Thursday, September 8, 2011

Guilty until proven innocent

I'm at a new school this fall. I really like my students. They seem like a great bunch. Lively, engaged, thoughtful. Their first paper is due in a couple of weeks. The university has made Turnitin available. I've never used it before, although I've caught my share of plagiarized papers over the years. I now have a Turnitin account, but I have misgivings about using it. I guess because I feel like I am essentially accusing my students of being (at least) potential plagiarists even though I currently have no reason to think any of them are or would be plagiarists. It strikes me as being like overzealous airport security -- treat everyone like a potential criminal in order to (presumably) catch the rare miscreant. But at what cost?

Compounding my sense of unease (or irony) is that I'm teaching an Ethics class.

So, I'm interested in knowing about your experience using Turnitin. Is it worth the effort? Does it work? Do the benefits outweigh the potential harm? Does it make you feel like a mall cop?



Zētētikos said...

I'm also interested in this question.

This fall is my first semester adjuncting (ever) and my institution has Turnitin too.

While I was being "oriented", the person presenting on Turnitin claimed that it was not simply a plagiarism detector. It apparently also has other features - like inline comment support and multiple draft difference highlighting. I haven't had a chance to use it yet although these sound like useful features (even if they are not necessarily unique), so I am interested in knowing how well it works too.

Anonymous said...

One nice feature of Turnitin is that it stores electronic copies of student papers for you. I've known people who have used it as much for that feature as for the plagiarism detection.

I'm aware of the commenting feature too, but I've never used it. One nice thing about it is that it allows you to re-use comments you've made on previous papers, which seems useful if you see the same kind of mistakes in a lot of student papers.

Anonymous said...

You needn't think the point is to catch the crooks in your class, so you needn't assume your students (some of them, at least) are crooks. You can tell them that one of the things the tool is meant to do is protect them from plagiarizers. ("Right now there's a lazy student somewhere plotting to steal a copy of your paper, paraphrase it, and then submit the paraphrase as her own work! Let's work together to stop you from becoming the next victim!")

Anonymous said...

Turnitin also has the advantage of catching a form of plagiarism I might not otherwise catch if I am teaching a very large section with TAs grading subsets of the papers: students who copy each other's work.

Ok. so the TA's arent grading the subsets. they are grading the papers. dont be so pedantic.

RMH said...

I'm ambivalent about Turnitin. I've never used it, although I'm not sure that either of the places I've taught has offered it.

Here's one argument in favor of Turnitin, which you could even present to students:

Plagiarism is a bad thing not only because it is fraud, intellectual theft, etc., but also because it inhibits learning. Much (most?) plagiarism is the result of students' feeling rushed or overwhelmed by their assignments. Some people allow things to sit until the last minute, and then they think that a plagiarized paper is better than whatever they can crank out by the deadline. Telling everyone in advance that you will be using Turnitin provides them an incentive to do what they know they should do anyway: plan ahead, ask for help when they need it, and do the work themselves. The likelihood of getting caught by Turnitin is just too high to do anything else. (Okay, so maybe they'll still leave it to the last minute, but at least they'll write their own papers.)

Frankly, if there are any students who respond, "I don't care about the learning, I just want the grade," I'm inclined to say, "Fuck you. I don't care about treating you like a potential underwear bomber." As for the students who aren't going to cheat anyway, no harm done and the feeling of distrust is at least partly prevented. And for those students who might have plagiarized without Turnitin, well, you've accomplished a worthwhile goal by getting them to write their own papers. The benefit is not (just) in catching the ones who cheat, but in getting some students to do educationally valuable work that they might not have done.

Anonymous said...

I've used similar programs. From an ethical point of view, I tell the students that the software functions as a deterrent against plagiarizing. And it keeps the playing field fair for students who aren't plagiarizing.

The program I use it great for matching text to internet sources. I've caught a couple of students each year turning in internet sources as their own work despite the fact that they know their papers will be checked for plagiarism. You'd be surprised what kinds of sources they use. I guess some students don't understand how the software works.

Anonymous said...

I've TA'd for writing courses twice, once with Turnitin, once without. I think it's quite helpful, although I basically used it as a red flag--if papers had above a certain percentage of similarity, I'd check them. I caught two plagiarizers that way-- would I have caught them without it? Probably since both cases were rather egregious, but it would have been a lot more work to find exactly where they had plagiarized from (Turnitin shows you where the similarities are). I also saw it as a good form of deterrence. I never had any students complain about guilty-until-proven-innocent, but I did have some students tell me they appreciated it, since they felt better knowing cheaters wouldn't be rewarded. The effort, on my end, was minimal (but I imagine the professor did some setting up work that I wasn't involved with). In my mind, the potential harm is that some students might be feel unfairly assumed to be plagiarists, but the benefit--namely, that I can feel pretty confident of catching plagiarists and not unfairly penalizing people who do not plagiarize--outweighs it, in my mind.

Anonymous said...

At your university/college there very well may be an option for Turnitin that does not require all students to submit each paper to Turnitin, but allows only for suspected papers to be turned in. Syllabi should provide notice of which of these options you'll be using. Here is the language we use for the suspected paper option:

Turnitin Notification:

Students should be aware that suspect assignments (e.g., those without drafts, without works cited pages, or with large departures in style) will be submitted to Turnitin by the instructor for the purpose of detecting possible plagiarism. Submitted assignments will be included in the University XYZ dedicated databases of assignments. These databases of assignments will be used solely for the purpose of detecting possible plagiarism during the grading process during this term and in the future. Students must provide an electronic copy of their assignment to the instructor for submission to the service when plagiarism is suspected, in order to receive a grade on the assignment and to avoid possible sanctions.

Anonymous said...

Use it without guilt. Student plagiarism is rampant. You're not accusing someone of being a burglar if you make them wait to enter before you open the door to your house.

Last year I taught about 200 students and had them turn in assignments through a program similar to Turnitin. I told them what the program was for, and that they shouldn't try to test it out. Still I caught 11 of them plagiarizing.

If 11 out of 200 plagiarize in spite of the deterrent effect of the software (in most cases, I think, because they were just desperate), imagine how many would do it without.

I suppose you could argue that if this many of my students plagiarize in spite of the software, it's not working. But the software worked and detected their plagiarism. For some reason it's my threat that didn't work. I don't know why. I might come across as too nice in class.

Anonymous said...

Look at it like a deterrence measure, rather than a way to "catch" someone. I think that if you're upfront that you run all papers through the service, no one will feel unduly suspected. But it only works if you make it clear that you're using the service. It won't deter if they aren't aware that it will be used.

Anonymous said...

I guess I would be worried if I saw how this actually harmed the students. After all, I walk around the classroom when I give exams. The only reason I do this is because I think I might catch someone cheating. So, I guess I am also acting as if they are "guilty until proven innocent," but that does not give me a good reason to stop keeping my eye out for cheating, does it?

There are other problematic issues with, of course - it saves a copy of everything turned in to its internal database, and it is hard to see why students should be forced to give their work to this company. Indeed, you might think it problematic that the company whose purpose is to combat intellectual property rights violations seems to itself be violating intellectual property rights of those who are forced to submit to its databases. And then there are the potential FERPA violations.

Anonymous said...

I totally disagree. If every student has to submit their paper to turnitin, no one's going to feel like they're being treated like a criminal. They'll see it as a policy, and my guess is they'll understand why the policy is in place. I've taught at universities that universally required turnitin, and I never had students complain.

Actually, the analogy with airport security is a good one, though I draw the opposite conclusion. Each time I fly, when I go through security I don't feel like I'm being treated like a criminal. There's a policy, and I understand the need for it. You'd feel like you were being treated as a criminal if you were singled out as a suspicious person. When everyone has to go through the same rigmarole, no one is singled out, and thus no one's being treated like a criminal. Exactly the same with universally applied turnitin.

Anonymous said...

Back as an undergraduate (heh, I love that I can use that phrase now), they made the software available to students and taught them how to use it (this was at York), so that they could check for themselves that they weren't plagiarising.

Consider it like this: you're helping students, first and foremost. If you find a really egregious case, then ok, you're moving closer to penalising. But really, just because you find a case of plagiarism, it doesn't mean you find a case of malfeasance. It is still up to you to decide if you think the student is actually plagiarising, or if they've forgotten to do their bibliography properly, or made a mistake in some other way.
You can then choose the appropriate course of action: talk to the student and ask them to change it and re-submit; dock marks but make it clear to the student what happened and what they can do to fix this next time; take punitive action; etc.

It still comes down to your judgement and what you want to do given the knowledge before you.

Anonymous said...

I've used Turnitin once in the past and would recommend it. It's not clear to me that it isn't a safe assumption that at least some of your students are cheating. At the very least, some of your students will not have an adequate understanding of proper citation procedure. I wouldn't look at this as an "accusation" but of an acknowledgement of a fact that even your students are well aware of: plenty of people cheat. The software doesn't even make catching them any easier because it generally isn't that difficult to catch them. It just makes finding what their source material is easier (especially when students will pull a quote from Wikipedia etc. and then change every third word using a thesaurus program so that Google alone won't reveal the source).

The software also cannot confirm and will not tell you that a student has cheated. It only gives you a percentage of originality. It is still up to you to determine whether or not the percentage and corresponding source texts really mean anything.

A possible positive spin on the software is that if you are upfront with the students about the fact that you are using it, it may actually deter cheating. If people know you are watching them they are much more likely to behave appropriately. I don't think that's an accusation so much as a general fact about human nature.

Anonymous said...

I've used it, but it was several years ago. I assume they've added stuff to it since then. However, I caught many many plagiarizers with it. It was quite sad. I don't feel that there was anything wrong with using it. But I am a bit of an ethical idiot.

wv: propso - the rap name for a proposition.

Anonymous said...

The innocent kids want you to use turnitin to catch their guilty competition, don't hesitate to use it on their account. I used to screen for plagiarism manually, which was time-consuming and probably unfair in its application (if only because I'd be more likely to double check some back row hoodlum than the perky kid up front). Also: you have a date stamp on every paper that comes in, so you can use it to stop the clock on lateness penalties. And you never have to worry about losing a student's paper.

I sell it to my students on the model of universal urine drug tests for Olympic athletes.

Shahar said...

I started using it last year. However, I can’t help but have a bad feeling about it. On the one hand, there’s the issue of surveillence and policing which only has the effect of further coddling and infantilizing our students. What’s worse, in my mind, is that I feel like I’m accusing the students of (potentially) acting unethically based on a small number of previous cases. This assumption of guilt is all the more troublesome since the students are subject to a college-wide honor code; so why should I violate my end of the code? By using Turnitin am I not trivializing the code? I should act--as you point out-- as if students aren’t plagiarizing work. Otherwise, aren’t I somehow violating my own fidelity to the honor code? And I suppose, by extension I’m troubling the whole college’s relation to the code as well. Maybe this is just too optimistic and high-minded. Or maybe I should just stop worrying about plagiarism period, but it’s just so aggravating taking the time trolling the internet to find the original text. One of my colleagues had told me–further making the case against turnitin– that once a student submits their paper turnitin maintains the “rights to it.” This isn’t quite the case. As a representative from turnitin told me on Twitter: “Turnitin exercises Fair Use.” Here’s a link to their policy:

The questions, I suppose, is if we should punish students for plagiarizing (yes) and if is a good way to do this. Initially, I wanted to use Turnitin to cut down on the amount of time I was spending finding the student sources, printing them out, having a discussion with the student etc. I think that plagiarism should result in some sort of punishment. Usually I just give the student a zero on the first offense, giving them the benefit of the doubt because sometimes they simply don’t know how to cite properly. I mean, part of what we’re doing when we teach is introducing students to standards of scholarship, this includes learning how to acknowledge the ideas of others. My problem with turnitin, I guess, is that well, we do have a college wide honor code and I worry we are only temporarily deterring the students, not “correcting” the behavior. In my experience, such correction comes too late anyway. However, I go back and forth. I'm starting to think that the surveillance issue I raised above (e.g. turnitin presumes guilt, infantilizes students) may not outweigh the benefits of using plagiarism detection software since it could force students to own up to what they turn it more rigorously. Still though, I’m on the fence. Perhaps I’m turning this into more of a struggle than it needs to be, but outsourcing plagiarism detection to a private, for-profit police force somehow seems wrong.

All of this said, there are some good features like peer review and a grammar checking service (which does require one to vet the corrections, so I'm not sure how useful it really is).

Anonymous said...

From my experience, most plagiarism happens from carelessness and ignorance of proper citation, not from students trying to plagiarizer a whole paper, so I don't think getting an account means you expects someone to be a terrible person.

Anonymous said...

I have used Turnitin extensively for many years and highly recommend it.

(1) Take advantage of the deterrent effect. I create a fake paper with intentionally stolen sources, both from internet sources and papers from previous semesters. I then show this "live" to the class so they could see how fast Turnitin finds everything. This also lets me remind them that every student paper from all of my classes is in the database, so don't borrow papers from friends who took the course with me in the past. It's one thing to tell them how powerful this tool is. It's more effective when they see it themselves on the screen.

(2) For slam-dunk major plagiarism, my policy is to flunk them for the course. That's on my syllabus, of course, but I would still hesitate to carry this out without slam-dunk proof, which Turnitin gives me.

(3) Sadly, many students are never taught proper documentation of their sources in their high schools (or didn't learn what they were being taught). So my live demos also give me a way to walk them through this issue. Another teaching moment.

I require all papers to be submitted for all written assignments. If you single out a few, then you run the risk of a "profiling" accusation. Better they should all know that everything is checked routinely.

The one thing it doesn't pick up is a paper written "on commission" by a fellow student. It's harder to catch those anyway, so my plagiarism policy always includes something like: "I reserve the right to require an oral discussion of any paper for any reason." If their writing quality on in-class exams doesn't roughly match the quality of take-home writing, it's worth having a discussion.

Bobcat said...

I've used turnitin before. I never felt like I was accusing my students of anything, and none of them ever told me that they felt accused.

That said, a few people in this thread have thought of turnitin as a deterrent to cheating. I'm not sure that it is. At all. The reason I'm not sure that it is is that a psychology/stats professor at my university did a study on the deterrent effect of turnitin. In the study, he would compare two classes -- let's say, Psych 101 -- , one that had to turn in a paper, and which was told that he was going to use turnitin to check them, and one which was told that turnitin was not going to be used. (I don't recall whether he used turnitin anyway, but the point was he engaged in an exhaustive plagiarism detection for both classes.)

Again and again he discovered that there was no statistically significant difference between classes where he used turnitin (and the students knew it) and classes where the students thought he wasn't going to use it.

He didn't know exactly what to make of this data, but his speculation was that students don't plagiarism because of a rational cost-benefit analysis, but because they literally had no idea how to write the paper asked of them, or because this was just their coping mechanism for getting papers done.

imprecise said...

I use Turnitin and explain it to my students in two of the ways mentioned above. 1) it will deter them from even thinking about taking a shortcut, and 2) it's good that their peers will not be unfairly rewarded for plagiarism. It seems to me if you proctor exams, then you shouldn't feel bad about using Turnitin. If your school has a serious and effective honor code, then that's a much more complicated issue. My school does NOT have an effective honor code.

Also, in large classes, or classes in which you give similar paper assignments in different years (bad pedagogy perhaps, but essential to an overburdened teacher), Turnitin is _invaluable_ in catching people who copy off of others' work. This is where most of my plagiarism detections come in.

Anonymous said...

Here's a serious treatment of the moral issues related to Turnitin:

J. Caleb Clanton, "A Moral Case against Certain Uses of Plagairism Detection Services," International Journal of Applied Philosophy 23.1 (2009).

Anonymous said...

I absolutely refuse to use Turnitin, for the following reasons:

(1) The reason you mention, that it creates a climate of suspicion before you have even read any of the papes. I know that as an intelligent, non-cheating student I would have been infuriated if my professor told me to submit the paper to Turnitin. If you do decide to use it, I hope you won't be discussing the ethics of collective punishment in that class.

(2) Another reason I never hear mentioned: I am smarter than any would-be plagiarizer. I can spot a plagiarized section from a mile away on my own. I also change my topics from semester-to-semester from set of very focused topics to another. Even if anyone takes the time to find a paper on a topic this selective, I will know it because they will talk about things we never discussed in class or that aren't in the reading.

(3) Also, whatever happened to knowing your students enough to know what sorts of papers they are capable of writing? To discussing their papers in advance, both collectively in class and individually? Why submit them (both the innocent and the guilty) to the indignity of this impersonal machine as part of their participation in your class? Why put off your own responsibility as a teacher on some for-profit software?

So to conclude--and sorry if this isn't a very popular view on this thread-- professors who use Turnitin in either have zero respect for their students, or are lazy in formulating their paper assignments, or both. And they've implicitly bought into the idea of college as a gigantic impersonal machine in which we wage war against our students and they against us.

Anonymous said...

P.S. I'm very much amused by several of the defenses of Turnitin on this thread. Everyone knows all it is is a plagiarism detector! Stop feed your students this bullshit about it being something else instead.

Anonymous said...

Read this Inside Higher Ed article about it all:

Plus there is this anti turn it in helper for students:

Write Check is owned by turn it in. Nice.

Carolyn P. said...

I use it as a deterrent and occasionally "investigate" some suspicious essays if they have an unusually high similarity (compared to peers).

When I started using Turnitin I was like you, scrutinizing all the matches, but then I started using GradeMark for grading essays.

I LOVE the GradeMark part. I can drag common comments on the papers and add my own comments right on there too. Saves me a ton of time with online grading.

They just added automatic grammar checking which I look forward to using (or at least seeing how it works) when classes start.

Anonymous said...

The airport analogy is false in most cases: turnitin does not do anything additionally invasive, while airport security requires showing everything in your pockets, bags, and--often--beneath your clothes. Turnitin does exactly what you already do, only more quickly and more effectively: it reads papers and notices plagiarism.

If you think noticing plagiarism is equivalent to "accusing" students of being plagiarists, then you're already doing it when you read the papers, so no greater harm is done.

On the other hand, no harm is done anyway in accusing anyone of being a *potential* plagiarist. Everyone is one, there's no pejorative implication.

Anonymous said...

I've used Turnitin for several semesters now, and I like it very much. Aside from the plagiartism detection, I prefer to receive and grade papers in electronic form, and I think it's a good interface for that (much better than Blackboard!). This is the primary reason I continue to use Turnitin, and I tell my students as much on the first day.

That said, the plagiarism detection is helpful. I think it's very easy for any of us to spot a plagiarized paper, but it saves the step of manually searching the internet for the plagiarized source. It's also beneficial when you confront a student who has plagiarized to be able to point to the Turnitin analysis as conclusive proof of wrongdoing (because students will, almost inevitably, begin by pleading innocence and/or ignorance).

Sure, it sets up a perhaps overly disciplinary structure - but it's not as if there isn't a lot of that built into the educational model in which we're handing out these assignments in the first place. And the option is available to turn off the plagiarism checks for assignment if you really don't want to use them.

Anonymous said...


(1) climate of suspicion? Really? As others have pointed out it's just a policy and does not need to create any paranoia. I've never had any complaints from any of my students. You'd be infuriated?? Why are you so angry?

We're in a different age now where many students (at least where I am teaching) use the internet as their first line of research. No teacher wants to deal with cheaters/ be an enforcer, but it's a reality you have to deal with.

(2)Plagiarism is usually obvious. but it's nice to have the evidence found for me. I don't like to waste time googling phrases and finding the websites. The software will tell me exactly which sites it came from. And I can show this evidence to the student right away

(3)Some of us teach large classes. "Indignity of this machine"? Please. We're getting a bit dramatic aren't we?

Anonymous said...

@ 11:39:

That none of your students have complained about this is precisely what is horrifying. They are fine with having to prove to you that they are not cheating, because "that's the policy"? Good for you and the rest of us for creating such passive little creatures.

Further, I think that the de-personalization of higher education is reason for being dramatic. Maybe it doesn't bother you, but it bothers me. We have to pick our battles, but I choose not to use Turnitin based on the principle that it treats the students, regardless of who they really are, as if they are all out to cheat until they prove otherwise. That's just wrong, and again, I humbly submit that the only reason for an instructor to do so is out of lack or respect, laziness, or both.

Anca Gheaus said...

If I were a student again, and the faculty used plagiarism-detecting software, I'd feel awfully demoralized for the reasons you indicate, zombie.

Anonymous said...

If you have small enough classes that you can get to know what each student is capable of, and work one-on-one with each student to provide feedback and editing for written work, then fantastic! Don't use Turnitin. On the other hand, if like most people you don't have the time or class sizes that make those things possible, then it makes much more sense. I understand the worry about infantilizing students and treating them as cogs in a big impersonal machine - that's why I don't use it, b/c I'm lucky enough that I can do the things mentioned above - but you work with the situation you have, not the ideal one in your mind. And the real situation is that most people teach heavy loads with large class sizes, and plagiarism is rampant.

Anonymous said...

@1:18 - I agree with the earlier commenter that your comments are overly dramatic. How is Turnitin philosophically any different than asking students to cite their sources and enforcing it when students don't or, as another person mentioned, walking throughout the room during an exam?

Furthermore, the claim that the only reasons to use Turnitin are out of laziness or lack of respect...depends on what you mean by respect. I respect my students as people, but I also recognize the reality that some students aren't taught/don't listen to proper citation and that some students get desperate. In a large lecture class (200+ students), I would be surprised if I have no cheating incidences in a semester. That might not be true in small classes, but not everyone has the luxury to only teach small classes or only teach students that are motivated (and some of the desperate students are also quite motivated). I don't think that recognizing that makes me lazy or means I don't respect my students; it means I recognize the reality of the situation I'm in. Perhaps you're not in that situation--perhaps you are in a situation where you can get to know every student deeply. That's awesome, but it doesn't reflect the reality for many of us.

Anonymous said...

The only thing I want to add is that you need to make sure to use TurnItIn only as a supplement. It misses a lot: it misses stuff copied out of books, and it misses students who have learned to be really crafty-e.g., if a student changes the right number of words, the software will no longer know that the document is plagiarized. And students are good at changing words.

Here's sentence from the SEP entry on Aristotle's metaphysics: "Individual substances — this man or that horse — apart from their accidental characteristics — the qualities, etc., that inhere in them — are viewed in that work as essentially simple, unanalyzable atoms."

The student just makes this "Individual substances, such as the boy or this cow — aside from the characteristics that are accidental — such as those qualities, etc. which inhere in them — can be thought of in that text as basically simple atoms that cannot be analyzed."

And with free plagiarism checkers out there, the student can get a good sense of how many words he has to change to not raise any red flags. So just don't rely on anything plagiarism technology too heavily---

Anonymous said...

I'm really not getting the argument that using turnitin shows laziness. It is the end of the week, though, so perhaps I've gone dense. (I'm tired. Does that make me 'lazy'?)

If I have 200 students and no grading help, then I'm already reading 200 papers with an eye open for plagiarism. If I go slightly less blind with fatigue using a software that does the same thing, I'm lazy? My false-choice sense is tingling.

My U doesn't use turnitin so this isn't an issue where I am. But I'd like to figure out what to think before we adopt it, since I figure that eventually, we will.

Anonymous said...

I don't think there's anything demoralizing about plagiarism detecting software, and felt the same way when it was used on my papers as an undergraduate.

The difference between extreme airport security measures and plagiarism detecting software is that the airport security measures that you are alluding to are invasive and potentially humiliating. Turnitin, by contrast, does not induce any cost on the (innocent) student.

Anonymous said...

I'm going to use this it this semester for a basic Intro Phil course. It has 350 students in there, and a large handful of TAS, half of whom have never TAd before. I don't use it in any other classes, including 200 level classes, because there I grade all my own papers, and also grade short writing assignments so that i do have the privilege of knowing my students writings. Because it is a privilege to do that. No one thinks having a class of 350 is a fantastic idea, students or profs, and both students and profs recognize that things like turnitin are simply ways to make a rather sucky situation suck a bit less. Some of my students have expressed regret at having to use it but, when asked, none of them thought we should actually stop using it. What they regretted was that we had so many students in a class that I couldn't manage it on my own. Turnitin was a symptom, not the problem itself.

I also have a very sizeable percentage of my students who are international, often from countries where they were told to memorize and then write out word for word what a text or teacher said. Turnitin helps catch these students not so I can fail them for malfeasance but because we need to re-orient them with respect to cultural expectations about originality in written work.

Anonymous said...

I'd also like to object to 9:44's point 3: that you should know what your student's are capable of, and using Turnitin is lazy.

I think that it is incredibly irresponsible not to grade blindly (a subject that, given the recent discussions about the climate of women in Philosophy, perhaps we should discuss more). So, because I grade blindly, often I am not aware that I am reading a SEP entry from someone who sleeps through class in the back row.

Some plagiarism looks like it regardless, but some is just much better writing than you'd expect from the student. If you don't know who the student is (because you're responsibly blind grading to prevent other biases), then I think TurnItIn is a good second best.

Ben said...

I don't really see how simply using Turnitin amounts to a 'guilty until proven innocent' policy.

We live in a world in which there are police and courts because some people break the law. Does that amount to treating each of us as guilty until proven innocent? No.

The presumption of innocence means that evidence of guilty must be found before charges can be brought. It surely shouldn't prevent attempts to gather that evidence though.

If it was one's policy to, say, treat all essays with a Turnitin score over 30 as plagiarism cases unless the student could prove otherwise, then that would amount to a presumption of guilt. But simply requiring students to have their essays checked does not presume that they are guilty.

(For the record, I do use Turnitin but this is university policy where I teach, so not something I have any choice over.)

Anonymous said...

Regarding choosing how to punish:

"It still comes down to your judgement and what you want to do given the knowledge before you."

September 9, 2011 1:25 AM

At some schools, this is not true. Profs and instructors are not allowed to punish without an independent investigation, and profs and instructors are required to report.
Teachers I know have been horrified by how harshly a student was punished, or by a guilty student being found innocent. But I think it's better that all the students at a school be treated in the same way, so I like this kind of policy.

Anonymous said...

I disagree with 9:44 for the following reasons:

1) I used to teach at a SLAC where I had small classes and could have them write every class and get to know them, &c., wrote unique essay questions. This was a class of 25. I was known as a stellar instructor. And even with all of that, I still had significant plagiarism on the first paper in early modern. Philosophy has simply too much of a common core to make it possible to eliminate plagiarism entirely by clever course design (though one should design a course cleverly whenever one can), and I don't think the problem is large class sizes and professorial inattention, but simply that it's really easy to cheat if one has an internet connection.

To be clear, I think it's good, if one can, to have a wonderfully artisanly-created hand-crafted course that reduces plagiarism. But I think you're kidding yourself if you think that your care means they won't feel the temptation to cheat, or that there aren't cheaters in your artisanal hand-crafted class that you're not catching. And there are tradeoffs if one starts designing courses with an eye to thinking that the point of the course is to test content that can't be Googled.

2) At my current institution, Directional State U, 19% of students admit in an exit interview to plagiarizing. 19%! The comparison with airport security, already inapt on a number of levels, fails because if one out of five travelers really were an underwear bomber, we'd probably be okay with general searches.

3) Given this background, my reasons for using Turnitin are these. First, it is no more invasive that I would be (using Google, &c) were I to suspect plagiarism. It just checks everyone, not just those I suspect. I don't consider myself an unbiased source of suspicion, and I worry that students that I think of as not good writers would get more scrutiny unconsciously. In short, I don't want to profile. I also don't believe that most plagiarizers are trying to game the system, but usually ignorant of proper citation standards and/or desperate, so I'm not, by using it, assuming that my students are bad people.

Second, and this is what sealed it for me, is that I found that grading was turning into more of an exercise of "is s/he cheating?" rather than evaluating their work. Is Johnny improving, or has Johnny just found a site that I can't find easily with a search string? It was making grading absolutely toxic. I'd rather spend that time writing comments and making suggestions for improvements.

4) I don't just leave it to the software, and I resent the implication that using a software tool means that I don't bother doing my job or that I'm not smart enough to spot plagiarism. I have 160 students this semester. I don't have TAs. (Why Turnitin is bad, but expecting TAs to do the Googling and know the students for you is totally fine, I'm not quite sure..) My classes are all going on a field trip to the library so the librarians can teach them about sources and citations and why we care about peer review. We'll workshop outlines for the first paper in class so they learn how to write a philosophy paper. I have my majors write for me for every class, and I have a good sense of what they're capable of.

And with all that, Turnitin is still a useful tool.

Anonymous said...

From 9:44 --

For the record, I'm teaching 140 students this semester. Even with many students, you can still make a choice to treat them as individuals and not submit them to the latest in dehumanizing software surveillance that some corporation is selling to your university.

Additionally, regarding the point that using Turnitin is somehow preferable because it treats all the students equally-- well, yes, you're right, collective punishment does treat all who are punished equally. I think your point undermines itself.

Thirdly, I am amused by the tendency to justify Turnitin software with the analogy to airport security. Is this really the sort of thing you want to commit yourself to? Being a professor/TSA employee? Best of luck!

Mr. Zero said...

collective punishment does treat all who are punished equally.

Can someone explain how having your students use Turnitin is a punishment? Maybe I don't understand the concept of punishment, but I cannot fathom how this could be the case.

BunnyHugger said...

I use TurnItIn. I spend way too much time collecting evidence of plagiarism -- it infuriates me how much of my time I have to waste on this instead of on something more constructive -- and this helps a little with that. It can catch things that just doing your own Web searches can't, most notably students sharing papers between them (provided both professors used TIN) and, if you find this worth catching (and it is usually an official academic integrity violation) students who double-dip by submitting the same paper to multiple classes. (I know people disagree about whether that should be a rule or not, but that's another story.)

I think its most useful feature is the nice printout, with all the references and color-coding of what came from which source, that it provides. I use this as the thing I wave in front of students when I have my mandatory "here's my evidence against you" meeting, and I keep it for my records in case they appeal. I used to do the same thing with highlighters and printouts from Web pages, but this is tidier and faster.

I also hope that TIN will be a deterrent, although it's surprising how often it isn't. My experience, by the way, is that it's fairly good at fuzzy matches if students change every few words or whatever.

Ian said...

Zombie: Be the teacher you want to be. If you can't shake the feeling that by using Turnitin, you are contributing to the creation of an educational environment you find distasteful, don't use it.

Anonymous said...

Have you considered broaching the issue with your students? I suspect many would welcome the idea, as for reasons others have mentioned, it does benefit the honest. And taking their opinions into account may help you avoid seeming distrustful and accusatory.

Anonymous said...

The question is not "does it presume their guilt?", the question is "does the presumption of guilt until proven innocent make a relevant difference to their treatment?", as we are treated as guilty until (sufficiently) proven innocent on a daily basis in all sorts of respects without this being an issue (our neighbours locking their door, the shop owner not allowing us to pay later, the police patrolling the streets).

The right option will be a trade-off between ease of use and (more importantly) student rights on the one side and the prevention of plagiarism (and other benefits of the system) on the other.

Anonymous said...

I don't see how turnitin "presumes guilt" any more than assessment of students' work for a grade "presumes guilt." If they both do, then they do to the same extent.

Both turnitin, in particular, and assessment toward the assignation of a grade, in general, involve presumptions including the possibility that work is plagiarized. The attention to the possibility of plagiarism is a measurement in both cases.

I don't see turnitin as at all parallel to airport security. I DO see it as parallel to *grading*. But I think I just realized a possible way we may look at the job differently. I don't presume my students are "innocent." I presume that work submitted for a grade has to earn a grade, line by line and sentence by sentence. I am judging those sentences on a number of measures including whether or not they are identical to the works of others. I judge every paper this way, and when I have 160 papers, turnitin helps me with that judgment quickly.

pointless said...

Anonymous said...

I think there's an aspect of the service that adds to the moral complexity of using it: the fact that TurnItIn archives copies of student papers . This is shady for at least two reasons: (i) although courts have found this to be fair use (though the company settled before the case hit the Supreme Count) there's something troubling about mandating that students allow a for-profit company to use their work to make money, and (ii) especially in light of recent high-profile hacking successes, students could reasonably fear that their work might not remain private; arguably, this last could lead to a chilling effect (I might be less willing to argue a controversial position in a paper if there's a chance future employers might see it).

Anonymous said...

I don't see turnitin as at all parallel to airport security. I DO see it as parallel to *grading*. But I think I just realized a possible way we may look at the job differently. I don't presume my students are "innocent." I presume that work submitted for a grade has to earn a grade, line by line and sentence by sentence. I am judging those sentences on a number of measures including whether or not they are identical to the works of others. I judge every paper this way, and when I have 160 papers, turnitin helps me with that judgment quickly.

Interesting argument, but I'm not convinced. There seems to be an important disanalogy between that aspect of grading and the others. Students whose papers do not meet other criteria for a good grade (e.g., cogent arguments) have failed to meet certain academic standards, but they have not behaved unethically or violated the school's code of academic conduct (if there is one). Students who plagiarize have. Isn't there an important difference between saying, "I am going to look carefully at your work to see if you have met the relevant academic standards" and saying, "I am going to look carefully at your work to see if you have violated the relevant code of ethical conduct"?

Mr. Zero said...

Isn't there an important difference between saying, "I am going to look carefully at your work to see if you have met the relevant academic standards" and saying, "I am going to look carefully at your work to see if you have violated the relevant code of ethical conduct"?

Maybe; I don't know. But supposing there is, what would be wrong with a professor telling her students that she is going to look carefully at their work in order to verify that they have behaved ethically? What would be wrong with a teacher telling her students that she is going to verify that the work they submit is their own?

Maybe I've misunderstood something. But I don't get this at all.

Anonymous said...

What the hell is going on with the APA? Now they are sending out emails that disclose everybody who applied to the Pacific APA and then retracting the emails--for unexplained reasons? Poor function and diminished aesthetics are one thing to not like in a website but this has gone to far...I say too far!

Anon 2:39 said...

But supposing there is, what would be wrong with a professor telling her students that she is going to look carefully at their work in order to verify that they have behaved ethically?

I take it that this is pretty close to treating people as guilty until you've verified their innocence. I know you're not literally assuming guilt, but you're certainly not assuming innocence. After all, if you were assuming innocence, you would think it a waste of resources to look carefully at the work. So what's wrong with it? Whatever is wrong with failing to assume that people are innocent until you're given reason to suspect them.

And I don't think it would work to point out that you actually use fewer resources by requiring TIN than you do normally. If Big Brother could scan our brains as we walk down the street to figure out if we're guilty of anything, the efficiency of it all wouldn't make me feel any better about His failure to treat each of us as innocent until given a specific reason to suspect someone.

If there's something wrong with treating people as if guilty until proven otherwise, then there is a significant difference between looking closely to verify that work meets academic standards and looking closely to verify that work does not violate ethical standards.

Mr. Zero said...

I take it that this is pretty close to treating people as guilty until you've verified their innocence.

No, it's not. Treating a person as guilty of plagiarism involves submitting a formal charge of academic dishonesty with the relevant office, assigning the person a failing grade for the course, and/or attempting to have the student expelled. Running their paper through a thing that detects plagiarism is pretty fucking far from treating the person as guilty of plagiarism.

I know you're not literally assuming guilt, but you're certainly not assuming innocence.

This is a false dilemma. The choice is not between assuming that your students are guilty or that they are innocent. There is a third option: you can assume that you don't initially have enough information to warrant making either of those assumptions, and then do some routine, non-invasive evidence gathering.

I mean, why would I want to just assume their innocence? Seriously. Why wouldn't I regard it as an open question and then attempt to discover the answer?

So what's wrong with it? Whatever is wrong with failing to assume that people are innocent until you're given reason to suspect them.

I don't think the slogan "innocent until proven guilty" means what you think it means. I think "innocent until proven guilty" means that you cannot treat a person as you would the guilty--i.e. pronouncing her guilt; describing her as guilty, imposing sanctions; etc--unless she has been proven guilty. I do not think it means that you must regard her as having been proven innocent unless she has been proven guilty. "Innocent until proven guilty" does not mean that you can't check to see if she's guilty.

And professors have excellent reasons to be suspicious about the extraordinarily common crime of plagiarism. Students do it all the time. I have several friends who teach introductory writing courses. Some of them routinely catch 2 or 3 plagiarists per semester per class. It's a huge problem.

If Big Brother could scan our brains as we walk down the street to figure out if we're guilty of anything, the efficiency of it all wouldn't make me feel any better about His failure to treat each of us as innocent until given a specific reason to suspect someone.

Have you read 1984? Because if you had, you would know that TIN is not Big Brother. It's not similar. TIN is not a brain scan. It's not constant surveillance. I'm not the Thought Police. I'm not going to threaten to let rats eat their face unless they confess to plagiarism and sell out their friends.

And this isn't a Fourth Amendment situation. Students don't have a right against an "unreasonable search" of written work they have submitted for a grade in a college course. On the contrary, they have a reasonable expectation that when they submit their work for a grade their professors will attempt to verify that it is, indeed, their work. They can expect this because they know as well as I do that in a non-trivial proportion of cases, it's not.

Anonymous said...

Totally off the subject. As I write this, the APA website is down. W/o warning or explanation. Our leaders are awesome. So glad I give them my money.

Anonymous said...

Another offtopic one: What's a "nine-month tenure-track position"? Oregon State is advertising one. If the job only lasts for nine months, then what does it mean to say it's tenure track? If the job lasts past nine months, what makes it a nine-month position?

zombie said...

Anon 5:20 -- it means you're TT, and you work a nine month academic year. This is not unusual -- and it's not unusual for your employer to adjust your pay schedule so you get paid 12 months a year -- but you earn your salary during 9 months.

Anonymous said...

I know I'm late to this conversation, but, before going to grad school, I worked as a university staff member and part of my job involved dealing with issues of academic integrity. One thing that struck me was that a very high percentage of the time, professors would say something like "I suspected this person might have cheated because the paper was too well written to be their own work," (and sometimes I heard this even when the paper on question was the first assignment for a course). So, I tend to think using turnitin is the *more* ethical option, because it has no bias. Students who seem smart won't get a pass just for seeming smart, and students who don't seem on top of things won't be targeted. Everyone is treated equally.

Anonymous said...

The question I posed to my own university about Turnitin was regarding its potential to be used by internal security forces to search out and record the identities of radical thinkers at the undergraduate stage. Turnitin policy stated (the last time I studied it) that information will be made available to internal security services if it is requested for some legitimate purpose. It would not be a difficult task to search by keyword or key-phrase text strings to find evidence of radicalism amongst thousands of student essays submitted worldwide, and to justify it on the basis of 'preventing terrorism'.