The process of screening students’ papers for plagiarized text is disheartening and mind-numbingly boring. Inevitably I find a non-trivial number of cases despite efforts to inform students about academic integrity. For those of you who have done your level best to teach your students about plagiarism, and are completely baffled by their continued transgressions, I recommend the following as therapeutic reading: Baggaley and Spencer (2005), “The mind of the plagiarist,” Learning, Media and Technology, 30-1, pp. 55-62.
After the last round of plagiarism patrol, I began to wonder if a tool existed that would automate the process of comparing my students’ answers to their textbook. This, I found, is territory well trodden. There are many tools, free and otherwise, which can be used to check for plagiarism. Most of these would not help me because they search freely available online content, and that excludes my textbook. One tool that might help is Turnitin. This company maintains a repository that includes proprietary content, but whether it contains my textbook in particular is difficult to determine.
A good overview of the debate regarding Turnitin can be found in a March 2004 University Affairs article entitled “The cheat checker”. Turnitin gained prominence when students raised philosophical objections to its use. One complaint was that Turnitin adds students’ papers to its repository when they are checked. Students argued that they shouldn’t be forced to give up their intellectual property to a for-profit company. What isn’t mentioned is that students’ papers don’t have to be added to Turnitin’s repository to use the service, and if they have been added, they can be removed. I wasn’t able to find this information at Turnitin.com, but it is a fairly common detail in documentation prepared by schools that subscribe to Turnitin, such as the University of Regina.
The other objection was also the explanation offered by the University of Saskatchewan as to why it opted not to subscribe. (We will have to take the word of the University Affairs article on this one, because I couldn’t find a relevant policy statement by the U of S.)
“Gordon Barnhart, university secretary at the University of Saskatchewan, says his institution “wrestled with this issue” of anti-plagiarism software a couple of years ago. In the end, he says, “we very consciously decided not to go that route” because of the reverse onus it places on students.”
This is the argument that by checking students’ papers for plagiarism using Turnitin, we automatically assume they are guilty of cheating. If this is true, then presumption of guilt is not limited to the use of Turnitin. When I grade papers, I am always comparing students’ answers to my own mental database of what the textbook says, and looking for similarities. The only difference is that Turnitin does it more efficiently and accurately than I can… if not as cheaply.
It is unlikely that I will catch all instances of plagiarism that come across my desk, and the fact that some cheaters will prosper diminishes the value of academic credentials for everyone. Some would put a finer point on it, though:
“Whatever the causes [of plagiarism], the presenters agreed that teachers who do not act to create a culture of honesty in their classrooms, and who do not enforce ethical standards, lack integrity as much as their students who cheat and plagiarize.”
Without the right tools, the degree to which I can enforce ethical standards depends an awful lot on how well my spidey sense is working that day.