Tuesday, October 03, 2006


Thoughts on Turnitin.com

A fellow blogger asked for a dean's-eye-view impression of turnitin.com.

My college hasn't used turnitin in the past, but is actively exploring the possibility. So my comments reflect curiosity, rather than ground-level knowledge. Folks who've actually worked with it are invited to comment, since the devil is usually in the details.

I like the idea of turnitin. In fact, I've been advocating it on campus for several years. What I like about it is that it foregrounds the issue of plagiarism at the moment the student is actually paying attention (as opposed to a daylong start-of-semester orientation, of which very little is retained). It takes some of the subjectivity out of accusations, since students can longer claim that they're being singled out. It also has a long memory, so it will catch more than just what an enterprising professor might Google; it will catch the paper that a student's roommate's sister turned in for another section last year, which Google almost certainly would not.

(Side question: when using 'Google' as a verb, should it be capitalized? Proper nouns get capitalized, but is there such a thing as a proper verb? Dooced or dooced? Borked or borked? Xeroxed or xeroxed? English profs out there, I'm counting on you!)

I'll admit to being old-school on the issue of academic dishonesty. As a professor, I always felt personally affronted when a student handed in an obviously-plagiarized paper in my class. For all the effort I spent on teaching, I liked to see at least a little effort spent on learning. (For these purposes, I make a distinction between wholesale theft, such as copying multiple pages, and minor footnoting errors or a stray familiar phrase.) When I was on faculty, I got the frequent-customer discount with the dean of students for the number of students I reported, and I was proud of that. After a few years, I developed a speech in which I assured students that honest and sustained effort would almost always result in passing, and cheating would almost always result in failing. It helped a little, though there was always a hardcore (or inattentive) remnant that persisted anyway.

Outright plagiarism short-circuits our teaching at such a fundamental level that I believe we have every right to take it seriously. In the age of the web, outright plagiarism is so much easier than it used to be (through the miracle of copy-and-paste) that students who might not have gone to the trouble back in olden days might try it now. Given the panoply of sources out there and easily available to students, both legit (actual articles) and not (online paper mills, Sparknotes, etc.), it seems reasonable to adopt a more powerful search tool.

From the dean's office, the real issue with academic dishonesty is not how to detect it, but what to do once it's detected. Although I've preached 'due process' to the point that it's becoming boring, I still find that most faculty prefer to handle cheaters on their own. This is both frustrating and insanely dangerous.

Any college or university worth its salt will have in place a formal process for reporting and disciplining cheaters. At two colleges now, I've found that faculty know of the formal process, but usually skip it, preferring to freelance. Danger, Will Robinson!

Freelance discipline is insane on several levels. First, it leads to the very real possibility of disparate treatment. If one student gets an F in a course, and another student gets a do-over, and the two talk to each other, heaven help the professor who gave the F.

Second, I've rarely heard students admit, when caught, that they've done it before. One very real advantage of a centralized process is centralized record-keeping. Maybe this is the first time I've caught Johnny cheating, but maybe another professor also caught Johnny last year. I wouldn't know that on my own, but a Dean of Students (or similar office) would. A centralized process makes it easier to distinguish a first offender from a serial offender. You can lose your virginity only so many times.

Third, from what I've discerned (and I'm not a lawyer), the courts are much more likely to intervene on disciplinary matters than on matters of pure academic judgment. In other words, if you gave Johnny a 'C' and Johnny thought he deserved a 'B,' it would take a hell of a lot to get a court even to hear the case. But if you failed Johnny as punishment for cheating, rather than as an academic judgment of his work, then your decision is more reviewable. Following the college's internal processes insulates a professor from later scrutiny. Freelancing doesn't, at least not to the same extent.

Finally, there are times – few, yes, but they happen – when the accusation is mistaken. (I saw one of these a few years ago.) An accused student deserves the opportunity to defend himself in front of someone who can be impartial.* Fair is fair.

Turnitin can't substitute for a solid internal judicial process, nor should it. But as a fact-finder, I see real value there. Folks who've actually worked with it – what do you think?

* The Bush administration apparently disagrees, having decided that the writ of habeas corpus is just so much frippery, and the right to an attorney is discretionary. I may have to live under these wingnuts, but I don't have to imitate them.

On using the formal process for plagiarism over freelancing: You have this absolutely right. Faculty do not want to use the process for a variety of reasons, but doing so is the best way to protect the faculty member, the college, and the student.
I'm a big supporter of the formal process. As I tell the students I've had to introduce to it, if you swear you'll never do it again, they you shouldn't have a problem whether it goes on your record or not. Thus they have nothing to lose if they've learned their lesson. And if they haven't? They deserve the greater penalties.

It really bothers me when other faculty do not report plagiarists because I'm convinced that the ones I've dealt with were not first-time offenders. I was just their first-time reporter.
Hmmm. I entirely agree about reporting plagiarists and taking them through the formal channels IF it is clear that the plagiarism is a willful breach of academic integrity. I see a LOT of student writing (as a writing and literature teacher, duh), and it really is true that some students do not - even after freshmen comp - understand the rules for proper citation. One thing that policing programs like Turnitin can't do is distinguish between a student who didn't get the memo about how properly to plagiarize a source and a student who is giving a big "screw you" to the system.

Here's the thing: unlike a lot of English profs, I'm not "against" Turnitin if it's one tool among many, and if it's used in the service of student learning. That said, if my job as a professor becomes not teaching but rather catching the evil-doers, that's not what I got into the profession for. I catch plagiarists every single semester. It's really not that hard to do - even when their roommate DID write the paper - if you know the student's writing. One thing that I have noticed is a pretty wide gap between how people who regularly teach writing feel about this issue and how people who do not teach writing feel about it. I wonder why that is the case, as I think I would have thought that it would be the other way around.
woops - I meant properly CITE a source - not properly PLAGIARIZE a source, though the mistake is telling - plagiarists often are not the most sophisticated of writers :)
A formal process should be followed, but a number of times I've had the formal process fall through or penalize students so lightly that I have felt that it wasn't worth all the hassle.

On of the places I teach at uses turnitin. I have really mixed feelings about it. On the one hand it should make my life easier, it is even-handed and (fairly) painless. On the other hand it seems to me to presume guilt, it is actually a hassle to use/enforce and doesn't catch people who pay someone to write an original paper for them.

There have been two studies released this week about cheating (one particular to Canada, one on Canadian and US MBA students) that indicate that levels of cheating are high, that students are unashamed about cheating and think that cheating is how it is done in "the real world" (AKA outside the academy). I find this incredibly depressing. We discussed one of the studies last week in one of my classes, we were talking about ethics, and my students expressed shock and incomprehension but I've caught enough plagiarizers to know that students do cheat with some regularity.
I like Turnitin. When I don't have access to it, I have taken to "Googling" (yes, I cap the "G" for brand names even when "verbed")selected lines of an essay to make sure the plagiarism wasn't blatant. Turnitin is a lot more accurate and sophisticated.

A recent news article reported high school students who rebelled agains Turnitin because they didn't appreciate feeling "guilty until proven innocent" and because they felt it was a violation of their intellectual property rights. I just wanted to tell them that in the Internet age, EVERYONE (including instructors) are "guilty until proven innocent," which is one reason we are so hung up on citing sources. Turnitin is just one more way of assessing a paper. If you want to feel better about it, teachers, put it on your grading matrix. That makes it "official" and legal to do as part of the grading process, doesn't it?

I also wanted to tell these students that unless they are planning to earn something from their writing or to publish under restricted copyright, their intellectual property rights weren't exactly..... How can I say this without sounding condescending? Weren't exactly worth anything?? I'm sorry. In an age of blogging and open source education, a high school research paper just doesn't seem to fall within the spectrum of the proprietary or worthy of serious protection. Of course, I am the other way...spilling my intellectual property all over the net for free. And I'm neither rich nor famous. So maybe I just have bad attitude, huh??
I agree with the commenter who noted that official channels often provide no discipline whatsoever. I teach at a Big Ten universty, and whenever I report plagiarism, the student basically gets told never to do it again, and I'm instructed to allow a do-over to regrade. It's a sham. At least using Turnitin.com allows for some sort of immediate visual representation that they might (might?) be slightly embarrassed about.
Dean Dad, thanks for weighing in on this issue. I'm not a proponent of Turnitin, but I have wanted to hear how others at different levels of academe feel about it.
The flip side of too-lenient formal processes is processes that are too strict. At least one school I've been at had a formal process that allowed for exactly two outcomes: expulsion, or a finding of innocence. I'm certainly not going to turn in a student for a faulty citation or other "minor" violation if those are the options, so the system itself practically forces the faculty member to take matters into his/her own hands.

I applaud the Virginia high school students for their stand on their intellectual property, however. Regardless of the "value" or "worth" of their high school papers, those papers belong to the students. TurnItIn is earning money on a database that contains the intellectual property of others, without compensating them for the use of their property. That's wrong, and kudos to those students for calling them on the carpet about it.
I know at my big university, the reason professors/instructors tend to ignore the formal process is that it bends over backward to give the student the benefit of the doubt; it ends up being more punishment to the instructor, with time wasted and integrety doubted, than to the student, even if the student is found guilty.
I'm sorry to hear that the judicial processes at some universities are out of touch with reality. This strikes me, though, as an area in which 'faculty governance' is ABSOLUTELY appropriate. If the faculty considers the process either unrealistically harsh or entirely too forgiving, the faculty should try to reform the process.

At my current college, the board that reviews cases of academic dishonesty has established a series of 'default' punishments for garden-variety plagiarism and/or cheating: the first offense leads to failure of the course, the second offense adds a suspension, and the third leads to expulsion. I say 'default' because individual cases are sometimes either especially egregious (leading a cheating ring) or truly minor (students collaborated on a homework assignment, not knowing they weren't supposed to), and it makes sense to modulate the sanctions accordingly.

If the process is broken, fix it. Freelancing is a terrible option.
I will have to refute the posting by Anonymous. But first, when I say the paper has no "worth," I mean in the monetary sense, not the academic or personal sense. The value of the paper is having written it, not in having it protected as intellectual property. Just want to make sure that was clear.

But Anonymous writes, "TurnItIn is earning money on a database that contains the intellectual property of others, without compensating them for the use of their property." Marketing databases do this all the time, and they make money from doing it. As I type this, someone is making money from my blogging. It would be one thing if these papers were copyright protected. But the papers are NOT copyright protected other than to say, "John wrote this and it belongs to him."

In some ways, as a writer, I would WANT someone to verify, "Yes...this is her work and it is original." It's a test of authenticity, originality, and merit. And even better--having your paper on record means no one else will get away with copying YOUR work. Seems to me this is a great service for such a small price....validity and protection for each student held in the database. Maybe I should send my absolutely brilliant blogs in there, come to think of it. (Yes..I am kidding.)
Yes TII is making money from their service, but not by exploiting people's copyrights, quite the opposite by protecting those rights! At any rate I take the opposite view of rights in an academic setting - all scholarship is of value when it is shared and this includes student work. I tell my students that they are part of a community that is building knowledge and that they dishonour that community when the plagiarize. I'm not sure many of them take me seriously, but that's what I think.

I've never freelanced, I've never had that kind of power. My institution tends toward leniency; expulsion for a first offence seems unduly harsh but there must be SOME punishment, especially for repeat offenders.
In theory I agree with Dean Dad, but in practice I have found that the work involved in going through the formal process is just too overwhelming. After IDing a cheater, (oh yeah, and grading all the honest, bad papers too), then I would have to go to the assoc. dean, who would discourage me from pursuing it, and after several phone calls to persuade him to go through with it, I would have to meet with several people to show my evidence, and then have a hearing...and it goes on and on and on.

At a previous institution, with a more formal honesty code, I once failed all but one student in a class for handing in identical homework assignments. According to the school's rules, the students had committed two offenses, by copying the homework and passing it to another person. The one remaining student had not passed it on, hence only one offense. I then had to sit through 24 hearings, because every student appealed (and lost). This wasted SIX WEEKS of my life. Never again.

My policy now is this: if I see someone cheating during a test, I go for public humiliation -- I bang the table and say "do you think you could do your own work please?" and leave it at that. BTW, not a single student has had a problem with this. The dumb ones cheat from other dumb ones anyway. With written stuff, after I find the source I just hand it back to the student, say "this is completely plagiarized", and walk away. If they act humble and ask for forgiveness, I let them rewrite. Most are too humiliated to bother. I'm having an easier time not taking it so personally - I just deal with it as the nuisance it is.

I've been frustrated at various places with the administrations' attitudes towards plagiarism, attitudes which basically put retention before quality or ethics.

But I'm also concerned about what an appropriate response to plagiarism is. Let's say there's a first time plagiarist, but the plagiarism is blatant, and the faculty can show evidence that s/he explained what plagiarism is and the official school policy (so the student can't plead ignorance).

Is expulsion appropriate? Is readmittance possible?

Suspension? If so, for how long?

A permanent notice on the official record?

I don't have a good, well-thought out answer, alas, but I wonder if that's not worth our thinking about?
"The Bush administration apparently disagrees, having decided that the writ of habeas corpus is just so much frippery, and the right to an attorney is discretionary. I may have to live under these wingnuts, but I don't have to imitate them."

Not being a history major, could you please inform me when in US history have prisoners of war been entitled to habeas corpus or the US federal court system? Answer: NEVER! Why do you lefties make up rules for the Bush administration that have never applied before (so much for that "fairness" concept you seem so committed to)? Did the Nazis get habeas corpus? The North Koreans? The Vietnamese? No. But apparently unlawful combatants (also known as "terrorists"), flouting the rules of war, should get more protections (as opposed to less) than lawful combatants fighting in accord with the rules of war (fighting for a country, in uniform, conforming to the rules of Geneva)? How is that fair? Here's how war has always worked: You get captured, you become a POW until the end of the war. When is that? When the losing side surrenders.

But apparently, liberals have set a new standard for Bush: Terrorists, who violate all rules of war deserve better treatment than any other type of POW in American history, including attorneys? When the fark in American history have POW's been given attorneys?

If you want the truth (which Bush-haters rarely do), this latest bill actually does give terror detainees the right to a military court (which would of course understand the rules of warfare better than a civilian court) determining the legitimacy of their detention, with APPELLATE REVIEW FROM THE DC CIRCUIT COURT OF APPEALS, THE MOST PRESTIGIOUS CIRCUIT COURT IN THE COUNTRY.

The problem was, detainees were cherry-picking courts all over the country, trying to find some liberal judge to let them out. 500 detainees, all trying a different federal judge, until one got lucky with some Jimmy Carter appointee. Even regular criminal defendants don't get to do that. So this new law makes all appeals go through the DC Circuit, like every other lawsuit against the US Government has to.

Why do you think terrorists should be coddled and given more rights than lawful combatants?

Maybe, since you are, admittedly, not a lawyer, you should consult one before you spout off about the law?
My understanding of copyright is that it doesn’t matter if it has monetary value or not. It’s your property by virtue of the fact that you wrote it, regardless of whether or not it is published. As such, I disagree with TII’s business plan, since it is exploiting the work of others with out proper compensation.

The argument offered by someone above that the papers have no monetary value is plainly nonsense: TII is making money off those papers, so they do, in fact, have value. Without those papers, TII wouldn’t work, so it is directly profiting off of works that have value without compensating the authors.

In light of the above, if I was in a position of authority in a university, I would wait until TII has survived a major court case before opening myself up to a potentially huge liability case.

I also have methodological concerns with TII.

For example, assume two different classes this semester use the same subject for an essay. I write a brilliant essay on the subject, and turn it in. Unbeknownst to me, my roommate also prints a copy of the paper, and turns it in to the other professor. His professor checks the paper against TII before mine does, and it comes back clean. When my professor checks the paper, it tags it as plagiarized, even though I am the original author. What recourse would be available to me, to prove that I was the original author?

Here is another. Early in my college career I write a paper on a subject. Later on in my career, I receive a similar assignment. I dig out the old paper, expand and modify it to fit the new assignment, and turn it in. The old paper was checked against TII, and added to its database. My new paper, having many similarities to the old paper, will now be tagged as plagiarized, even though I was the author of both.

The point of this is, at first blush TII sounds like a god send. But in fact, it can open up a huge can of worms that most professors don’t seem to consider. The amount of work that can be required for the above scenarios is merely the tip of the iceberg in terms of the complications that can, and will, come out of this.
One of the anonymous commenters ranted "Not being a history major, could you please inform me when in US history have prisoners of war been entitled to habeas corpus or the US federal court system?"

As a history major, could you please tell me who we're at war with? "The terrorists" isn't an answer, because terrorism is a method, not a nationality or group affiliation. You can't "round up the terrorists" like you could collect German soldiers. Makes catching them kinda hard, y'see.

Under the current law, an "enemy combatant" is defined as whoever the President says is an enemy combatant. No proof of anything is required. Really. Said enemy combatants are deprived of many legal protections, protections designed to keep the system from abusing innocent people. Sounds like a poor idea to me. You keep out oversight, you invite bad things like innocent people held for years on bogus charges (or no charges at all).

There's this belief that "everything is different now," that "the rules have changed." That's a load of bullshit. Thinking otherwise is pure cowardice. We've survived worse without abandoning the rule of law or checks and balances on governmental power. There's no need to freak out and sell the farm now. Check out the new "compromise" bill recently signed. See what it actually says. Scary shit in there.
In response to rlandau - the second scenario you offered is actually considered to be academic dishonesty at many colleges. Yes, it's silly, but one could actually get caught plagiarizing oneself. Not to derail the topic too much, but what should a student do if that student caught a professor blatantly plagiarizing?
In response to RLandau:
As far as copyright goes, as the students are turning in an assignment for a course and as Turnitin is essentially an education tool I believe that "fair use" standards apply. Admittedly, as a non-lawyer, my understanding may be incomplete or entirely wrong.

With respect to your methodological concerns, the second is rather easily dealt with. The program lets you know which member institution logged in the original work, and you have the option to contact the faculty member responsible for the course and ask about the paper as a whole. That's not going to solve all the problems, of course, but in many cases a simple walk down the hall to another faculty member's office or discussing the situation with the student will sort things.

As for the first concern, I admit to not knowing how to deal with it. One could go all scorched earth and threaten to fail both unless one owned up to the offence, but I don't know how reasonable that is. Do keep in mind that nothing about using Turnitin forces an instructor to take any specific action; it's a resource, nothing more.
Coming out of lurkdom to say I use Turnitin with my classes and I do like it. It allows me to deal with the issue of authenticity up front and then really focus on giving constructive feedback to my students. I teach in a graduate professional program and it amazes me to see students at this level lift chunks from website and online articles even though they KNOW we use TII. Students have been put on academic probation and worse for multiple offences. In response to rlandau's second scenario - we had a student submit basically the same paper to two professors and TII caught it. This is considered serious academic dishonesty in our school and action was taken.
There's a lot to say about plagiarism itself but I think the interesting question is process.

DD, the reason you like process is because you're a dean ;) (or, as a teacher, you had the capability/desire to be a dean). I think that for a lot of teachers, the process isn't as fair, friendly, or easy to fix as you make out.

This becomes especially true in the case of students from non-english speaking educational backgrounds or areas of significant cultural difference, where the question of "individual authorship" isn't as rammed into them from an early age as it is for us. The process for working with these students and introducing them to the professional norms of academia can vary greatly and be quite subtle. In New Zealand where I've taught, there have been some administrations I'd trust to handle this appropriately, but others where the process has led to some quite unproductive punishments in the name of "equality" and "fairness".

I think a lot of the time teachers play a mediating role between the student and the institution, and sometimes our knowledge of the student and their situation means that we're not just going to hand them over to the authorities. That might suck if you're a Dean, but I think rather than just expressing frustration with freelancers you could acknowledge here that just as you get different capabilities among teachers, there are different capabilities among administrations, and that administrators need to provide reasons for faculty to trust them.
My institution has the best academic honesty policy that I've ever encountered.

The instructor is free to select the penalty at the course level, from losing points on the assignment to failing the course. Once the instructor selects a penalty, the instructor informs the student of what the penalty is, why it's being applied, and what the student's avenue for appeal is. This letter is cc'd to the proper people in administration who then decide whether further action is needed (based on the contents of the student's file).
I will stick with the TII thread of the discussion here (perhaps a separate posting dealing with the issues of how to deal with plagiarist would be in order).

I have used TII for about 5 years now. Given that I teach writing, I have found it a singularly important tool in teaching how to cite. I have my students create their own log-on (this way they know the tool I am using), post their papers and view their reports.

I then use any “hits” as a teachable moment. If they see a “hit” before I do or before the due date, then I allow them to resubmit. I have had great success.

I have also used it in some literature courses, employing the same tactics. If the students know that they are going to be held accountable (in this method it moves from a gotcha unknown to a “tool” to help them determine just what is and what is not acceptable citations.

Does it prevent the serious student from submitting a rework of a prior paper? Yes, and I am ok with that. I also assign topics that require original work, so I find this to be of low to no occurrence.

One final thought: the reports are to be interpreted…just because I get a line highlighted, I don’t necessarily assume the student lifted it from the linked site. I have had false hits (common phrases—even of some length: i.e. government titles, etc.) which makes, again, an opportunity for discussion. Would I be so free with these discussion opportunities if I were teaching something other than writing? I would hope so, given that almost all academic endeavors engage in it to some degree—AND—a student/professor will be judged on his or her ability to adhere to the common writing practices.
"I'm sorry to hear that the judicial processes at some universities are out of touch with reality. This strikes me, though, as an area in which 'faculty governance' is ABSOLUTELY appropriate. If the faculty considers the process either unrealistically harsh or entirely too forgiving, the faculty should try to reform the process."

Not so easy when it's a "student-run" system, "honor trials" are scheduled to accommodate home football games, and "charges" can be dismissed for "lacking seriousness," as judged by a not-quite-random panel of students.
I'm a TII skeptic. Part of it is "guilty until proven innocent," which is not a good pedagogical strategy. But the other part is that it can enable lazy teaching. Yeah, in a large lecture with dozens/hundreds of kids, it might make sense. But in the world of the liberal arts college that I inhabit, the student-faculty ratio is low enough that we should be creating assignments that make cut-and-paste cheating nearly impossible.

Some of that comes from good assignment design that creates writing projects that are so particular to the course and its materials that finding a paper on the subject on the web would be very hard. The rest of it, though, is slowing down the writing process.

Require drafts or other intermediate materials. Actually teach students how to cite sources. Ask to SEE their sources and the notes they've taken on them. Show them how to integrate sources into their writing (for example the excellent *Rowman and Littlefield Guide to Writing with Sources* by James Davis).

I certainly understand this isn't possible in all teaching situations, and TII can be helpful if it is, as someone said, one tool among many. But we have to actually teach students how to do this work if we want them to do it right.
Having taught in multiple disciplines, I can say with confidence that there is no such thing as an assignment that can't be plagiarized. Some are harder than others, but it can always be done.

I grant upfront that administrations vary in quality, and that some have earned distrust. No argument there.

The 'show me three drafts and all your sources' solution might be reasonable in a class like Composition, but it just doesn't translate to classes like U.S. History or Intro to Sociology. The class sizes are larger, and the subject matter isn't just learning how to write. Yes, writing across the curriculum has its virtues, and yes, it would be grand and glorious if every teacher in every discipline assigned rigorous writing tasks with scrupulous attention to process. But that cannot and will not happen in the real world. Turnitin, Google, and the rest give harried instructors useful feedback in a hurry. That's no small thing.

Dr. Crazy's comment about people who don't teach writing struck a nerve. Some of us assign writing but don't teach it. That's because we're teaching other things, like our own disciplines. There's nothing wrong with that. We also assign reading without teaching how to read, and sometimes we assign public speaking without teaching how to speak. It's called college. In a Composition class, the instructor can (and should) focus on the writing process. In American Government, not so much.

As to the anonymous conservatroll, a few observations: we haven't declared war, so your argument about POW's is crap. That's not just a technicality. Since there's no clear enemy, the President has arrogated to himself the power to call anybody -- American citizen or not -- an enemy combatant, at any time, for any reason or no reason. That includes you. If you're so sanguine about this kind of power, imagine what happens when a Democratic President steps in.

The violence of your rhetoric -- the uncontrolled syntax, the name-calling, the ALL CAPS -- gives a clue as to what's actually motivating you. Get help.
We have an honor code at my school, and its administration is student-run. I don't know how much faculty are involved with the process at all (perhaps a representative present at hearings?). I'm not even allowed in the room when students take an exam or quiz.

I reported one crystal clear violation my very first semester (well - I had to tell the student to report herself, and then report her), which was dismissed. (I caught her with notes on her lap while taking a make-up exam.) It is frustrating that many violations do not get punished; on the other hand, I do get complete control over how I deal with a student's grade on that assignment and whether or not they fail my course as a result. I also appreciate that many of their punishments for first-time offenses and minor offenses is to research plaigiarism, proper citation, etc, and write a report about it. I do stick to the formal process since it protects the student and protects me.

My courses are small, and many of the writing assignments so specific that major offenses would be pretty easy to catch. I go over tips about how to avoid inadvertant plaigiarism too in my lab class where the students do a big literature review. Also, I find it completely manageable to teach about writing (using drafts etc) even in my 50 person class, but I only have one that big a semester. My students always get graded on both content and writing.
DD: I should have been clearer. You're right, no assignment is impossible to plagiarize, but some are indeed harder than others, and with good assignments, the plagiarism will be obvious. You "can" plagiarize it, but detection will be easier when you design good assignments and use intermediate drafts etc..

And yes, we all have to teach our disciplines, but surely we all should be contributing to general ed goals as we do, no? If I assign a research paper in an upper-level Econ course, I better say a few things about how economists do research and about the conventions by which they write and speak about it, no? I also should be evaluating my students on how well they write, speak, and research economics, as those too are skills they are here to learn.

Frankly, I don't want to leave composition to the composition teachers. There's too much about it, and speaking, that's discipline-specific for one thing, and for another, the only way students get better at all of those skills is if we all, to some degree teach, reinforce, and hold them accountable for them.
It is now acceptable, at least according to one dicitionary (American Heritage? OED? I can't remember!) to lowercase Google when using it as a verb.
Dean Dad writes:

"Dr. Crazy's comment about people who don't teach writing struck a nerve. Some of us assign writing but don't teach it. That's because we're teaching other things, like our own disciplines. There's nothing wrong with that. We also assign reading without teaching how to read, and sometimes we assign public speaking without teaching how to speak. It's called college. In a Composition class, the instructor can (and should) focus on the writing process. In American Government, not so much."

But here's the thing. I DO NOT have the _primary_ aim of "teaching writing" in my lit classes. Ultimately, I'm trained as a professor of English Literature (that's what my degree is in, not in composition and rhetoric), which is NOT the same thing as being professor of writing. Does that mean that students should expect that I "don't grade for grammar"? Does that mean that I shouldn't care about citation? I'm not saying that the primary aim in courses outside of composition that assign writing shouldn't be other things. Of course, you assign writing in order to evaluate their understanding of the material in that particular course, in that particular discipline. What makes little sense to me, I admit, is the way that some in disciplines outside of the traditional "writing" disciplines would pretend that "composition" can solve all writing problems. Don't we all, to some degree, have a responsibility to teach students writing within our own disciplines? And how can I, as a person trained in the study of literature and language in English, have the expertise to teach a student how to write effectively in Biology or American Government? The conventions are not the same.

While it's true that "plagiarism" may cut across all disciplines, I do resent the implication that plagiarizing students are or should be the "problem" of people in the English department. That, perhaps, is the problem with TII. It absolves everybody but those who teach composition courses - usually contingent faculty or graduate students - of the responsibility of teaching students what good writing is.

In saying this, I'm not saying TII is a bad thing in and of itself. As PPP described it, I think it can be a valuable TOOL. But it is not a failsafe against unethical practices by students, nor does it absolve faculty outside of the writing disciplines of their responsibility to coach students through the writing process.

(Sorry if I got a little uppity in this response, but as my comment touched a nerve with you, so too did your comment touch a nerve with me. And I've had a couple of glasses of wine, so I'm more uppity than usual :) )
I would vote for Turnitin.

First of all, ideally, I think it would deter a great deal of plagiarism.

"Keeping honest people honest," as the IRS says, encouraging voluntary compliance with the tax code.

Indeed, I see a strong parallel between using Turnitin and the IRS policy of cross-checking tax returns with third party data from employers and banks.

Neither is perfect, of course.

Turnitin won't catch plagiarism from rich lazy kids who hire poor smart kids to write their papers for them.* It won't catch kids whose parents write their papers. Or kids who ask their girlfriends to write their papers. And of course, Turnitin does nothing at all to detect the kind of plagiarism that is about stealing ideas rather than verbatim quotes without attribution.

By the same token, IRS document matching won't catch the waitress who doesn't report every tip, the business owner who doesn't report all his cash receipts or who labels some personal purchases as deductible business expenses, or the person who inflates the value of his charitable donations of castoff clothes.

But in both cases, it is a beginning.

Both policies clearly communicate an intention to hold people accountable for bad choices. They deter some cheating.

They let honest students and honest taxpayers know that flagrant cheaters won't always get off scot-free.

I think that's a message worth sending.

If people think everyone else is cheating, whether it's taxes or plagiarism, it erodes a social norm.

The reality is that a lot of cheating goes on. Students know this. Students may know this even better than we professors know this because students describe their shortcuts to one another in casual offhand ways.

If students think we are doing nothing at all about it, it undermines their faith in the integrity of the enterprise.

I like the idea of Turnitin. "Trust but verify." "Keeping honest people honest."

In a perfect world, it wouldn't be necessary.

It's not a perfect world.
Footnote/addendum to my previous comment:

*Prof Ralph Raimi, a math professor at U of Rochester has written a lot of wise and very human reflections based on his many years as a student and as a professor and honor board chair.


In one particularly evocative and poignant piece, he recounts his own student days and how he thoughtlessly fell into the habit of writing papers for other students in his dormitory.

I want to respond to your comment:

"The 'show me three drafts and all your sources' solution might be reasonable in a class like Composition, but it just doesn't translate to classes like U.S. History or Intro to Sociology. [. . .]

Dr. Crazy's comment about people who don't teach writing struck a nerve. Some of us assign writing but don't teach it. That's because we're teaching other things, like our own disciplines. [ . . .] In a Composition class, the instructor can (and should) focus on the writing process. In American Government, not so much."

I think you actually have it backwards.

Asking for intermediate products is not necessarily concentrating on the writing process. The pedagogical point of assigning a research paper isn't the writing, but the research. The paper is simply the artifact which records that research. Intermediate products enable the instructor to see if the research is going the way he wants it to. If it isn't, he can intervene.

In my upper division classes, I assign a research paper, due in week 13. In week 5, I ask for a topic and sources; in week 9, a data dump and draft. I just graded 62 topic and sources; it took me slightly less than two hours. I don't judge the quality: have they a topic and a set of sources that will support writing a paper? Yes/No. 11 of them had sufficiently misunderstood what was wanted that I had to ask them to revisit it (that's a No). The sources another 15 or so were using suggested they were redefining the assignment to make it easier, so I had to remind them what aspect they were to concentrate on (a Yes, but). The value of doing this is not to prevent plagiarism (though it does discourage it), but to help steer the students in what is, after all, an important component of the course. And it's not a big imposition on my time.

It does discourage plagiarism, also, as a side effect. Plagiarism is, I think, a crime of impulse. The paper is due in two days, the student has done no work towards it, the paper mill seduces with the promise of making it all right, for just $12.95. Forcing the student to start work early in the semester means the situation which creates the temptation doesn't arise. Once they've committed to a specific concrete example and specific sources, too, it's a lot harder to find a plagiarizable original.

That doesn't mean, if I were teaching a course where I couldn't set such an assignment, where, of necessity, assignments had to be general, since I couldn't expect the students to do much in the way of research (a Composition course, perhaps?), I wouldn't use TII.
As to the anonymous conservatroll, a few observations: we haven't declared war, so your argument about POW's is crap.

So then, since we didn't declare war on Vietnam or Korea or even Iraq for that matter, I suppose your argument (ad hominem attack, really) is that we should have given all the North Koreans, the Viet Kong, the Baathists and the Taliban trials in US district courts?

The left always tries this argument, that since a war is undeclared (although bin Laden declared war on us) it is llegal. Of course, there is no case law to back up this trite assertion. But like most things the left rants about, just say it enough and it becomes true, e.g., "Bush lied, kids died!"

As if you cared about the law, SCOTUS does not differentiate between a use of force declaration and a declaration of war for such purposes, when interpreting Geneva.

It seems the anti-Bush left wants it both ways; wasn't it the Democrats screaming that these guys deserved POW status in the first place? But now they deserve Marc Geragos?

The Geneva Convention is really a privilege. Live up to its terms (fight honorably for a country wearing a uniform), and you get its protections. Don't abide by its terms, and you don't get its protections. Geneva has both the carrot and the stick approach.

You still haven't answered the key question: Why should terrorists, who blatantly violate the rules of war, be treated better than combatants who live up to Geneva? Apparently, your rule is "fight honorably and fairly, be a POW; chop of a non-combatant's head, get a lawyer."

Typical lefties, rewarding bad behavior.

Remember, it is Geneva which gives us the notion of an unlawful combatant. Is it your position that no such classification exists?

I guess you won't be happy until our servicemen are reading Miranda rights right after a heated firefight (I'd add "LOL!" here, but my "syntax" is already under suspicion).

That's not just a technicality. Since there's no clear enemy, the President has arrogated to himself the power to call anybody -- American citizen or not -- an enemy combatant, at any time, for any reason or no reason. That includes you. If you're so sanguine about this kind of power, imagine what happens when a Democratic President steps in.

I guess you didn't read the part of my post about military court and DC Circuit review?

Besides, as a US citizen, I would have Constitutional rights attach, and I would hire a lawyer.

But seriously, I think we just have a different world view on this. I feel our servicemen and women are sacrificing daily and making a good faith effort to detain the bad guys, and don't have the time or desire to detain the innocent.

The left apparently thinks that they are malicious baby-killers bent on torture and abuse.

Call it a subtle philosophical difference.

The violence of your rhetoric -- the uncontrolled syntax, the name-calling, the ALL CAPS -- gives a clue as to what's actually motivating you. Get help.

Wow, you must be a fun guy to work for vis-a-vis academic freedom. Disagree with Suburban Dad, get called a troll (and who is name-calling?).

As for your attacks on my writing (I thought this blog was conversational, not a scholarly work), I couldn't get the italic tags to work in Opera so I used all-caps for emphasis (I am now using IE).

How about that, a lofty CC dean getting pedantic on his little blog. Let me guess, an edu doctorate? How special.

You'd come off a lot more learned if you addressed the content of my post, rather than ad hominem attacks on my "syntax" and my psyche. But of course, since I blew your "Bush is denying habeas corpus" argument to shreds, you are only left with the personal attacks, and the tired, "illegal war" nonsense the left has been claming since Vietnam.

For the record, I think you should look up the common Internet definition of "troll." You started the Bush bashing, not I. A reasoned, fact-based response to an on-topic (your blog, you set the agenda) post is not a troll, regardless of how much you may disagree with it.
There's a lot of interesting debate here; I hope you explore some of these other aspects. I haven't used turnitin.com but I like the idea; I would use it.

I just wanted to tell about what I do in my classes to (hopefully) prevent plagiarism. I bought a paper from one of those paper mills (btw, they run upwards of $50, not $14, as one poster assumed) and use it to model peer review in my lit. class. After we work through the essay and my worksheet questions and they come to the conclusion that it is a completely crappy F-quality essay, I tell them where I got it, and hope they get the point: why spend lots of money downloading crap off the internet when you can write your own bad paper for free? I also point out that there are a lot of ways to tell when someone cuts and pastes material into their own essays, but I'm not going to tell them how to recognize the clues and thus possibly get away with it. I've got my fingers crossed that this doesn't just teach them to hire someone to create their papers from scratch instead.
Dr. Crazy -- I agree that writing is too important to leave to Composition; I've marked papers down for grammar, lack of clarity, etc. I've even experimented (with very mixed results) with intermediate assignments -- show me a topic and sources by week six, etc.

In my time at Proprietary U, the Gen Ed area was dominated by the English folk, who were themselves mostly rhet/comp. When I tried engaging them in finding ways to deter plagiarism, every answer I got involved sucking more time away from the substance of my courses, and essentially turning them into comp classes. No, thanks. Given larger class sizes than in composition, and different subject matter to address, that's simply not an option.

I'm not assuming the marginality of composition. I'm actually assuming a sort of disciplinary imperialism by it. Can you imagine 'psychology across the disciplines'? Of course not.

Turnitin strikes me as a useful deterrent, and a help in fact-gathering. I could be wrong on either or both of those -- I hope to find out over the next year or two. It isn't the same kind of help as a full-on writing instructor, but I don't think anybody is claiming that it is.

As for anon, I have a doctorate in a mainstream social science discipline from a major research university, thanks for asking.
'why spend lots of money downloading crap off the internet when you can write your own bad paper for free?'

It still takes time to write that crappy paper, ---but little time to download the crappy one written by someone else. I suspect that the cheaters don't want to spend the time, but would happily spend the $.

That being said, I like the idea of grading the bought paper and showing that it's crap. Just that the 'free by yourself' argument may not be that persuasive for some. After all, they probably know people who have got good grades on such papers...

I would use tii in a heartbeat. It's sad that I learned about the site only from reading the post.
You namedrop Foucault in your banner for cultural studies cred, but then you advocate a surveillance system like TII for your classes? What a hoot.

Stick to mowing your lawn and leave the cultural studies to grad students who actually read their assigned texts.
Cute line. But I read Foucault. I just didn't buy it wholesale. It's called Critical Thinking. Try it sometime!
I am a trustee of a significant secondary school that has adopted TurnItIn. Their application of the tool has surprised me -- not only do faculty have access, but students as well, and they are taught to run essays through it repeatedly until it no longer flags infringements. In other wods, the school seems to be using TurnItIn to teach the students how to cheat without getting caught.

I have flagged this at several board meetings, but the administration prefers to discuss other things. This is a school at which every student must write a significant paper, graded outside the school, as a requirement for graduation. I suspect that the school fears the unmanageable scandal that would result if their students were caught cheating by this impartial third party, and has decided that this "TurnItIn Training" is a reliable way to make sure no students are so busted.

The administration would probably prefer to see the trustees worry only about fundraising, and avoid any discussion that's off that script. It seems short sighted to me.
Absolutely eye-opening article with tons of evidence. I had no idea how much Turnitin violates students' rights.

Guilty Until Proven Innocent
These are very interesting points about the pros and cons of Turnitin, but has anyone tried the Grademark program attached to the service. It saves ~75% of the time it usually takes to correct essays! The best thing about it... the resulting database of errors helps plan next year's curriculum and when the paper is electronically graded and returned, the teacher’s feedback to the essayist can be very instructive in the re-writing of the text... they actually learn from their mistakes, rather than making more trash can fodder... check it out.
turn-it-in seems to have a place in academia. However, if the writing assignments are creative, it makes it a lot harder to plagiarize. I like the idea of using assignments that are hard to plagiarize.
I teach composition at a community college and have been using Turnitin.com for a couple of years now, mostly as a deterrent. I figure that if students know they're going to have to submit their work to a plagiarism detection service, then they're probably less likely to consider plagiarizing an option. Since I started using Turnitin, I have caught very few students plagiarizing from the Web (maybe 3 or 4 over the last 2 years), but I have caught a whole bunch who were recycling someone else's paper. Most of the time this has occurred, my students were turning in a paper submitted at a different institution--usually the CSU in a neighboring town--but this semester, I caught a student trying to turn in a paper that was written for my class 2 semesters ago. While I'm aware that Turnitin.com cannot catch all cheaters, I firmly believe in using all of the tools available to us to make cheating more difficult. (And yes, when I catch a student cheating, I ALWAYS use the formal process.)
I'm wandering what % is assumed innocent? Obviously, 75% or more i'd say GOTCHA! But come on, how can thousands and thousands of people explain in a couple paragraphs a high school book report and not have some exceptable overlay of words? My son had a 19% on a book report on Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park explained in a couple paragraphs. This is a book, a movie, and who knows how many other writings. His teacher is just positive he plagarized his paper. My son is just devistated that he was accused of cheating. Now I'm concerned about his attitude. He says, "She thinks I'm a liar mom." What course do I have? Guilty till proven innocent.
I am a relatively new university instructor. I've taught three courses at the undergraduate level. I am currently teaching my first summer school course. This is the first time that I have ever caught this many students plagerizing on an assignment (about 25%). I was supposed to return their assignments this evening. I informed them that I need another week to think things through. I need some advice. Any professors who have experience with this - please advise. The assignment was basically this: first page, summarize the knowledge, skills and abilities for a job the students want in the future. The next four pages are an 'interview guide' where students needed to develop 3 behavioural and 3 situational interview questions. Some students took job descriptions verbatim from monster.com etc. It was terribly obvious. Some students used questions from the internet for the second half. Some copied for both sections. The most important part of the assignment was the second half (creating the questions). Do I punish them all equally. Second part of the question: I lambasted them after class tonight. One student approached me and was extremely apologetic. If the purpose is to teach students not to plagerize, then should I punish this student? She has clearly learned her lesson. What do you think?
I'm a student, and people at my school basically help each other with homework before handing it it. Therefore we have similar assignments. Why would you consider it cheating if someone were to lend another person their homework to copy or to use? It's basically a buddy system, and some people have other, more important matters to attend to outside school that takes away from their time to do homework.

As for the use of TII, it's an alright idea, but it will surely give many students a hard time whether they choose to cheat or not. I believe that using it creates an aura of distrust for both the student and the teacher and increase discomfort.
To the poster whose son was accused of plagiarism when only 19% of the paper was flagged by turnitin as unoriginal:

The teacher is inadequately trained and is misinterpreting the results. 19% is way below the threshold that would clearly indicate cheating, especially on such a short paper. Probably the threshold would be 30% on a long paper; for 2 paragraphs, possibly 40% would be a more likely threshold.

I just attended a presentation at the 2009 TESOL conference about using turnitin. It is a valuable tool, but only if used correctly.

If what you say is correct, your child's teacher is not using it correctly. This teacher should be corrected and if the teacher persists, he or she should be fired for stupidity.

Best regards
Here's my take on TurnItIn. Teachers like it because they want to catch cheats (an admirable goal). This presupposes that a) TurnItIn catches cheats (or prevents them), and b) that it's the best alternative.

I know that when I write a paper, my BEST defense, bar none, against someone else copying it is to protect it myself. Not to hand it off to a 3rd party. Not to permanently archive it on servers accessible via the internet. So, as a teacher (or dean), you are taking away MY rights to protect MY work, by REQUIRING me to submit the paper to a permanent archive, whose own Terms and Conditions state that they can do anything they want with my work, including sell it, and including failing to protect it from hackers.

Will papers from a permanent internet archive be sold to Rolling Stone or People magazine, or leaked, prior to an upcoming election? You better believe it. (How quickly people forget about Palin's emails or Obama's phone records.)

Any teacher or school administrator who wants to require each student to upload their papers to a permanent archive should "walk the walk", and upload ALL of their high school and college papers to this archive.

I haven't yet heard of a teacher who is willing to take action to remove this hypocrisy.
As an educator, I do find this indignation incredibly humorous. I occasionally rewrote my roommate's paper, and I definitely fudged footnotes. You all did, too.

I'm sure that I will get a million comments calling me an example of the degrading quality of teachers...

Don't bother.

College is less about learning than it is about perseverance. Cheating is wrong, but we all did/do it from time to time. Your embracing the idea that TII is going make the next generation's climb to success more steep than the one you climbed, is quite laughable.
There have been some great comments from both sides of the argument.

I abhor the idea that my hard work is being kept in a permanent database to be used/sold/etc. I may not be the smartest egg, but that's anti-american. It's also another form of theft.

I believe the middle-of-the-road solution is to only permanently keep work that's paid for. Compare my work, but don't keep it...or at least pay a small fee to the student.
Turninit.com profits off of the student's intellectual property. It is forced robbery.
My niece got 50% docked for plagarism. It was maybe 2 sentences and was an honest mistake. She rewrote it but 50% seems a little steep. She knew it was to be submitted toturnitin. Why would she cheat? I think tin can be misused. Not everyone is out to cheat the system.
While I believe turnitin is a tool which faculty can utilize it can often be used by faculty that actually make less than what their worth tasks less daunting. I would also agree that the company is using intellectual property for business gain.
My granddaughter is going through a traumatic time because of Turnitin.com. One of her professors has accused her of plagiarism based on a report from Turnitin. She denies that she even read the source they say she paraphrased. The professor accused her in front of other students and another professor, refused to show her the paper and immediately dropped her from the class causing her to lose half a semester's work and her tuition for that course. In addition he turned her name in to the Dean. She feels helpess because "How can she prove her innocence?" Also she fears that she will be further punished if she files a complaint. I am completely disgusted because she is a good student who has never had any kind of charge filed on her and is not known to be a liar. She was not even given the chance to defend herself. I am a retired public school teacher and am horrified that a student can be humiliated in this way for something she didn't do. Therefore, I would not approve of using the Turnitin program because if it makes a mistake, it can ruin a student.
Some advice please... I live in South Africa and the college my son attends use Tunitin.Students are required to submit all assignments through Turnitin and all assignments must also be physically submitted to the relevant faculty. My sons' assignment was returned as unmarked with a nil percentage and the reason given was that although he submitted the turnitin receipt, he did not submit a copy of the originality report. The college say when assignments are submitted the student signs a declaration regarding plagiarism and that all assignments must be accompanied by supporting documentation including the originality report if required.to in terms of the assignement instructions. There is no instruction whatsoever on the assignment to this effect. The turnitin receipt is proof that the assignement was submitted to turnitin and yet the college is adamant that they will not mark the assignment because he did not submit a copy of the originality report. My understanding. Is that the instuctor sets the tab in turnitin for the student to view the report. My son has confirmed that they are allowed to view the report as a draft and make changes but is allowed one chance to edit his assignment. My question is as follows: is it fair that a student is acamedically penalised for not including the originality report to the extent that nil mark is returned? Could this be construed as the college not admistering Turnitin correctly. Incidentally, the report showed 10%...and advice would be greatly appreciated.
The main problem with turnitin is the agreement with a third party to "give away inelectual property." The assignments I have turned using turnitin I have removed any personal perspective or introspection from. This reduces the quality of the papers turned in, but what can one do? if you agree to the policies (e.g. user agreement) you the student simply gives the copyright away to turnitin. Searching for comparable texts, seeking out those who are not actually doing their own work, seems reasonable. However, giving ones intelectual property and copy rights away does not seem worth it. Frankly, this student sees it as unethical for a educational institution to extort the loss of one's intelectual rights. If a student doesn't use the turnitin, they might fail the class. That my friend is blackmail. No wait, extortion that sounds so much more polite.
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