Sunday, June 24, 2007

Big Fan of Turnitin

Richard A. Posner is a big fan of

I, of course, am NOT! (also here, here, and here) I certainly had hoped for a more reasoned analysis from someone who is a senior lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School and a judge on the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. However, reading his book titled "The Little Book of Plagiarism" turned out to be a huge disappointment for me.

Considering his position in the judiciary, I expected a little more consideration for the legal principle of presumed innocent until proven guilty. Posner has no problem with presuming guilt in the case of student writings. Of course he does go overboard in explaining why law professors and judges cannot be reasonably charged with plagiarism even when they publish words that are not their own. His arguments make it sound like people in his class are above the law so we should just ignore it when they step over the line of plagiarism or copyright violation. Journalists, authors, and students are a completely different matter in his little book.

Posner's description of Turnitin seems to come directly from the website (I won't link to them as a matter of principle) - hardly an unbiased source of information about what they do. He also acknowledges John Barrie (turnitin founder) "for helpful discussion of Turnitin" (pg. III). Let's see, Posner talked with Barrie and decided that Turnitin is some sort of paragon of virtue. Barrie is clearly a skilled salesman for getting people to ignore common sense and a sense of fair play while convincing them to head straight for the sledgehammer approach for what should be a teachable moment.

Posner says that schools that don't use Turnitin are naive. "Some especially tony colleges, such as Harvard, do not subscribe to Turnitin or other plagiarism-detection software services but prefer to preach to their students about the evils of plagiarism." (pg. 82) He probably sleeps much more soundly now that the tony Harvard has also adopted Turnitin. Apparently the high mucky-mucks at Harvard prefer to trample all over the rights of students rather than be considered "tony" by Judge Posner.

I also find it odd that Posner spends much of his book talking about the economic consequences of plagiaristic acts and copyright violation, but only in regard to authors and journalists. He is not concerned at all (or at least he remains silent) about the economic windfall enjoyed by Turnitin by copying and using (FOR FREE) the creative works by students, regardless of whether they are plagiarists or not. It strikes me as an odd time for him to turn off his economic consequences radar.

Overall, my opinion is that The Little Book of Plagiarism is not worth the two hours it took to read it. If his way of thinking is common for those in the judiciary, then I fear that the students from McLean are in for a tough fight. This judge thinks that violating the intellectual property rights of students is a fine thing to do, apparently because John Barrie told him so. Ick!!

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