February 9, 2011

Fostering Student Honesty

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In the tenuous relationship between teacher and student, an emphasis on trust and honor can go a long way to building a healthy classroom atmosphere. Presuming that all students are guilty of cheating will not foster a productive educational environment. Provost Fuchs recently approved a Faculty Senate resolution proposing that the University begin using Turnitin, a controversial and oft-criticized plagiarism detection system, to stop what administrators are saying is notably high rates of student cheating.

The system would cost the University a substantial $27,000. Despite Turnitin’s claims of thoroughness and accuracy, studies have shown that it is prone to flag common phrases and sentences as plagiarism. It is troublesome that the University would put its trust in a system that is not only expensive, but not completely reliable.

Submitting student work to a program that aggregates already published material also touches on issues of intellectual property and student rights. Students at other schools who have challenged Turnitin on the basis of copyright violation have lost, as all users of Turnitin click a confirmation of the site’s terms and conditions before submitting work. Regardless, this perceived challenge to one’s intellectual rights does not cultivate a cohesive academic community.

The need for a system to aid professors in catching acts of plagiarism is understandable. An academic environment and a teacher’s work are degraded by cheating. With the plethora of information available at students’ fingertips, it is easier to pull from a variety of sources than ever before. Whether students use uncited sources or share information to give themselves or others an unfair advantage, cheating in all its forms is a base and dishonorable act. Cornellians must hold themselves to a higher standard. A Cornell education is a valuable experience — one that should not be degraded by dishonesty.

At the same time, plagiarism is an incredibly serious topic in any academic community and must be handled delicately. Accusing students of cheating may be a demoralizing and traumatizing experience for those wrongly incriminated and can leave academic reputations permanently stained.

As such, the University must exact caution in its administration of Turnitin, leaving the power in the hands of professors to choose on a case-by-case basis when to implement it. Turnitin is expected to be installed in the 2011-2012 academic year. A mandatory requirement that students submit their papers to the system would antagonize students and jeopardize classroom atmospheres. Professors should have the option of using the system if cheating is suspected in an assignment. But it should not be the standard, and it should not replace a teacher’s authority to make the final decision on a work’s originality.

Ultimately, Turnitin has the potential to undermine students’ interactions with their instructors. A healthy class dialogue and a mutually-understood agreement of honesty would do more to prevent cheating than using technology to aggressively preempt plagiarism.