Sep 24, 2006

students fight back against plagiarism police

For pressuring their school to give up use of, kudos to the students of Virginia's McLean High School.
Members of the new Committee for Students' Rights said they do not cheat or condone cheating. But they object to Turnitin's automatically adding their essays to the massive database, calling it an infringement of intellectual property rights. And they contend the school's action will tar students at one of Fairfax County's academic powerhouses.

"It irked a lot of people because there's an implication of assumed guilt," said Ben Donovan, 18, a senior who helped collect 1,190 student signatures on a petition against mandatory use of the service. "It's like if you searched every car in the parking lot or drug-tested every student."
The issue isn't new--colleges have been wrestling with the legal and ethical implications for over four years now. Apparently the program has an astounding error rate:
Similarly, Virginia's Mr. Bloomfield says it would be an injustice if was forced to stop providing its service because of a legal complication....

After his own computer program flagged 157 papers at Virginia for suspected plagiarism, the professor turned the cases over to the university's honor committee in April 2001. Forty-three of the students were found guilty after a trial or admitted plagiarism, and 88 were cleared; trials are pending in most of the remaining cases.

He says and other plagiarism-detection services do more than just ferret out plagiarists: They improve the higher-education system by helping to attach more meaning to students' grades, and they make dishonest students realize that it doesn't pay to use any means necessary to get ahead.

"If copyright problems make it difficult to ensure the integrity of the classroom, how does this benefit society? How does this benefit the students?" he asks. "What important right of students is being preserved by barring a service from retaining a copy of their paper?"
Well, Professor B., if over half the students "caught" by the website were cleared of charges, perhaps it just might sour the relationship between teachers and students? A smart professor armed with Google and can catch perps about as efficiently. Teachers who assign the same projects and papers every year are only asking for trouble.

Let me be clear: I despise plagiarism. That presents no justification, though, for republishing a student's copyrighted work without her consent, especially by sending it to a company that will profit from it. It would be like gathering essays for an assignment, secretly publishing them as a book, and pocketing the royalties.

Say no to literary sweatshops. Say no to


teacherrefpoet said...

I disagree.

First, I've used Google and Amazon and a bunch of other techniques, and I now use It's not even a close race as far as effectiveness and efficiency. To say they're the same doesn't come close to the realities I've had using both. saves me literally hours. I've caught students with both, and believe me, is far more efficient.

Second, the notion that there's an "implication of presumed guilt" just doesn't hold any water. Who should be most pissed off about plagiarism? Not teachers, but honest students should. is the scholastic equivalent of the cashier at JC Penney's asking to see my ID before using my credit card or taking a check. I don't say to the cashier: "What the hell's the matter with you? Do you think I'm some kind of crook???" Instead, I recognize that this inconvenience is designed to prevent crooks from using my credit card.

As far as the copyright issues, I'm not that troubled by them. In fact, were it not for them, I would not have caught a plagiarist last year who copied a paper from another teacher's class at my school. I am required to ask permission to see that paper from the teacher; the paper is not given to me automatically. I'm fine with the papers being shared for such a purpose, since it's the only way (to my knowledge) they'd be shared.

As for over half the Viriginia students being acquitted, I'd need to know more. Even if there was a problem there, it's something that can be worked out with the software. Plus, I don't automatically convict a kid whose paper turns up positive on I figure out the source and find it for myself.

Those hours of mindless Google searches and profanity are behind me now. is imperfect and improvable, but it--or a similar service--is sure as hell necessary in my world.

Jim Anderson said...

I disagree.

I cut plagiarism at the source, by...

1. Creating unique assignments every year, and listening to what other teachers in my same subject are assigning--and avoiding it.

2. Extending in-class writing prompts into full essays, so the first draft is hand-written, and there's no presure to come up with something ex nihilo, the cause of much plagiarism.

3. Making students revise the hell out of their papers, sometimes even three or four times before the "final final" draft is in.

4. Making students turn in multiple drafts as evidence.

There's almost no way a student could copy a paper from another class and get away with it under these conditions. They may not completely foil plagiarism, but they keep it awfully rare.

teacherrefpoet said... didn't really address my arguments.

Your point is that there are other ways to avoid plagiarism, and that point is correct. However, that point is...wait for it...nonresponsive. Saying "you don't have to use" is not the same thing as saying is a bad thing.

Jim Anderson said...

I suppose I could spell out every little disagreement I have, but I was more interested in addressing the root of the problem. Your closing claim--that such software is "sure as hell necessary in my world"--matters most. Why is it that students can get away with plagiarism, or feel compelled, or lazy enough, to try?

That's why I spend my hours crafting one-off assignments that can't be easily faked, and familiarizing myself with students' journals to spot those rare instances where they're faking. Not because I'm Mr. Amazing Teacher, but because I know how the system can be gamed, and it's a stimulating challenge to outsmart the clever cheaters and outflank the lazy ones, and get them to learn despite themselves.

Are you open with your students about using Turnitin? Do you warn them up front that you'll be checking their papers in that fashion? That, to my mind, is defensible, because it at least lets them know that you're willing to sacrifice their intellectual property for their intellectual integrity--and that someone else is going to profit on the transaction.

teacherrefpoet said...

I like the one-off assignments...but I have limited energy. I'd say that somewhere between a quarter and a third of my big papers every year are fresh and new. But I like working with other teachers who are teaching the same class. Working together, as you know, brings about more than double the ideas that would happen otherwise. If another teacher has a great prompt, I want to use it (with their permission, of course). If I have a great prompt, I want more than one set of kids to have a crack at it. I think re-inventing the wheel every year is bad for both me AND the kids.

The kids sign themselves up for and submit the papers there themselves. They know what's what. And plagiarism has gone waaaay down--I think the deterrent factor can't be underestimated.

Your last sentence was instructive to me. Integrity trumps property in my book.

Jim Anderson said...

Geez. You coulda said that it was self-inflicted from the start, and my righteous indignation would have evaporated.

teacherrefpoet said...

But you're so CUTE when you're righteously indignant!

They sign themselves up, but it's a requirement in my class (and just about all of my humanities colleagues). I won't put a paper grade in the book until the paper is uploaded to the site. So it's not exactly self-inflicted--I inflict it--but it ain't happening behind their backs, nuther.

Anonymous said...

Absolutely eye-opening article with tons of proof. I had no idea how much Turnitin violates students' rights.

The Well-Known Secret about

Anonymous said...

The way it works in most schools is that students are required to sign up for turnitin or face a failing grade on the paper. That's how it's being used at my son's school in McLean. Virginia. That can hardly be considered consent. And the bigger problem here is a for-profit company appropriating student papers for a database that he sells worlwide, making himself a fortune. Even if turnitin were the wonderful learning tool and deterrant it is sold as, that's a basic legal and ethical problem. I worry about the people who don't get the hyprocisy of stealing student work in order to stop them from stealing each other's work. Mr. Barrie admits that he pays for other non-student generated work that is archived in his database, so why is he allowed to steal students' work? Can you answer that, teacherrefpoet?