Thursday, May 15, 2008

Its' not plagiarism we should wurry about innit?

Over the past year, I have grown increasingly concerned about the obsession with plagiarism currently gripping higher education. I was recently involved in a case where a student was accused of, and eventually penalized for, plagiarism. This involved the supposed copying of two sentences in quite a long piece of work which were identified by Turnitin. Although rather close to the line, in my opinion, this instance did not constitute plagiarism and the original reasoning given to me by the student was an acceptable explanation. But after the brute mechanics of Turnitin had picked out this short passage (even though other larger matching sections in the same work were deemed worthy of being ignored), the full force of the Law was brought to bear, and after two weeks of institutional bullying, the student gave in and changed their story so as to be given a lesser penalty and avoid the high risk strategy of defending their innocence. After all, once they had been fingered by Turnitin, what else could they do?

Let's examine some of Turnitin's marketing claims:
Why then is the incidence of plagiarism rising in institutions which use Turnitin? Increased detection year on year? Is Turnitin becoming so much more efficient each year, or are students becoming steadily more evil? How, exactly, do these figures show that Turnitin prevents plagiarism? Could our current obsession with plagiarism have anything to do with these numbers?
Unique? An interesting claim. How on earth was I able to to carry out paperless marking ten years ago, before Turnitin had been heard of on these shores? With the magical properties of being able to bend time and space, it's no wonder that students (and the academic staff which administer the system) are unable to defend themselves against this juggernaut.

But it's not Turnitin we should really be worried about.

We should be more concerned about the damage being done to language and consequently to thinking skills than we are about micromanaging alleged plagiarism. I cherish the fond hope that in a far flung corner of the campus, the English language is alive and well. Sadly, from where I sit, it looks close to death. I've spent some time over the last week marking student dissertations. The truth that this reveals is that even some of the most talented science students (and I'm certainly not criticizing the students for the deficits I point to in this post) can hardly string two words together. In their desperate attempts to avoid being accused of plagiarism, even the few students whose language skills escaped secondary education relatively unscathed turn out inelegant and massacred phrases which obscure meaning in their paranoia to avoid published text. Respectful "plagiarism" with appropriate attribution is not a crime - the loss of language and the death of meaning is.

JISC tells us that Developed by iParadigms LLC, Turnitin offers a solution to the growing problem that is 'cut and paste' plagiarism. This is a corrosive falsehood. Turnitin is not a solution to any of the problems in higher education, rather it represents one of the biggest problems we currently face, the growing tendency to remove ownership of learning from the student and to try to micromanage every aspect of their knowledge.

Turnitin is just a symptom of what's wrong with higher education.


  1. nce again, I think I find myself agreeing with you Alan

  2. Honestly, I look at Turnitin as a tool, a powerful tool, but a tool. It's no substitute for a well-rounded ethics policy and good citation instruction, but it can help weed out some of the bad students.

    It is a symptom, but symptoms are often part of the cure. The fact is that, with the Web and computers, cheating is easier and more appealing and I've seen that first hand with my own writing being sold, without permission, to essay mills.

    Something had to be done to at least give some power to the educators. No solution is perfect, but Turnitin is better than the alternatives.

  3. The over-emphasis on plagiarism occurs at the detriment of writing skills. Turnitin merely increases the focus on plagiarism and away from where it should be.

  4. I enjoyed this post, sounds like you've put your finger on the missing link..