When I started this "Take a Stand" piece it was in response to the growing concern that Kansas University had canceled its subscription to Turnitin.com, a plagiarism detection program. Now it seems KU will re-subscribe to the program. My thoughts then, as now, relate to the supposed usefulness of plagiarism detection programs. Perhaps since some attention has been given the program, my views will be timely.
As the former director of the writing center at KU, I had firsthand experience administering the program. Although Turnitin.com is a powerful search engine and offers a massive warehouse of student papers which are compared against submissions, there are significant legal and ethical problems associated with it. Right now, at several institutions around the world, students and administrators are wrestling with the intellectual property and copyright implications of submitting student papers to this detection program.
I believe for KU the two primary concerns that factored first into canceling and then into resubscribing are cost (continues to rise each year) and ratio of users to the faculty and student population (roughly 200 active users to 2,000 potential instructors). Determining instructional needs based on cost-effectiveness is not foolish. We could be spending that time and money learning what has pushed some students to intentionally plagiarize. We could be spending that time and money on basic instruction for those students who unintentionally misuse sources because they have yet to learn how to effectively work with texts. We are, after all, working in a learning environment.
To catch a thief is a lucrative business. The corporation that owns Turnitin.com (iParadigms) has tapped into a current obsession: Schools want to catch plagiarists. But using the program can replace instruction; it becomes an addiction, a crutch. We begin to feel the program itself solves the problem. The price goes up and we just can't quit: We must continue because we are in so deep.
While the report that is generated by the complex algorithm clearly shows any similarities with other texts found in its search - using a color-coded scale much too similar to the terror alert chart we are now so familiar with - there is often no sign of plagiarism at all. Perhaps the university's subscription alone acts as a deterrent for some students, but do we want our students to improve their writing only through fear tactics?
In addition, there is, at this time, no empirical data to show that the program "works" to catch all plagiarists or that it in fact impacts the number of students who might misuse sources. Plagiarism is a complex set of activities: Sometimes it is sloppy citation, sometimes it is outright fraud when a paper is purchased online. Only those of us willing to look closely at each student and their work will learn how to deal with each case. In other words, Turnitin.com is not a magic bullet.
I still ask myself, after 15 years of working in higher education, why we would choose punishment over pedagogy. Instead, teachers at every level should include explicit instruction on the expectations for academic integrity, providing examples of research methods, how to quote and cite materials, and how to leave a clear bibliographic trail for the reader.
Outsourcing our responsibility for instruction to a corporation is not a good investment for our students.