This post is part of a mini-series on preventing cheating in online classes. You can find more posts in this mini-series by searching for “academic integrity” or “cheating” in the Tag Cloud on the main page.
Designing an online course to curb cheating assumes that we think that cheating–taking someone else’s effort for our own undeserved gain–is wrong. We think it’s wrong of students to cheat even if we understand their incentive, even if the stakes are low or the harm to others is insignificant.
Yet, unfortunately, many of us, in our work as teachers, participate in the largest plagiarism hustle in education: plagiarism detection software.
Plagiarism Detection Software (PDS) analyzes student writing against a huge bank of stored writing to see how closely it matches what others have already written. While it doesn’t determine if a student has plagiarized, it does report how closely what the student has written matches with what has already been written. The most popular of these products is Turnitin. You may have it enabled on your own LMS now, so that student work is always evaluated by Turnitin. You may even give students an opportunity to run their own work through Turnitin before they submit it so that they can check for close matches to the work of other people.
Which other people?
Other students whose work has already been submitted to Turnitin.
See the problem yet?
We require students, without payment for their effort, to submit their writing to Turnitin, which then uses their writing to develop its own product, which it sells back to universities. Students are never compensated for the inclusion of their writing in the database.
We don’t have to get into the legal technicalities of copyright or fair use of Turnitin to feel unease about it. The fact that PDS products use student writing in their commercial business without crediting or compensating students should be enough for us to say no to it. Turnitin only works because students do free labor for it–and then it sells that labor back to the university, which, of course, passes the cost along to students. We cannot be advocates for students’ right to their own labor, academic integrity, or fair tuition costs if we support Turnitin or any ed tech product that works similarly.
Georges de La Tour’s The Fortune Teller (c. 1630) shows four women, one old and three young, surrounding a young man. He seems to have given the older woman a coin. As he focuses his attention on her, one younger woman clips his watch from its chain and another picks his pocket.
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“Students are never compensated for the inclusion of their writing in the database.”
Not an issue. When I send a paper to an academic journal to be published, I receive zero money for it, as well, which is a stronger case for being paid for material that you submit. (I’m sure that Rebecca has had the same thing happen to her.) In fact, the journal takes out a copyright on the material, so I don’t even own that.
Now, you might say that we get compensation in the form of publicity and reputation, but students get also get non-monetary compensation by submitting their essays: information. And a student who refuses to be graded simply loses the right to pass a class.
Legally, if students want to earn money from their essays, they must copyright them FIRST. If a student hands over an essay without going through the process of copyrighting it, the copyright rules simply don’t apply. Once again, Turnitin can copyright those (as yet uncopyrighted) essays, but most likely doesn’t.
Now suppose that for some reason, some legal ruling allows students to copyright their essays. Does this also apply to high school? Junior high? Elementary school? Kindergarten? Since a copyright is given for HOW an idea is presented (and not WHAT that idea is), finger painting done by Kindergartners is just as much copyrightable as college essays. We’ve arrived at the territory of the absurd.
This seems to be Rebecca’s only justification for disallowing plagiarism detection software to use essays, which makes the whole argument shaky. There is no other type of “academic dishonesty” being committed.
Wikipedia doesn’t give a precise definition of academic dishonesty — that is passed on to the colleges and university — but they do list actions that are considered academic dishonesty.
* Bribery, Cheating, Deception, Fabrication, Impersonation, Professional misconduct, Sabotage. None of these relevant to Turnitin.
* Plagiarism (without financial compensation). According to the online dictionary at Google, plagiarism is: “the practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own”; Wikipedia defines it as “use or close imitation of the language and thoughts of another author and the representation of them as one’s own original work.”
Certainly, Turnitin is taking someone else’s work and ideas. However, Turnitin is not (as far as I know) claiming to have originated those ideas, i.e., to have written the papers themselves. Hence, no plagiarism.
You and I can choose to submit our work or not. Students have no similar choice.
This is much simpler than you are making it: Turnitin makes a profit on student labor without student consent, much less compensation. This is fundamentally at odds with the spirit academic integrity.
We must model the values we want our students to live by. Demanding that they submit their work so that others can profit from it is not what we should be modeling.
They can choose not to submit their work.
There’s a basic principle in mathematics that says roughly, that if you want something (e.g., a calculation that’s faster to do), then you have to give up something in return (e.g., it only works in certain circumstances). If students want a grade from your class, they must consent to having their work analyzed and used in the future, whether Turnitin is the entity doing it or not.
Also, if you personally haven’t paid students (or given them compensation) for their submitted essays, tests, etc. in the past, then you’re being hypocritical.