The Truth is Out There: Turnitin.com

While I was slaving working on an essay for a PoliSci class, this beauty dropped into my inbox*:

Here’s the thing that bothered me: “TAs will not grade/return your paper if it is not also submitted online.

I have to hand in my essay to Turnitin? I remember all these posters at the beginning of the year that said that you didn’t have to if you didn’t want to (unfortunately, the ones I remember seeing are now gone or plastered over from the recent elections). Now, my TA won’t even mark my essay if I don’t submit it? What is the Turnitin policy?

I emailed askastudent for help and Aska told me that there really isn’t a policy per se. Basically, profs can use it or not use it. I popped by the ASSU office with the above email and the rep took one look at it and seethed, “This is wrong, wrong, wrong.” Apparently, they met with the Dean just last week to ensure that students are not forced to use Turnitin if they don’t want to.

Well, that’s nice. But it’s still hearsay and not official. I wanted to know what the University officially says about Turnitin. I Googled a bit and on the Office of Teaching Support and Innovation website (basically, they support pedagogy at the University) found this:

Here are the important bits:

  • The use of Turnitin.com by our instructors is completely voluntary.
  • If and when students object to its use on principle, a reasonable offline alternative must be offered.
  • Students must be informed at the start of the course that the instructor will be using Turnitin.com (from the FAQ: “This ensures that students can opt out of using the program – something that we allow for here without penalty“).
  • The course syllabus must include the following statement:

“Normally, students will be required to submit their course essays to Turnitin.com for a review of textual similarity and detection of possible plagiarism. In doing so, students will allow their essays to be included as source documents in the Turnitin.com reference database, where they will be used solely for the purpose of detecting plagiarism. The terms that apply to the University’s use of the Turnitin.com service are described on the Turnitin.com web site.”

All right! So Aska and ASSU were right. I was intrigued at the last point, though. What does my syllabus say?

“Cheating and plagiarism are serious academic offenses. Your assignments will be checked against data bases to ensure that they are your own. We will be using turnitin.com in this course…”

Ah ha. Here it is. Apart from not properly informing my class about using Turnitin, this statement is also one of the three major reasons why the students who I’ve talked to hate Turnitin so much – the professor is assuming that I’m guilty before proven innocent, rather than the other way around. It’s like being the only suspect of a crime because the police never bothered to even consider that anyone else could have done it, so you’re thrown in jail before somebody clears you with an “oops, my bad, that DNA isn’t yours after all.”

Turnitin does address this issue in its text and calls this a mere “misconception.” They say the use of Turnitin is like having a referee at a football match. ‘Turnitin doesn’t imply that you don’t trust your students or that you think they’re all cheaters. Turnitin is there to make sure everyone is playing by the same rules.” But the way my prof deviates from the established (and neutral) statement doesn’t help dispel the “misconception” at all.

The second reason, of course, is the concern over Turnitin’s possession of your intellectual property, even if you retain the copyright to it. Now, Turnitin’s documentation claims that their process is legal under Canadian copyright laws and verified by Miller Thomson LLP. Technically, Turnitin maps the words in your essay like a fingerprint and then compares it to previously mapped fingerprints; thus, not a true representation of your work. With a full legal team behind Turnitin (and they probably have a large legal team, given their controversial nature), I’m not surprised that Turnitin is in full accordance with the law, even if it doesn’t feel like it. Mike Smit, a technology, security and privacy expert, says that he simply doesn’t believe Turnitin’s claim that it is secure: “Over 200 security breaches have been reported by organizations more reputable than Turnitin since California’s breach disclosure law was passed earlier this year. What happens when Turnitin is next? ‘We’re sorry’ won’t help.”

The third is simple – how effective is Turnitin? Can it accurately detect plagiarism? There are many stories where Turnitin come up with false positives or where it’s simply been “easily tricked” by changing a few words around. That is a scary thought, especially if instructors start relying on only Turnitin to determine plagiarism. Even if CTSI says that “instructors must exercise their independent professional judgment in, and assume responsibility for, determining whether a text has been plagiarized or not,” you and I both know how lazy busy some profs/TAs get. Don’t believe me? Let me digress with a note my TA sent:

So what happens if you decide that you (or your prof) don’t want to use Turnitin?

According to CTSI, your prof can:

  • require annotated bibliographies from students
  • require students submit all rough work with their papers
  • require that students include the call numbers or web site addresses of all sources cited in their paper

I don’t know the extent of what your prof can or can not ask of you to submit, but there is a person from the Office of Teaching Advancement whom you can contact for additional alternative methods.

Our lovely Fariya tells me that she has a class where her prof asks for documentation instead of using Turnitin. Ironically enough, it’s mandatory, and Turnitin is not an alternative. Sounds good, right? But she says that it’s so much work that she’d rather just submit it online. Here’s what’s required:

  • Any notes (handwritten or typed) used in the composition of the essay
  • Any outline made in preparation for the essay
  • Any earlier draft(s) of the essay
  • A short (not more than one page) “bibliographic note” which sets forth the sources used and explains why you selected them and how you chose particular portions of each source as evidence for your argument

Doesn’t seem too bad and with some planning should be doable, but still, there goes another few hours you could spend doing another essay. If you have three essays due in two days (*ahem*me*ahem*), you definitely don’t want to do all that extra work. From reading CTSI, I thought the three possible requirements were either/or. That’d be easy, because I have so many drafts for each essay it’s kind of ridiculous.

I know, the irony of writing about anger and then getting extremely angry at the essay.

Anyways, I went back to ASSU and the same rep told me that if I didn’t want to use Turnitin, they’ll help defend my right not to do so. All I had to do was tell them and they’ll go to the department head on my behalf. Nice.

This makes me wonder, though, because like it or not, Turnitin is legit and the opt-out procedure is there. Just how is Stronger Together going to get it banned? And do we even want it to?

– Cynthia

* Important information highlighted, identifying information blacked out, names changed to protect the innocent, yada yada.