On September 7, The Chronicle of Higher Education published the article “Could Professors’ Dependence on Turnitin Lead to More Plagiarism?” On September 9, Inside Higher Ed published “Plagiarism Betrayal?” a more in-depth look at the same subject: Turnitin’s role in the fight against plagiarism. At first glance, these are troubling articles. “Plagiarism Betrayal?” is full of bellicose diction; The Chronicle’s piece uses a shoplifting metaphor. They both grapple with whether or not Turnitin’s parent company is betraying teachers by providing a confidential service that allows students to check their papers for plagiarism.
What’s missing from these articles? An appropriate emphasis on the collaborative process that teaching should be.
Turnitin can help students and teachers check for correct source usage, but it is only one part of the equation. I teach my students what plagiarism is and techniques to help them research and compose using correctly attributed sources. We practice summary, paraphrase, and quotation skills. We talk about the difference between original ideas and cited material. Turnitin becomes part of the class process. Students upload a draft; we talk about their problems with correct citation, quotation, etc. Students upload a final paper; I look at the Turnitin originality report, but I also know that I have to do due diligence if I suspect a problem not being picked up by Turnitin. I don’t use Turnitin solely for the plagiarism prevention, and I don’t expect the program to be my only check on whether or not students are ethically using sources.
Both articles mention the controversy surrounding Writecheck, the confidential student service mentioned above, but I hope that my students wouldn’t feel the need to pay for such a service. I always provide a draft Turnitin assignment for students to use. It is a space without penalty; it is a space for conversation if the student discovers a problem with source usage. I know that not all cases of plagiarism can be prevented, but a process-based approach to classroom writing takes away some of the incentive to engage in unethical writing practices.
The other thing these articles neglect is the functionality of Turnitin outside of plagiarism prevention. My students do online peer review through the program, and I grade online through Turnitin. Instead of focusing on how the program can “catch” undesirable writing behaviors, I focus on how it allows for peer collaboration, student-teacher dialogue, and transparent grading.
Because of a multi-pronged integration of Turnitin into my classroom, the concerns voiced in The Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed aren’t pressing to me. Instead of criticizing Turnitin, both articles seem to be calling for an active approach to teaching. No software will do the work for you. Turnitin is one tool; it won’t build the house by itself.