarism. I always found it so much easier just to make my own shit up.

10 AndrewL September 7, 2011 at 8:39 am

If you submit your paper and turnitin tells you your paper fails the test, then what? You have you re-word your paper, express the idea in a different way, maybe cite something and fill in the gaps and HOLY CRAP you did real work! 🙂

11 icanmakeyouaman September 9, 2011 at 12:28 pm

well, yeah. but a potentially lot less work than you would have otherwise.

12 Dan Weber September 7, 2011 at 11:27 am

Risky in that you can “forget” when you plagiarize someone else’s paper and “forget” to add citations, and if WriteCheck says you are okay, TurnItIn will say you are okay, too.

13 Paola @ Pro Edge CCTV September 7, 2011 at 8:13 am

This is why copyscape is great to have 🙂

14 James Hare September 7, 2011 at 8:31 am

I wish I had known cheating and plagiarism were as prevalent in my high school and college years as they were. I almost feel like I was competing in the steroids era of baseball without steroids. I still did fine, but I wonder how many of my classmates who did well were cheating.

15 The Engineer September 7, 2011 at 9:10 am

I don’t understand how the service for students is “helping plagiarists avoid detection”. If it is making sure that papers are “properly quoted, summarized or paraphrased” previous work”, then what it is doing is preventing plagiarism in the first place.

What is the problem?

In fact, if it goes through a paper and highlights the areas that are plagiarized and tells students WHY it’s plagiarism, then it is teaching the students how to write, isn’t it?

16 Khoth September 7, 2011 at 9:27 am

If someone is trying to plagiarise and avoid detection by changing around some words in the text they’re copying, they can use turnitin to find out whether it’ll be accepted or if they need to do a bit more to hide their cheating.

17 Anon September 7, 2011 at 10:10 am

It isn’t cheating if its cited. And if it is unsupported material – even paraphrased — it needs to be cited.

18 joshua September 7, 2011 at 1:19 pm

True, but I bet a lot of people that visit this blog don’t subscribe to, “This technology/opportunity/ability/freedom has the potential for abuse therefore it is bad!”

19 Bill September 7, 2011 at 9:12 am

“The internet has made plagiarism much easier and by most accounts plagiarism is increasing rapidly.”

That’s exactly what I said the other day on my blog.

20 Anon September 7, 2011 at 10:12 am

much easier to detect anyway. Back in the good old days, students just copied from a book (they hoped) the professor had never heard of.

Pre-internet, rarely detected, so little plagiarism.

21 Bill September 7, 2011 at 11:42 am

What students should have done in the olden days is picked a professor who didn’t read much.

22 Alex Godofsky September 7, 2011 at 9:20 am

“verify” for the students that their paper has “properly quoted, summarized or paraphrased” previous work

Hey, ages ago I actually used it for exactly that purpose, until Word 2007 came with the built in citation manager thingy.

23 Bill September 7, 2011 at 9:20 am

Turnitin has led to a new software program I just invented.

“Paraphrase-Maker” (TMpending) which turns quoted text into paraphrased text which does not use the original words and word order of the original quote.

“Paraphrase-Maker”TM uses the Turnitin algorithms to verify that the quote has been paraphrased to escape Turnitin detection.

The product has been endorsed by Doris Kearns Goodwin and Joe Biden.

We are currently working on Alex’s and Tyler’s Textbook so that their students will not have to buy their book.

24 Zach September 7, 2011 at 10:28 am

Do cheaters really work that hard? When I’ve found cheaters, they’ve typically copy/pasted from a website.

25 Zephyrus September 7, 2011 at 11:10 am

Well, the goal of stuff like this is to make cheating difficult enough to pull off that you might as well just do your own work.

26 Dan Weber September 7, 2011 at 11:33 am

It’s like that episode of Seinfeld where George worked harder at keeping his UI benefits than he ever did at a job.

27 icanmakeyouaman September 9, 2011 at 12:22 pm

Exactly. You only find the lazy plagarizers.

28 Nancy Lebovitz September 7, 2011 at 11:20 am

I have a faint memory about people selling advice to both professional gamblers and to casinos so that neither of them would get too far ahead.

29 Joseph Baker September 7, 2011 at 11:31 am

Interesting that “the internet” has made plagiarism available while the internet (defined as Google) penalizes for copied content.

30 another_anon September 7, 2011 at 4:55 pm

“The internet has made plagiarism much easier”

In the social sciences there is no reason why undergraduate students, who almost by definition are not research students, should need to use the internet to complete an assignment. A good university teacher of undergraduate courses will set carefully crafted essay/paper topics/questions, and will demand that students use a minimum number of prescribed texts to draw their argument from (and to quote from). The paper/essay is marked according to the students analytical and interpretative and cognitive (etc etc) performance specifically in relation to the prescribed texts.
That’s why you have university teachers. They are qualified to choose the appropriate texts. And the expectation we have of university teachers is that they are very familiar with the texts they prescribe. After two or three years teaching a course in this way the teacher will instinctively know if something is not quite right about a student essay.
Of course another expectation we have — of universities — is that they regulate the provision of subject/course outlines to ensure that the laws (oops, I mean the rules and the definitions) are known to each student. Thus no student can claim ignorance of the laws (oops the rules).
That’s how the problem of plagiarism goes away, poof, like a burst bubble.

Not Turnitin. Think of the dopamine released by the thrill of cheating. The preferred system is dobemin. As in dob them in. Be diligent and brave teachers. Dob ‘em in.

31 Peutch September 8, 2011 at 7:46 am

But if the question is original, and has never been worked out in some specific texts, students wills scramble the Internet and copy/paste whatever seems closely related, without really answering the question, or trying to understand why the question is slightly different to what they could find.

From experience as a TA.

(For assignments that HAD recommended readings.)

32 sensei06 September 8, 2011 at 2:00 am

I had a student submit as his own work an article written and published by me. Oddly enough, I had distributed the article to the class and it had my name on it, naturally. The student didn’t know what my name was (which isn’t that unusual here), or possibly thought the name was a coincidence. I will ask him if he complains about his grade.

I flunked him. Said the article wasn’t good enough for a passing grade.

33 anon September 8, 2011 at 8:42 pm

At my graduate school orientation we were actively encouraged to use Turnitin on our own work, which struck me as absurd. I had no idea it was a common occurrence.

As for catching cheaters, my colleagues and I generally agree that these services are completely unnecessary. It is always obvious when a student submits someone else’s work. Do any graders out there actually use this stuff?

34 Renee September 10, 2011 at 12:40 am

Why plagiarize? If you’re going to commit academic dishonesty, do it right: spend between $50-$100 to get an upper-year student to write the whole assignment for you. A friend of mine used to guarantee a B, or your money back…

35 Renee September 10, 2011 at 12:43 am

(Plagiarism can best be caught by an astute professor or serious grad student who has a small enough seminar class that they can pay attention to their students as individuals, and recognize the tone of the writing and the points drawn from classwork because they require weekly seminar briefings and read them. While we’re dreaming, I’d like a pony and new retirement portfolio. But anyway.)

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