CTE Tip: Turnitin

Turnitin & Other Plagiarism Detection Services: Problems and Solutions

Plagiarism Detection Services, such as Turnitin, may have some value in simplifying the assessment of material that might be plagiarized from the Internet, or possibly from another student's work. Faculty should be aware, however, of the pedagogical challenges posed by these systems.

Problem

Student papers are archived and used by Turnitin to create a database against which other student submissions are matched. Students are not queried for permission to gain full access to their work; that request goes to the faculty member who submitted it. It is therefore questionable to what degree students are protected as copyright owners from infringement on their work, or use of their original material for profit.

Thus far, there have been no successful lawsuits against Turnitin for copyright violation, but that is no assurance of the outcome of future litigation, nor of the ethical soundness of the company's practice.

Solution

When students are invited into the learning process, they are more apt to take responsibility for their own learning and to be open to diverse teaching practices. Five pedagogical standards will better protect the students' rights as well foster a productive learning environment:

  1. Faculty clearly explain the function of the services (as well as the controversies springing from them),
  2. Faculty demonstrate appreciation for the students' rights in ownership of intellectual property,
  3. Faculty request fully informed student consent for submission of material rather than require it for a grade,
  4. Faculty maintain student anonymity in submitting papers by assigning pseudonyms,
  5. Faculty do not agree to external requests for student papers and, whenever possible, choose search parameters that exclude the student database, thereby preventing the archiving of their own students' works into it.

Problem

Many people feel that using a plagiarism detection service can establish an antagonistic relationship between faculty and student as a result of viewing requests for paper submission as a presumption of academic dishonesty.

Solution

Honest, open communication with students is essential for dealing with issues that arise with the use of plagiarism detection services. Another important element is how that use is integrated into a self-conscious and developed pedagogy.

Ideally, an instructor will use Turnitin in a manner consistent with excellence in teaching: namely,

  1. As a teaching tool that does not substitute for other substantive pedagogical techniques. Plagiarism detection services are a function of algorithms and cannot make the skillful judgment about plagiarism or student intentions that belong to faculty.
  2. Great teachers always use teaching tools formatively and not punitively. This approach becomes difficult if the instructor only selectively submits student papers because then, indeed, it is apparent that there is a suspicion of guilt. Plagiarism detection services can be used formatively for a class as a whole, which would be a means of learning how to cite, paraphrase, and otherwise use secondary sources appropriately and effectively. In fact, it could be a helpful for a class to preview their use of Turnitin by first doing a no-grade, experimental assignment.
  3. For those students who object to submitting papers, sound alternative methods of assessing the originality of their material should be employed.

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Contact Information

For more information about the Center for Teaching Excellence, please contact:

Becky Kasper, Ph.D., Director
SUNY Plattsburgh
301 Feinberg Library, Plattsburgh, NY 12901
Phone: (518) 564-3043
Fax: (518) 564-5100
E-mail: kasperrb@plattsburgh.edu