Earlier this week NPR’s All Things Considered ran a story on Turnitin, which describes itself as “the most innovative and effective online technology for evaluating student learning.” Its main feature is an enormous database against which instructors can check their students’ writing for “originality.” As the NPR segment explains, students are directed to upload their work straight to Turnitin, which compares the text against over 45 billion web pages, more than 337 million student papers, and well over 100 million articles from academic books and publications. Turnitin determines how much of a submission matches content from the database, flagging potential plagiarism for instructors to evaluate.
Last fall we published James Lang’s Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty, a practical guide to creating learning environments with fewer opportunities and lesser incentives to cheat. Lang closes the book by considering Turnitin and its ilk:
The future of cheating also includes the future of technologies to prevent and reduce cheating, which are constantly evolving in response to new cheating techniques, pushing and pulling at one another uncertainly in an awkward waltz. Many institutions and faculty members now rely on plagiarism detection software, which itself of course constantly evolves in the wake of new technological developments. Smart theorists of these programs, like Sharon Flynn, the Assistant Director of the Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the National University of Ireland-Galway, will tell you that, contrary to popular belief, they do not catch plagiarists. As Flynn puts it in an excellent blog post introducing new users to the software program Turnitin.com, “Turnitin does not detect plagiarism, it highlights matching text. It is very good at what it does, but it cannot tell you that a student has plagiarised. You, as the teacher, are the one who decides if the matching text indicates a problem, or otherwise.” As she also point out, the program can only detect “matching text,” and will not help you with “plagiarism of ideas” or “ghost-written materials.” Faculty members cannot expect that running every student’s paper through Turnitin or any compatible program will solve their cheating problems for them—especially since Turnitin offers a comparable service for students that allows them to submit their papers to the same database used by faculty members in order to see what their reports will look like—and, presumably, modify plagiarized text just enough to avoid detection.
Instead, faculty members who choose to make use of Turnitin and its equivalents should think of it like they think of anything else they might make use of in their teaching: as a tool that can help or hinder student learning. For example, faculty members who want to help students understand more clearly how to incorporate the words of others into their research or scholarly writing can use Turnitin’s originality reports for that purpose. Projecting for students in class an originality report from an unpublished piece of academic writing—such as a forthcoming bit of your own work—will allow them to see the extent to which scholarship relies on direct quotations from the work of scholars in dialogue with the writer’s original interpretations; doing so with multiple pieces of writing, and discussing it with them, will allow them to gain a general sense of the amount of original writing typically required from an academic essay in your discipline. As long as you inform students in advance that you will be doing so, projecting in class selected originality reports from your students can help accomplish the same objective, especially if the students have already seen comparable reports from published work, and can begin to make those comparisons themselves.
Lang’s research found that students cheat for understandable reasons, and that tweaks to course design and classroom practice can both better motivate students to learn and give them better tools to do so. For Lang, simply improving technological tools with which to police academic dishonesty does nothing to actually improve student learning, which should always be the goal.