Turnitin: Inculcating ideology, or enforcing proper attribution

Turnitin: Inculcating ideology, or enforcing proper attribution

A few months back on Kairosnews, we had a long discussion with Michael Bruton, a representative of Turnitin, a commercial "plagiarism detection and prevention service." In short, the question was whether it was ethical for teachers to use the service, since it involves uploading students' essays into turnitin.com's database, where they will ostensibly be encrypted and then used to guard against their being used illicitly in the future. Students at various schools across the country have protested the software as well, arguing that (a) the service is very expensive, and student's don't want to pay for it, and (b) they feel it violates their "intellectual property rights."

Obviously, there is quite a cloud of confusion here regarding all sorts of issues and rights. Most obviously (to us, at any rate), Turnitin.com is non-free software, and it's very expensive (upwards of $50-75,000). Furthermore, it assumes the conventional "intellectual property model" that insists that intellectual work, in this case student essays, ought to be treated as "property." Even still, whose "property" is it? Even if we accepted the metaphor, it's unclear how submitting a student's paper (usually under coercion) to a for-profit company is an ethical use of someone's "property." We'd be much harder pressed, for instance, to force a student to remove his tennis shoes and submit them to a machine to prove they weren't stolen. There are all kinds of policies and laws regulating that type of behavior...

On the other hand, I've heard the argument that this service isn't so much about catching cheaters as teaching proper attribution. Teaching students how to cite their sources is an important part of any writing class, and I see how this can transfer even to programming. It wouldn't be ethical (and is, in fact, illegal) for coders to "copy and paste" GNU-licensed code into their closed-source projects and then sell it, all without acknowledging where they got their code. So, shouldn't it be the same for essays? I suppose we can assume that there do exist students who simply aren't aware of the rules of attribution (that is, they aren't intentionally doing something wrong).

It's a thorny issue, and I've discussed it with plenty of other writing professors, but I'm interested to hear from another perspective. Would a service like this be wrong if it were conducted with free software? Or is the whole idea off-base?



Crosbie Fitch's picture

If someone clearly presents another's work as their own, then that's a falsehood. If they can say that lives depended upon such a falsehood, perhaps we may forgive them, but it remains a falsehood.

However, should plagiarism detection bots be unleashed even on our private PCs? No.

Protection of life may warrant invasion of privacy in order to determine pertinent truth, but the pursuit of truth for its own sake doesn't justify an invasion of privacy.

If you submit a work that you declare as your own in an exam, then what possible rights are infringed by the examiner performing due diligence to check it wasn't plagiarised?

JonC's picture
Submitted by JonC on

Aside from the technical problems with this system (who submits and essay first is not necessarily the same person who wrote it first), there is the other ethical issue. If we teach students that they should not do things because they may be caught, rather than because it is the right thing to do, where will we be when they are released out in to the world? A lack of trust over trivial things like plagiarism in essays or attendance to classes (like the finger print registers of students being implemented in some UK schools) does nothing to teach students the responsibility they need to learn. All they understand is "don't, you'll get caught". When they realise they can lie, cheat, steal and even murder in the real world without being caught, what stops them?

We need to be educating them, not testing them. The aim of the system is not to ensure that all the students produce individual essays. It is to produce responsible and productive members of society.

You can never guarantee to stop people cheating. At some point, we have to trust each other.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

I found this article very interesting. It changed how I view Turnitin. I no longer require my students to use it.


Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

Most of the arguments in that article do not hold up to scrutiny. The copyright issue is very weighty, however. I think that turnitin.com's fate will hinge on that question.

I blogged that article piece by piece at http://hatlie.twoday.net/stories/3433063

Mark H.

Terry Hancock's picture

I read the article linked in the previous comment, and I must say, I'm on Turnitin's side legally, even if I think it's a bad idea.

From the description, Turnitin is essentially a search engine. The data that they collect from student work (or "derive" as the author linked above puts in red letters, apparently trying to convince us that this constitutes "derivation" under copyright law) is just as much "fair use" as computing a hash or storing keywords as Google does. It would be a disastrous additional reduction to "fair use" if such data collection were to be regarded as legal "derivation" for copyright purposes.

So, while I hope Turnitin goes away, and I think it's a really bad idea, it would be even worse if the courts were to rule its data collecting activities illegal!

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

Turnitin is NOT a "search engine." Search engines benefit both Webmasters and the public, for FREE. Search engines have an "opt-out" feature to prevent Web caching, and they certainly do not copy, distribute, or profit from students' unpublished works without permission.

What is the core of the word, "derivative"? The core is "derive." What is the definition of "derive"?

"to take, receive, or obtain, especially from a specified source"

Turnitin.com derives its product directly from students' intellectual property, without permission. Copyright law protects against derivation without consent. Period. You can't put a spin on that fact, Terry. The first student(s) to bring a lawsuit against Turnitin will win.

Turnitin also falsely states that they do not keep a copy of the paper that is readable by human beings. In fact, they claim that once they copy a student's paper, the material that they maintain is "no longer the student's paper." (Well, they HAVE to state that, or else they wouldn't have even the slightest justification for STEALING students' property.) Regardless, that is a complete lie! If it were true, they would not be able to later email word-for-word copies of students' papers to other professors around the world. (Yes, that's what Turnitin does, in case you weren't aware.)

There is much more to the article than what you've suggested.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

Currently, Im a online student this program was introduced as a "tool" to teach the students how to use cite and use references. I questioned my professor, this evening about my intellectual property rights, he blew me off. Then I mentioned if I didnt want to have a digital fingerprint, he mentioned FERPA. Then told me to go to contact the adminstration. I told him I will.

I completely understand the behaviors of students who benefit by cheating. At what cost? Yes, you should not use papermills. Then not use work, without properly citing it in the correct format AMA,APA or MLA. It is a bunch of poppycock, the justification of this manipultive and deceptive tool.

What recourse does anyone have besides, dealing with manipulating and stealing by this program? Stealing students papers.. Any university that uses this program, you should question their ethics and motives. Unless, a group of students and parents files suit aganist John Barrie and Turnitin.

Author information

Matt Barton's picture


Matt Barton is an English professor at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota. He is an advocate of free software, wikis, and the Creative Commons. He also studies and writes about videogames and computing history. Matt also has blogs at Armchair Arcade, Gameology, and Kairosnews.