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Reconsidering Plagiarism Prevention

posted: 4.5.13 by archived

For me, the issue had been decided six or seven years ago, under the influence of the comp bloggers I was reading at the time, who were for the most part solidly opposed to the use of automated plagiarism-detection software.  Their arguments were convincing: such software raised intellectual property concerns when it added student essays to its database and ethical concerns when it profited from those additions; and even more worrisome, it created a police-state climate in the classroom (for an extensive discussion of the potential resulting damage, see the comments here).

But lately around my campus, now that Turnitin has been integrated into our CMS, I keep hearing from colleagues whose judgments I respect about how valuable they find its services. One lauded how much time its grammar checker saves him in grading, and another pointed to its value in teaching students where their semi-digested paraphrases have slid into “patchwriting” (Rebecca Moore Howard’s term). At a presentation last week, when I explained my preference for course and student blogs over the institutional CMS, a science faculty member asked how I dealt with plagiarism (without the aid of Turnitin) and how much time did it take? (My response, of course, was the laugh all writing teachers give to faculty of other disciplines who dare to complain about time spent grading.)

Is it about saving time (either through automated grammar-checking or plagiarism-detection that cuts out my Google-checking suspicious phrases) or giving students tools for analyzing their own use of sources or catching the criminals? I suppose there’s value to each of these goals. But what I keep going back to are the invaluable results of the Citation Project about how students use source material, which confirm my sense that it’s not the blatant “grab-an-essay” plagiarism that’s so common, but rather the sort of patchwork weaving of bits of source material that’s done by well-meaning but ill-equipped student researchers.

I feel that my primary responsibility to these students is not at the end of their process, to finger the guilty party after the deed is done, but rather at the beginning, with the instruction I provide, the assignments I design, and the ways I can require my students to make their process visible and thus open to my intervention.

So I was thrilled to see this recent post by Rebecca Moore Howard about how the results of the Citation Project have influenced her own teaching of Comp 1. (The post gives a very brief run-down of results of the Project as well as an ambitious list of learning objectives to address its findings.)

Here are some of the much-less-ambitious teaching strategies I’ve been using this semester, not just to reduce plagiarism but more importantly to help students read and respond, integrate and synthesize that reading:

  • Early on in the semester I assigned a half-dozen summaries of short articles. With a course theme of Places and Spaces, I used the New York Times Living Rooms blog and gave my students the freedom to pick within that blog six posts that caught their attention; because the blog contains only about thirty posts, I had the time to read over each article as I responded to the summaries students produced.
  • Our first longer essay was a text-wrestling essay  (I borrow the phrase from UMass-Amherst’s English department). This gives students practice in summarizing a longer article and emphasizes the distinction between summary and response-analysis. Some semesters I allow students to choose from a list of three or four articles; this semester I assigned a short essay from the New Yorker that tied to the subtheme of Domestic Spaces (Brendon Gill’s “More than a House”).
  • As a first assignment that requires students to synthesize multiple source, I assigned a short research report (rather than an argumentative research paper), which students worked on during class time, so that I could circulate through the room and peer over shoulders. Once students settled on five or six relevant and credible sources, I asked them to compile an annotated bibliography, forcing them to consider each source as a whole before engaging in any “quote-mining” they might be tempted to do.
  • In general, having students compile their sources on their blogs allows me to require that they hyperlink all electronic sources—and they’re almost all electronic! I hope that this reduces temptation to copy-and-paste chunks of material; if I suspect students are writing “too close” to their sources, the hyperlinks allow me to easily check student wording against source wording.

Whether you’re a long-time user or a more recent convert, please feel free to weigh in on your reasons for turning to Turnitin. Or if like me you’re a resistant to its appeals, tell us why you haven’t turned and what other strategies you’ve adopted to teach your students ethical use of sources.

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Categories: Holly Pappas
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2 Responses to “Reconsidering Plagiarism Prevention”

  1. Jack Solomon, CSUN Says:

    I have said this several times before in response to Bits blogs, but I will say it again: I use turnitin for two good reasons. I explain these reasons to my students (who, having been given the URL to the Bits blog, may be reading these very words) in the following way.

    1. Because of turnitin I can give my students far more wide open, free and flexible, writing assignments. I don’t have to come up with “plagiarism proof” assignments that can be quite restrictive any more. My students reap the benefit.

    2. Because of turnitin, my students don’t have to wonder whether anyone in the class is gaining an unfair advantage by cheating. They can do their work confident that there is a level playing field.

    So, you see, the rationale is positive, not negative. Using turnitin isn’t “playing cop”; it’s being responsible for, and to, our students.

  2. Stephen Harbin, NNU Says:

    I don’t see any convincing reasons why not to use Turnitin. First off to allay the stated arguments against:

    Intellectual property concerns: I think there was some ruling 5 or 6 years ago whereby a judge deemed the student papers fall under fair use in the way Turnitin uses the paper in its database. And for the most part, it doesn’t actually show the paper to the other instructor or student.

    Ethical concerns when it profited from those additions: Companies need to make money to stay viable. Would it be reasonably to compensate students for their papers? Hardly! If anything, it would result in charging higher prices to the school for TurnitIn. Besides, you do have the option to not add the papers to Turnitin. So if you still feel it presses your ethical buttons, that is always the option. You can even choose not to check against said paper database so as to not be a hypocritical leach.

    Create a police-state climate in the classroom: This one is all about the way in which you present and use Turnitin. If you keep it as a black box, where students send in their papers and don’t see the PDS feedback, then of course that raises their blood pressure and anxiety. I don’t think this would be any different than if you outright told your students that you would be “Google-checking suspicious phrases.” I use the Turnitin reports formatively, they send in a paper, and they can see what gets flagged. To keep on the police analogy:

    > Google-checking phrases = A cop hiding around a blind curve.
    > Using Turnitin as a black box = A cop visibly parked on the shoulder with a radar gun.
    > Using Turnitin with drafts and instant results = That sign as you drive by near a school zone that flashes your speed when you go past 25 MPH.

    So you see, using Turnitin isn’t creating a “police-state” at all, it just gives ample reinforcement to your expectations.

    All this being said, there’s no reason not to include Turnitin with everything else you’re doing, especially if it’s being built into the CMS.