Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Turnitin Sucks

It's with a great deal of interest that I've been following the most recent uproar in the blogoshpere about Turnitin.com and about whether or not higher ed is taking the proverbial low ground in the ethical battles by the increasing use of Turnitin. It is my opinion and always has been that there is something fundamentally wrong with the whole process of requiring students to turn in their work to the plagiarism police.

I think this graphic from the Honk Kong Polytechnic University is especially humorous. I didn't have their permission to show it on my site so I created my own sign at the Ronald McHummer site.

About 2-3 years ago we had the conversation on campus about whether we should license (or is it subscribe to) the Turnitin service. Of course there were some people who were in favor of it, but the majority was put off by the same things that have always bothered me about the deal. The arguments at that time against using Turnitin appear to still be the main arguments. In no particular order, they include:

  • "I am currently taking a course that requires me to submit my papers to Turnitin. My objection to Turnitin is that they are not only infringing my copyright, but that they are doing so for commercial profit. If they want to make money from storing my paper in a database, they should pay me for a license." (EricSmith comment on Slashdot)
  • "Why are we violating authorial integrity to teach students that violating authorial integrity is wrong?" (by Bob, first comment)
  • "can shift attention away from teaching students how to avoid plagiarism in the first place. In “Defining and Avoiding Plagiarism: The WPA Statement on Best Practices,” the Council of Writing Program Administrators urges teachers to “use plagiarism detection services cautiously,” for they should “never be used to justify the avoidance of responsible teaching methods.”
  • "I find it more than a bit ironic, that this company works with WebCT and Blackboard, who argue that one should use Course Managment software to protect student's privacy (alah FERPA) when turnitin.com fundamentally violates student's rights." (Dave, Sept. 7, 18:05)
  • "It's just like music composition. People with similar music education backgrounds end up producing similar music. That's just how it is. Are you seriously going to argue that the standard educational texts HAVEN'T been mined for every bloody original idea they contain a thousand times over?" (read the whole comment by Cadallin)
  • "The entire problem with these systems is they represent a gross distrust of alot of innocent students. If 25% or thereabouts cheat, it means 75% do not. And that 75% are entirely entitled to be pissed off at there essays being kept in some stupid anti-student database."
  • "On the other hand, it did find matches for small contentless strings of words in completely irrelevant documents. It several times made false accusations of plagiarism, but missed by far the greater part of the material I really had plagiarized, missing 15 of 18 plagiarized passages in one of the essays." (Royce, see here)
Some of the craziest stuff I've read about it include:
  • "There is a danger that if you "pre-submit" your work, and then it is later submitted for a course, your course submission will appear to have been plagiarized from your earlier submission."
  • Defending the ethics of this practice: "As long as the ownership is not separated from the content, then storage of papers submitted for academic credit is an acceptable practice."
  • "Agreeing to provide your work in order to substantiate or rule out a suspected case of plagiarism is a responsible act that affirms our institutional reputation."
  • "The putative "copywrite" issue is bogus. Turnitin was developed at U California- Berkeley, which has a preeminent group of legal scholars at the law school. Due to Silicon Valley and Hollywood, California has some of the top copywrite-expert lawyers on the planet, and they've vetted it." (yowser)
Due to the obvious imbalance of power between faculty/admin and students, students clearly are coerced into this act and so all the rhetoric about how they "freely" submit their work to the service is completely bogus.

The CCCC-IP is taking a stand on this issue - they chose the best side IMO.

I think the major source of my discomfort would go away if this was a higher ed-sponsored initiative being operated as not-for-profit. I'm still not too crazy about the whole "guilty until proven innocent" dealeeoh, but I might be able to live with it if we got corporate America out of our classrooms. Of course I would hope that higher ed would build a service like this that emphasizes the possible teachable moments rather than the punitive nature of catching criminals. I still think that an informed/skilled Googler can do just about as good a job as Turnitin (or better) and only apply the tool when there is reason to suspect that a student isn't writing (or properly citing) the text that they have submitted. Yes, I realize that Google also represents corporate America but they aren't directly profiting if I enter a search string to look for matching text. They also don't capture a copy of the students' works unless the students publish their work to the net.

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Anonymous said...

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 Turnitin.com

Anonymous said...

I'm a student at a university who just "dumped" this crap on us... I quit yesterday!! The environment has become so hostile that it is just ridiculous to think that I could actually learn anything there. Besides the many other issues that Colorado Technical University has, this should have been near the bottom of their totem-pole regarding academic or institutional integrity!

PS: I'm looking for a good university that will take my credits (the most I can get) and will not change things on me mid-stream or use these tactics to "educate" me. I've found four so far that look quite promising.

Anonymous said...

I am done my 2 and a half year stint at CTU. Everything was great until about a year and a half in when they started dropping crap on us like pigeons. I have my complaints as well: Turnitin
Repeating a course (I'll go into that later)
Student Advisors
That's just a few for which current students will be able to relate to.
Turnitin, need I say more?
I failed a course, ok, so the next term thay had me take it again. You wouldn't think that would be a problem except that they gave me the exact same assignments to do. Now we enter the turnitin problem. I tried to resubmit my own shit, but I was told I was plagiarizing myself, I bitched and was allowed to submit 3 previous assignments. First of all, when you are asked to do the exact same assignments, are you supposed to magically become someone else in order to write something completely new on something you already wrote? It wouldn't have been so bad if the brainiacs gave me a different assignment list. I looked into the plagiarizing thing and the only way to plagiarize yourself is if there is NEW information to LEARN, which in my case it wasn't since they gave me the same assignments. Next: What was up with the E-book shit? Plenty of us bitched about that one, especially since we felt the university should reimburse us some tuition since we were not getting 'real' books. The school's answer to that: You can download and print it out. So I say at who's cost, we pay for these books through tuition and then have to pay again to have them printed out--fuck that. When we buy a book at a bookstore we don't have to return it in 5 weeks.
Student Advisors--what purpose do they serve? You have a complaint, you're supposed to take it up with the advisor FIRST. Did I get even a response? HELL NO!!!! They oughta be county workers, they never answer the phone.I am just so glad to be done, like I said it started out well, but then the shit started and I feel bad for all of those who are still serving time. I can't imagine what they will come up with next.

Anonymous said...

So lets see.. I should not complain at 13%.. but I got cited for titles of "The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC)" that is the name of the government org.. or how about "sold shares of "blank business" stock at" that just seem like common sentence in a finance paper.... these need to be flagged as a common use. 4% came from my work cited.. the titles.. yea no crap these will not show up. So at only 5 pages and 13%.. so by default 15 pages over 30% for all the one offs and a default 6 - 9 % just in Cite references. The funny thing is the matches did not even come from where I got the data. If this is 30% number is going to be the deciding factor if I have to rewrite the paper....Please... show me the logic.

Barry Dahl said...

No, you definitely should complain. LONG and LOUD!!

Anonymous said...

This system (Turnitin) fails to prove their objectives

1.It needs another analysis from human (again). Not only just looking at the percentage of matching, but also the details of matching need to be taken in to account. For instance, the paper migth contains 40x2% matches, which become 80% matches. In reality, not many people will find 40 papers and use only 2% from each of those papers.

2.It seems to be very easy that your work will be low-percentage multiple (1% x 40 matches) matched with another school papers stored in the Turnitin data base. Practically, it s very hard to reach those school paper on the internet. Most of the database provided by University are from the well-known Journal.

3.Broad negative feedback from end users around the world already prove the failure of the last phase of the software development process.