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.