As noted in Turnitin and Rhetoric, although the arguments against Turnitin are mostly logical fallacies, the issue of intellectual property does need to be addressed. Charlie Lowe, Ellen Schendel, and Julie White wrote,

Students have intellectual property rights to their writing that make problematic Turnitin’s compilation of student texts.

  • Claims of fair use by Turnitin put aside, teachers may want to consider their own opinions about requiring students to give away their work to be used by a third party, for-profit vendor.

What sorts of intellectual property rights do students have? It isn't trademark, trade secret, or patent rights, so it must be copyright (see Info/Law for this breakdown). Most student papers do not have an "original" idea or way of framing a particular idea. Rather, they are collections of common knowledge that display the students' developing proficiency in presenting that common knowledge. Copyright in these cases is at best a technicality. However, infrequently as it may be, some students do write a paper that is worthy of being published, in fact, that gets published. And as students progress in their knowledge and writing ability, this possibility increases.

Assuming students have copyright protection, still, what have they given away? Their written work remains their property. If they wish to publish it, make money off it, or anything else, they still have that right. Thus, they are not giving it away, at least no more than academics who sign off their copyright to journals without receiving any compensation. Of course, some might argue that academics have "choice." Not really, that is, if they want to receive tenure and promotion. And in contrast to academics giving away their copyright, students still have theirs. Unlike the journal-academic relationship, Turnitin's use of student work and the students' use of their work do not overlap or conflict.

Interestingly, the authors

recommend that the university consider having Turnitin globally configured at GVSU so that students’ papers are not stored in the database.

Apparently, they see a difference between a "for-profit vendor" not respecting students' intellectual property rights and the university doing the same. Such a distinction is difficult for me to see. Perhaps, as a colleague of mine commented, it's a qualified recommendation. That is, if GVSU insists on using Turnitin, then it would be better to have student papers on GVSU servers. Still, if I felt that if I believed, as they wrote, "Turnitin discourages good pedagogical practices" and "can be ineffective for detecting plagiarism," I would find it difficult to make such a recommendation because storing student papers at GVSU, as opposed to storing them on Turnitin servers, would not change these assumed negative by-products of Turnitin.

Even so, the commercial distinction is not an important one for me. Although universities are technically non-profit organizatons, it is an illusion that they are non-commercial. In New Jersey, the state provides about 20% of public university budgets ("New Jersey Colleges Brace for More Financial Blows", subscription needed). A major portion of the other 80% comes from students' tuition (e.g., 48.5% at Montclair State U.). In addition, universities invest their endowment funds in the stock market. Harvard's $28 billion endowment leads the pack. And there are the money making athletic programs and university-corporation "mergers" in which students provide cheap labor. Others have written in detail about the commercialization of academia.

On the notion of "fair use," I'm not sure that Turnitin's use is fair use. Arguments exist pro and con (see here and here for discussions on law blogs). One prominent lawyer and judge who seems to support Turnitin's use is Richard Posner. In his The Little Book of Plagiarism (see a brief review here, he states,

Some especially tony colleges, such as Harvard, do not subscribe to Turnitin or other plagiarism-detection software services but prefer to preach to their students about the evils of plagiarism. These schools are naïve. (p. 82).

According to Lawrence Lessig,

[Posner] is the most prolific person I know. He is the most influential lawyer of his time. His work in law and economics revolutionized the legal academy. His opinions as a judge are easily among the most influential in the federal judiciary.

Although Posner doesn't mention "fair use", he doesn't seem to see any legal objections to Turnitin (although for a position against "fair use," see comment #12 of "Plagiarism and Copyright" at Info/Law).

If that's a correct read, then the discussion turns on the ethical, that students are not freely giving their consent for Turnitin to archive their papers. If that is unethical, then so are most university policies and procedures, as a lack of consent is a commonplace in the university: Students don't give their consent to instructors to keep copies of their papers and final exams, to GVSU if it decides to store their papers on their own servers, to the course syllabus or grading system, or to much of anything else that the university requires from them. Similarly, as someone commented,

How different is Turnitin's process from grad students being required to submit their theses to the school's library and Diss Abstracts Online? ...

Is it that Turnitin doesn't compensate students? Libraries don't compensate grad students for the thesis they submit. In fact, you usually have to pay to have your own thesis bound for the library.

Counterexamples don't necessarily show that requiring students to give their papers to Turnitin is ethical, but they do show (1) the routineness of not requiring consent for many university policies and procedures and (2) a selective application of requiring consent, indicating that we should consider more carefully the criteria that make it unethical for requiring consent in one context and unseen in another.

What seems to be going on is an emotional response to a perceived violation of student ownership of their writing. Lowe and Schendel (at AFT) wrote:

Allowing a third-party vendor to police the presentation of honest students’ ideas, preserve a copy for policing others, and make money off of their writing diminishes student authority over their work and interferes with student intellectual and civic development.

This sentence seems to be the driving force of their position. It is more than possible that an instructor with a "got'cha" attitude will use Turnitin as a "policing" tool. However, as noted in Turnitin and Rhetoric and as will be seen in my next post, policing is not a necessary consequency of Turnitin. And from my own experience teaching international and ESL students for the last 15 years, many of whom have come from educational environments that many would consider more repressive than ours, I can say with some oversimplification that I have not seen any arrestment in their intellectual or civic development. Apparently, there is an ideologial adherence to promoting "student authority" to such an extent that emotion overrules reason, resulting in unsubstantiated and exaggerated claims.

One concern that receives insufficient attention is the right and responsibility of educational institutions to ensure academic integrity and learning. If cheating and plagiarism were insignificant, then little justification would exist to use Turnitin. However, as noted in Turnitin and Rhetoric, solid research shows that cheating and plagiarism are not only prevalent but also continuing to increase, which more and more circumvents the learning expected to occur in schools and the integrity of academic degrees--not to mention putting those students who do not plagiarize at a disadvantage as regards their GPA, an important factor in obtaining scholarships, internships, admission to graduate school, and so on. To not acknowledge these trends is naïve. And to assume that "effective teaching practices," although a crucial tool in attribution instruction, is sufficient to slow down or reverse this societal phenomenon is also naïve.

For me, it's not important whether Turnitin is a commercial entity. What is important is, Do institutions have a compelling legitimate interest in protecting academic integrity and learning that permits archiving student papers? What do you think?

Of course, if we use Turnitin, we should do so in appropriate ways, which I'll discuss in my next post.

Related articles:
Turnitin and Rhetoric
Using Turnitin
Turnitin Bibliography

A federal judge has decided that Turnitin's use of student papers does not violate copyright laws. For more on this decision, see:

What do you think about Turnitin, the plagiarism detection service? Apparently quite a few people don't like it. A little less than a year ago, Charlie Lowe, Ellen Schendel, and Julie White on Cyberdash wrote,

Scholars and teachers in the field of Rhetoric and Composition, as well as other academics, have discouraged the use of plagiarism detection services.

Now, one would think that those trained as rhetoricians and compositionists would have good arguments. However, except possibily for one argument, that of intellectual property, their position is based mostly on unwarranted assumptions and faulty logic. I'll save the intellectual property argument for a later post and look at their other claims here.

According to the Cyberdash folks, two reasons not to use Turnitin are:

  1. "Turnitin Can Be Ineffective for Detecting Plagiarism"
  2. "Turnitin Discourages Good Pedagogical Practices Concerning Writing"

That word "can" is a nice sleight-of-hand term. Scholars use it because it lowers the strength of the claim sufficiently so that it can't be refuted. The major problem with the first claim, however, is its warrant: "anything that can be ineffective for detecting plagiarism shouldn't be used." By this logic, instructors shouldn't use Google or Yahoo (two search engines mentioned by these same scholars) for detecting plagiarsim because they, too, "can" be ineffective. Even the teaching practices they espouse "can" be ineffective. No single approach to detecting plagiarism is 100% effective, and so it's an unenlightening truism to say that a particular method can be ineffective.

Under the first claim, the authors write:

In “Defining and Avoiding Plagiarism: The WPA Statement on Best Practices,” the Council of Writing Program Administrators urges teachers to “use plagiarism detection services cautiously,” for they should “never be used to justify the avoidance of responsible teaching methods.” We recommend that teachers work toward implementing the WPA’s best practices as a long-term solution to eliminating plagiarism and building a culture of responsible participation in the creation and circulation of academic knowledge.

Certainly, Turnitin should be used with care, and certainly "responsible teaching methods" should be employed. Who would disagree with these assertions? But note that the authors have used values we agree with to reduce a complex situation to an "either-or" fallacy of opposing good teaching practices with the use of Turnitin. More appropriately, Turnitin should be considered as one tool that, when used in conjunction with other approaches, such as Google or Yahoo, along with "good" teaching practices, statistically increases one's overall effectiveness in detecting plagiarism and in teaching how to avoid plagiarism.

On the second claim, the authors specifically claim that turnitin

emphasizes the policing of student behavior and texts over good-faith assumptions about students’ integrity, and can shift attention away from teaching students how to avoid plagiarism in the first place.

So many fallacies are entangled in this sentence, it's difficult to know where to begin. On the first point, on "policing," many composition professors require photocopies of sources to be turned in with the papers to catch plagiarism. That common practice, which is used to help students with the process of writing, often has the additional purpose of deterring/catching plagiarism (i.e., "policing"), according to what I've gathered in casual conversations with other instructors. More importantly, the claim of "policing" depends entirely on the context and classroom environment. It is not the tool that emphasizes policing, it is the instructor and the environment established by the instructor. Of course, I can imagine that some instructors would establish a policing environment with Turnitin. If Turnitin is used appropriately, however, this claimed "emphasis" simply does not exist. Rather, using Turnitin appropriately is a valuable tool for teaching students "how to avoid plagiarism."

With respect to students' integrity, until I started reading about the "problems" with Turnitin, I assumed, based on my experience, that perhaps 5% of my students intentionally cheated or plagiarized. Since then, however, I've learned plagiarism and cheating is prevalent.

Donald McCabe, a professor at Rutgers, has conducted extensive research on cheating. In the last 4 years, his research has surveyed more than 50,000 undergraduate students and 18,000 high school students and has found that 70% of each group of students has admitted to cheating, that levels of cheating have been increasing over the last 4 decades, and that most students do not consider Internet plagiarism to be a "serious issue." In one study by McCabe,

Thirty-eight percent of the undergraduate students completing the survey indicated they had engaged in one or more instances of cut & paste plagiarism using the Internet in the past year - paraphrasing or copying a few sentences of material from the Internet without citing the source.

In an article by Emily Sachar, McCabe has also found that of more than 5,000 graduate students, 56% of MBA students and 47% of non-business students had cheated, noting,

You're asking kids to be honest about their dishonesty. So that suggests that kids are, if anything, underreporting their cheating activity.

To assume integrity when the evidence clearly indicates otherwise is unwarranted and naive. Even so, using Turitin has nothing to do with assumptions about students' integrity, unless, as a few commenters have said, someone also would claim that using metal detectors at airports assumes that all travelers are terrorists.

The assumptions being made reflect the ideological positions of those making them rather than reality. When I stayed in the hospital with my wife during the birth of our daughter eight months ago, every time I took my daughter from the nursery, the nurses always checked my ID bracelet and hers to see if they matched--even though I had accompanied the nurse with my daughter to the nursery! There was no assumption of my being a guilty baby snatcher. Instead, the environment was one of safety and security for the babies. That's the sort of environment our classes should have--not one of students being guilty of plagiarism but rather one of protecting the integrity of the grades of those who do their own work. In fact, some students see Turnitin in this manner (e.g., Aditi Banga and The Crimson staff).

On "shift[ing] attention away from teaching students how to avoid plagiarism in the first place," no evidence of this shift is provided here or anywhere else I have read. Now I can imagine teachers who are not tackling plagiarism to begin with might overrely, even soly rely, on Turnitin. However, it's difficult to imagine that instructors who have "effective" practices on avoiding plagiarism will stop teaching plagiarism avoidance simply because they started using turnitin. The authors' claim that "Turnitin Discourages Effective Pedagogical Practices" is, at best, no more than speculation.

Although these compositionists mean well, their claims are based not upon research but on faulty rhetoric that is driven by emotion not reason. Rather than assuming uncritically that using Turnitin projects an image that students are guilty or encourages bad teaching practices, it would be better to provide guidance on how to use Turnitin in a positive way. I'll post a little on that after I look at the issue of intellectual property in my next post.

Update: Responding to my assertion that "can" is "sleight of hand," one individual responded that this is a normal hedge in academic writing. Yes, it is. Generally speaking, evidence exists for a claim. Perhaps the evidence suggests that something occurs sometimes, frequently, or in some other manner. However, when there is no evidence for a claim, as in this case, then it's simply sleight of hand.

Related articles:
Turnitin and Intellectual Property
Using Turnitin
Turnitin Bibliography

The Online Education Database is an excellent resource for online learning. Yesterday, they posted "Take Any College Class for Free: 236 Open Courseware Collections, Podcasts, and Videos". This page also has a link to their Top 100 Open Courseware Projects, The Top 25 Web 2.0 Apps to Help You Learn, and The Top 25 Web 2.0 Apps to Help a Student's or Professor's Productivity.

Richard Posner's "The little book on plagiarism" is an excellent, concise look at plagiarism. Posner, a professor of law at the University of Chicago and a judge on the US Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, offers an interesting legal-economic perspective on plagiarism that's well worth reading.

For something to be considered plagiarism, Posner states,

Plagiarism is a species of intellectual fraud. It consists of unauthorized copying that the copier claims (whether explicitly or implicitly, and whether deliberately or carelessly) is original with him and the claim causes the copier's audience to behave otherwise than it would if it knew the truth. (p. 106)

That's why, Posner argues, textbooks and judges' written opinions do not fall into the category of plagiarism. That is, (1) no one cares that textbooks don't cite their sources or that judges put their name on legal "patchwork" opinions, and (2) readers' actions would not change even if they knew the writing was not original. Ditto for ghostwritten celebrity books.

And that's why student work can fall into plagiarism: Students who plagiarize copy without authorization and lead the teacher to give a grade higher than would be the case if s/he knew.

One interesting point Posner makes is the double standard applied in the university. That is,

Plagiarism by professors tends to be punished less severely [than that of students] ... (p. 89)

Posner gives several examples, but one that stands out is that of Doris Kearns Goodwin:

Laurence Tribe leapt quickly to her defense, contending that her plagiarism had been inadvertent (though there was no way he could have determined that to be the case)--like his! And a string of prominent historians led by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. Signed an open letter to the New York Times stating flatly that Goodwin "did not, she does not, cheat or plagiarize. In fact, her character and work symbolize the highest standards of moral integrity. (pp. 92-93)

As Posner notes, that academics would defend an "acknowledged plagiarist" as a "moral exemplar" is "remarkable."

Another point that Posner brings up is the differences between copyright violations and plagiarism. The former is illegal, the latter is not. Often they overlap, but not always:

Copyrights have limited terms; after a copyright expires, the work enters the public domain and can be copied by anyone, without legal liability. And not all expressive works are copyrighted in the first place; for example, the federal government is forbidden by statute to claim copyright in the documents it produces. (p. 12)

Although copying public domain works does not incur a legal liability, it can still be considered plagiarism, especially when done by students, which reminds me of another double standard: many teachers think nothing of photocopying copyrighted materials without permission (in ways that are not fair use and thus breaking the law) but become righteously indignant when detecting a case of plagiarism, which is not illegal. Rather remarkable, isn't it?

About a year ago, Dave Lee at Learning Circuits Blog wrote on why the Help Desk and Customer Service in a company are the best at helping employees or customers learn. His reasons included:

  • generally don't teach courses
  • answer the questions their "learners" have at the time they are in greatest need
  • assess each situation and determine the best course of action to answer the learner's need
  • provide the learner with only the answers they need to overcome the current problems
  • have a database of answers to questions that have been asked before and will likely be asked again
  • have a mechanism for escalating the response when the learner's need is of greater breath than can be resolved immediately.
  • track very specific metrics regarding performance and learner response.
  • often have a follow-up mechanism to determine whether their solution to the learner's need is still working several weeks later and to gain feedback from the learner regarding their experience with the group
  • feed overall questions and needs back to the stakeholder groups who can take action regarding the issue to mitigate the same problem in the future.
  • gather feedback from their stakeholders regarding their effectiveness.
  • push as much of the process and answers pro-actively to their learners in the form of knowledge bases and FAQ as well as anticipatory actions like alerts and job aides.

Quite a few people disagreed with him, saying that many help desks weren't all that good. Even so, note that most of his reasons are associated directly, or indirectly, with feedback: answering questions, tracking performance and responses, follow-up mechanisms, stakeholder feedback (two-way). As noted in "Flow, Games, and Learning", feedback, especially when immediate, is a crucial element of obtaining a state of flow, of intrinsic motivation, especially when that feedback is immediate, or just in time.

Note also that the learners are actively participating in a meaningful process: asking questions, reading knowledge bases, using the information toward their immediate goals.

We could continue analyzing this list and seeing learning "best practices". Isn't it interesting that parts of a company can come up with "best practices" of learning without having studied educational theory? Might it be that business survival pressures can lead to learning systems that work? And when educational systems don't work, might it be that they don't have enough pressure to change. I'm not suggesting that schools should become businesses. Our purposes are different. Still, perhaps we can learn from business "best practices."

With respect to pressure, one difference between businesses and schools is that both the help desk and the customers have a more pressing need to learn than students do, and they have reasons for learning answers to specific questions that students don't have. Take introductory biology, for example. Have you ever used the Krebs electron cycle once in your daily life? At Work? Learning in school is not just-in-time necessary learning: It's learning for possibly (or probably not) necessary future endeavors.

The structure of school "learning" works against facilitating intrinsic motivation. Although re-structuring traditional schools is unlikely, one approach would follow Roger Shank's story-tellling curriculum:

The idea behind the Story-Centered Curriculum (SCC) is that a good curriculum should consist of a story in which students play a key role (for example, VP of Information Security at a financial services company). These roles are selected to be ones that the graduate of such a program might actually do in real life or might need to know about (because he or she will manage or collaborate with someone who performs that role). Students, working in groups, are given detailed information about the simulated company they are working for together with detailed and authentic projects. Supporting materials and resources are available and experts and online mentors are available to answer questions and point students in the right direction on an as-needed basis.

The effect of the SCC model is that as students work through the story to achieve the missions the story puts forth, they learn the critical skills they need to successfully accomplish their tasks. The SCC implements true learning-by-doing, integrating all aspects of real-world tasks, as opposed to teaching skills independently, without context.

Shank gives examples of how the SCC curriculum would work for an MBA program and even for high school:

The SCC is about the elimination of courses in favor of curricula that tell a meaningful story that the student is likely to engage in again after graduation. Now, many high school students are simply preparing for college, and thus one could argue that they take trigonometry in order to take college math. The fact that this isn't really true may not matter in this case. What is important is that we identify some stories that the student might want to live in high school because they may come up again. Here are some examples: running a small business, working on a political campaign, building a house, designing a city, running an organization, being a parent, creating an invention, making a discovery, convincing an organization to do things differently. Now, these are not normally thought of as courses in high school. However, looked at closely, they would entail calculating, planning, reasoning, dealing with societal issues, basic psychology, basic economics, dealing with historical issues, communicating in written and oral fashion, teamwork, research and nearly every other subject normally taught in high school (and quite a few that are not.)

Unlike traditional curricula, such a curriculum can have clear goals that give immediate and contextualized feedback on one's learning. To read more on the story-centered curriculum, see Shank's white paper Every curriculum tells a story (pdf).

So now I'm wondering how the SCC curriculum might be adapted for first-year composition. The problem is that the SCC curriculum is for programs not individual courses and Shank notes that not even all programs fit into an SCC curriculum because they don't have well-defined career goals. Generally speaking, first-year composition doesn't have career goals because it's a general education course designed to prepare students to write in more advanced classes and eventually in their widely disparate careers. So, I need to think about this a bit. If you have any ideas about turning composition courses into stories based on career goals, email me.

Common Craft has recently published two excellent, down-to-earth videos that introduce readers to RSS in Plain English and Wikis in Plain English.