One year after Provost Kent Fuchs approved a Faculty Senate resolution calling for campus-wide implementation of the plagiarism detection service, Turnitin, faculty are still debating the effectiveness of the program.
In certain Cornell classes, students submit their papers to Turnitin, which then compares a student’s paper to its vast database of material, that includes student submissions, scholarly articles and other potential sources of plagiarism. The service also copies that student’s paper and adds it to the database for future comparison.
Since its implementation, a handful of teachers have added Turnitin to their grading processes. We discourage other faculty from using Turnitin. While plagiarism may be a problem at Cornell, we believe that it reflects a moral failing by the student, as well as an educational failing by the University. Neither one of these issues can be simply undone by putting an essay through a digital strainer.
A professor using Turnitin is choosing to focus on the malfeasant’s academic result, as opposed to the flawed process that got her there. This misjudgement is especially evident in classes where students are not being graded relative to each other. Developing analytical skills and the ability to critically evaluate material should be the priority of essay writing.
Turnitin does not focus on the root problems, and students will find their way to academic dishonesty. A simple Google search will turn up a number of websites that offer students a convenient service, connecting them to a freelance writer who will research and write their entire paper for them. These services have been labeled “essay mills.” A 2009 feature by The Chronicle of Higher Education identified several writers who have produced hundreds of papers for others. Turnitin cannot account for this or other types of academic dishonesty that are easily available to students.
Having to put your paper through Turnitin can also be nerve-wracking. Since the punishment for plagiarism ranges from horrible to cataclysmic, one cannot blame even an honest student for bouts of paranoia after submission of a paper. To take advantage of this anxiety, Turnitin provides students a service called WriteCheck, which (for the price of $7 per paper) will evaluate how much of their writing is plagiarized. WriteCheck can also be used by plagiarizers to touch-up their papers, allowing them to avoid detection. Professors should not use a service that takes advantage of the anxiety of honest students while providing a workaround for dishonest students.
As we mentioned previously, Turnitin indexes the writing of every student paper that is submitted to it. It then uses that massive database to market itself to schools as an effective means of catching cheaters. Students have no say in the process of allowing a for-profit corporation to use their writing for its own gain. The courts have ruled that this is not copyright infringement, but that does not make it fair. Turnitin is utilizing the whole of another person’s work, without that person’s permission, for its own gain. Sounds familiar.