Potential plagiarists and shooters: thoughts on the positioning of students as criminals

by Robert Moorehead

I admit to feeling torn by the problem of plagiarism and the use of sites like TurnItIn. On the one hand, having students use TurnItIn to check their work to see if they have sufficiently used their own words and not plagiarized could be useful … but I can’t even type that sentence without feeling a little sick to my stomach. To what extent are we reducing the process of taking in new ideas (and languages, as many of my students are English learners), and reducing them to a statistical score calculated by some TurnItIn algorithm? If students get a low enough score on the site, then they’ve sufficiently tweaked the wording so it looks like it’s their own … but is it? How different is that from having computers, and not people, grade students’ essays? Having students submit their work to these sites also presumes they’re guilty and requires them to prove their innocence. No one is justifying simple copy-and-paste plagiarism, or failing to write your own work, but I also want students to try to emulate the beauty of the language they can find in literature (and on rare occasions, in sociology). That language can inspire them, and the process of incorporating that language into their own, to embody it, is incompatible with plagiarism warnings and submitting papers to TurnItIn to have it scored.

Heather's Habitus

Two news stories, seemingly disconnected, have been swirling together in my brain this week.

The first is that the members of CCCC—the well-respected Conference on College Composition and Communication—passed a resolution at a recent meeting to condemn the widespread use of the plagiarism-detection service TurnItIn. CCCC’s reasons were many, and included a point I hadn’t considered before: that TurnItIn is a business that profits from the use of student essays—essays that students are not compensated for and are yet required to submit. You can read about the resolution here.

CCCC’s more central point is one that I’ve struggled with myself: that the very use of TurnItIn in a class positions students as criminals, assuming transgression as the default behaviour and “treating all students as always already plagiarists” (see Resolution 3 for the full text).

My discomfort with TurnItIn goes back to the semester in grad school that I first…

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