More on Plagiarism Detection Services

I have a little more to say about the anti-PDS arguments. They don't address the underlying principles thoroughly enough, in my opinion. That is to say, the anti-PDS arguments don't provide any specific and practical alternatives. The CCCC-IP statement does recommend that if faculty members or institutions are going to use PDS, they should provide an opt-out clause for students, but they don't say what that opt-out clause would entail, or why. A good anti-PDS argument, one that one be more persuasive to me, anyway, would address the following questions:

Are all plagiarism detection methods undesirable? If not, which ones are acceptable, and why are some preferable to others? I remember back in the day when I was in high school and college (late 1980s, early 1990s), we didn't have the internet (most didn't, I mean), but that didn't stop people from plagiarizing. Professors detected it by intuition, and they called students into their offices to interview them about it. They might, for example, ask students to bring in all their sources and notes. This invariably caused great vengeance and furrrrious anger among students, especially those who had not, in fact, plagiarized (this happened to friends of mine). Some professors required that we turn in our "paper trails" along with our research papers -- every single source, notecard, note written a cocktail napkin or brown paper sack, etc. I was only too happy to do this; I was proud of having done every bit of that work myself, and I wanted the professor to be able to see it.

The internet made it easier to plagiarize, and it also made it easier for professors to prove instances of plagiarism. Obviously a professor feels less accusatory asking a student into his or her office to discuss a possible plagiarism case if he or she has the verbatim source in hand. The downside (or upshot, depending on your personal teaching philosophy) of this was that the burden of proof essentially shifted from the student to the instructor.

Okay, so back to my question. In my discussions with opponents of PDS, it's unclear that any methods of plagiarism detection at all are acceptable. Too much zeal to trust students can lead to a tacit "look the other way" practice which is naive, irresponsible, and just as likely to breed resentment among students who do the writing as PDS do. The alternative offered is something along the lines of "start a dialogue with students about authorship and intellectual property." "Require students to submit multiple drafts and monitor the writing process closely." "Talk to students about the importance of speaking for oneself and what a meaningful act that is. Frame it in such a way that shows that copying a paper from the internet is basically letting someone else speak for you."

Fair enough, those are all valid practices. But professors who do those things can end up with plagiarism cases in spite of all of it. What exactly do you do at the moment of encounter with that paper that you're 99.9% sure is plagiarized? Assuming you should try to verify this, how should you do so? Please know that I'm not trying to set up a false dilemma or slippery slope. I realize that "use Turnitin or do nothing" are not our only choices. What I'm pushing for is a clear alternative: a set of specific recommendations, each with a rationale.

1. Googling passages from the paper;
2. Calling a student into the office (without attempting to get any proof in advance);
3. Requiring a paper trail along with the submission of the paper;
4. Having students interview each other during peer review about the ethical use of sources and then preparing an "originality report" like Turnitin does as part of the peer review;
5. Having students submit multiple drafts;

all are plagiarism detection methods. What's the difference between these and Turnitin? The boldfaced difference is that Turnitin makes money and the others don't.

Googling passages from the paper would probably meet the criterion of "does not foster a 'guilty until proven innocent' culture," if you don't google passages from everyone's papers, only those that are suspicious for whatever reason (see my last post).

Calling a student into the office can arouse immense hostility and rage, one of the arguments against Turnitin. [Edited to clarify: Calling a student into the office without any proof can make a student angry, perhaps especially if the student didn't plagiarize, and this anger can spread to the entire class. This compromises the desired supportive, friendly, trusting teacher-student relationship that is conducive to developing student writing.]

Requiring a paper trail with the paper is similar to Turnitin in that everyone has to submit to it, again the "guilty until proven innocent" argument.

Having students interview each other during peer review and prepare originality reports for each other is something that, I'll admit, just popped into my head as I was trying to think of all the possible ways to detect plagiarism. Again, though, if everyone has to do it, it too does not meet the "does not foster a 'guilty until proven innocent' culture" criterion. But someone should try it and let me know how it goes.

Having students submit multiple drafts, thereby allowing the instructor to micromanage the writing process and give the maximum amount of guidance and feedback, is good in a lot of ways, but in order to be a way to detect plagiarism, there has to be some source or set of sources to compare the drafts to, so I'm not convinced that it's all that effective as a plagiarism detection method. Plus, one could write a draft, revise it a few times, then for the final draft, add a big chunk of text from a web site. Then what do you do?

I just want to see all the options clearly parsed out and considered from all angles. Maybe there are lots of people whose only beef with Turnitin is the fact that they make money and who would argue that any other plagiarism detection method, provided it doesn't make money, is fine. If that's the case, I'd like CCCC-IP to say so.


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2 Board Alley"The boldfaced difference is that Turnitin makes money and the others don't."
Clancy, I don't see it that way, though I appreciate your questioning the CCCC-IP draft. I think that programs like Tii are dangerous because not only do they create an atmosphere where everyone is presumed guilty (or needs to run their paper through Tii " as a learning aid"), but they also move authority from the teacher and from the student. It's too much like Big Brother for me. I don't want my students' papers to become part of a large national database. It sounds ludricous that the president would ever want to have access to a database of research papers, but you never know, and the innocent student who writes about a controversial issue doesn't need to become the next national enemy. If there is no database, there is nothing to search.

I know that there are a lot of practical reasons for using Tii, and sure, I've been on the receiving end of an unhappy student's anger, but surely there are other ways to address the problem, like smaller class sizes so that instructors aren't so overwhelmed with papers that they don't have any time to do anything about sources checking unless they plagiarize.

plagiarism detection vs elimination

Are all plagiarism detection methods undesirable? If not, which ones are acceptable, and why are some preferable to others?

I would say that the answer to your first question is partially yes. The rhetoric of plagiarism detection has placed excessive focus on detection at the expense of encouraging people to think about the many other ways we might reduce plagiarism, such as in the WPA statement on plagiarism. Detection is about catching cheaters and, in the case of PDS, providing a deterrent. I'd rather see us put our energy into positive, student-centered goals: teaching students good writing and research practices and helping them to understand and make the right ethical decisions. If we do a good job with this, detection should be much less necessary.

Divorcing Turnitin's rhetoric from the technology

I think is starting to turn their rhetoric around. They did begin w/ a fear and solution marketing message --Plagiarism is rampant! Stop it with! Catch the cheaters and end the plague!.

However, as criticism if that approach grew, they did begin to layer in more support for using the tool not as gotcha device, but as a teaching device. So there are links on their site to teachers describing how they use it as a tool wherein students can see where text in the papers mataches text on the WWW or in the TII database. They advise users to inform students of use. They recommend giving students an opt out option.

So the rhetoric of their marketing message is slowly turning, though it's doing so by layering more on the old message, not by dropping the old message.

Another thing they could do would be to tweak the program to make it more pedagogically useful:

Allow an institution the option of not putting student papers in their database.

Change their matching text graphic away from the Red for heavy matching to Green for no matching.

Point out in the report that the measure is of matching text, not plagiarism. Properly cited quotes get tagged as matching. The program doesn't read, it compares text lexias to prexisting ones and highlights matches.

Create hueristics that emphasize what a writer needs to consider when text matches. Hovering over a match might provide a mouseover window that says, "Have you cited this source? Click here for helping on citing."

Allow students to self check, so the tool aids them in finding matching text. Right now, students can only upload if an instructor has created an assignment space for them to do so.

Those few tweaks, and maybe a handful of others, would go a long way to making the program more thoroughly a teaching tool and would help it evolve further from its roots as a gotcha tool.

That is, there's something useful in a tool that helps a writer see where his or her text matches source material. If used in this way, if focused on this first and plagiarism detection second, the detection becomes less of an issue. Also, to make the seeing of matching text more useful, invite students to upload digital copies of their sources and their notes into the system, so the matching is more accurate.

Nick Carbone
nick.carbone at gmail dottydot com

Blogged about this.

The comment I started writing here has expanded to not one but two blog entries...

REVEALING article about

I just came across an absolutely eye-opening article with tons of proof. I had no idea how much Turnitin violates students' rights.

The Well-Known Secret about

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