I recently had an interesting and productive discussion on Twitter with some of my colleagues about the use of turnitin.com, and since I’ve been a turnitin.com user for about ten years now, the discussion prompted me to think again about my use of this educational technology and to make explicit, at least to myself, my reasons for using it.
I also think this discussion is important to higher education in general in that turnitin.com is one of many vendors associated with the higher education industry, and it’s a significant one. As of the time of this writing, it boasts being used by 15,000 educational institutions and thirty million students on the front page of its website. Turnitin.com, like many other vendors, provides products or services designed to support higher education in a number of ways (not all are directly related to instruction), and they all work on a for-profit model.
Since higher education is for the most part non-profit, sometimes these partnerships can be uneasy, sometimes exploitative, sometimes at cross-purposes for student service, but also sometimes beneficial to varying degrees. Some vendors provide excellent products. So if a university chooses to use a vendor to serve its students in any way, it needs to pay close attention to its own reasons for doing so, to the quality of that service, and to how much reliance on this vendor actually benefits students and instructors.
First, it helps to know how turnitin.com works. Turnitin.com is a web-based “student paper processing service” that runs externally to a college or university website. Colleges or universities who use this service have to contact the service to receive a customized price quote, so there aren’t any solid figures on how much the service costs. Financial Times, however, estimated in 2012 that it costs about $2.00 per student per year. Other articles have since indicated significant price increases over the last couple of years, so let’s assume, for the sake of discussion, that the service now typically costs $4.00 per student per year. I don’t know how much it costs my own institution, and I suspect institutions sign non-disclosure agreements about their specific costs, so if I did know its actual cost I probably wouldn’t be allowed to report it.
Turnitin.com can now be integrated with learning management systems (LMS) such as Moodle so that it will appear to be fully integrated into the online component of any student’s course. Despite that appearance, however, it’s still an off-site service. When it is fully integrated into an LMS, students just click on a link and upload their papers. When it is used off-site, instructors have to log in to the service, create a course, create a course-specific password, and then either share that password with their students or upload a list of student email addresses to enroll students in their specific course.
What happens once a student’s paper is uploaded? The instructor can use the service for a number of purposes:
- Plagiarism detection. Turnitin.com was originally created for this purpose. When a student’s paper is uploaded to the turnitin.com website, the student’s paper is saved in a repository with other student papers and compared to all other student papers in that repository. It is also compared to journals, periodicals, publications, and to readily accessible material on the internet.
- What does it do when it makes this comparison? It generates an “Originality Report” score in the form of a percentage of material on the student’s paper that matches other sources. Matching text is highlighted in different colors by source. Links back to the original sources are also provided.
- What it does not do: tell instructors if the student plagiarized. Remember, we are allowed to quote other people’s works. How we signal those quotations determines whether or not we’re plagiarizing, so a match by itself is not plagiarism. Determinations about plagiarism are always made by the instructor, not the service.
- Is plagiarism checking optional? Yes. It’s possible to use the service and opt out of storing student papers, and to opt out of checking them against any specific type of source (such as the repository of student papers, the internet, and publications).
- Instructors can also ask the service to ignore small matches, such as three words or fewer, and they can set the number. I always ask it to do this.
- Instructors can also ask the service to ignore the paper’s bibliography, which will always come up with matches when many students are writing about the same material from the same texts. I set this up too.
- How does this part of the service work? Spotty, but not bad overall. There are problems with false or irrelevant matches fairly regularly. These can be caused by the use of block quotes, as the service seems to look for quotation marks to exclude matches, by the use of long titles (more than three words), and sometimes even by the student’s own header information. If a student puts an incorrect space between a quotation mark and quoted material, the quotation might be read as a match. Overall, it’s very important that the instructor not just read the originality report score, but actually read the student paper before making a determination about plagiarism.
- It also provides the unexpected benefit of telling instructors how much of the student’s paper is quoted, which can be useful pedagogically as well.
- Providing feedback on student papers. This is the reason why I use the service, which can perform the following tasks. Take note, though, that some of these services are only available through the external website, not the LMS embedded version:
- Allow instructors to provide recorded voice comments.
- Allow instructors to provide their own custom comments directly on the student paper in the form of little bubbles. Students mouse over the bubbles to see instructor comments.
- Allow instructors to pre-set paper comments and drag and drop them onto the student’s paper. The service comes with three or four dozen preset comments, and instructors can create their own as well.
- Allow instructors to set up any number of rubrics and score and grade the paper using this rubric.
- Link instructor comments to rubric measures. When you do this, the rubric will show the number of instructor comments linked to each rubric point.
- Allow instructors to provide long text feedback in a sidebar.
- Allow instructors to set up peer review assignments — students submitting a peer reviewed assignment will have their paper emailed to two peers, have two of their peers’ papers emailed to them, and they will be able to leave comments on their peers’ papers just like their instructor.
- Keep the student grade book.
- Keep a course blog.
- Allow access for teaching assistants to grade papers.
- Built-in grammar checker. Every time I’ve used it, it’s been awful, but it’s still there. I quit using it because I spent more time eliminating bad comments than adding good ones on my own.
- Download feedback and originality reports in the form of .pdf files.
- What are the drawbacks to this service? Here’s where we get into the details of my Twitter discussion. Some of these points have also been raised in other discussions of turnitin.com around the web.
- The service creates the impression that students aren’t to be trusted.
- This concern is legitimate, but I think it varies by institution. I have seen places where high premiums were placed on student course evaluations, and as a result many instructors got into the habit of looking the other way at plagiarism. These very dysfunctional institutions worked on an implicit agreement between students and teachers in which teachers looked the other way at cheating and students gave these teachers stellar course evaluations in return (a situation which by itself justifies the tenure system, as this institution did not have tenure). Some students at this institution plagiarized on every paper and then just rewrote it when they got caught — which means that since they were only made to do the work initially assigned, they always came out “ahead” by plagiarizing in the sense of getting a grade for a course without doing any real work. This is an environment devoted to breeding criminals, and its students are stealing from themselves with the institution’s help.
- But what about better institutions? Even there, some students will plagiarize, but I think instructor dialog with students about the service is very important. I really do use it primarily for grading. I’m teaching a 5000/400 level English course right now in which I can honestly say I have no fear of a single student plagiarizing: I trust each one, personally, that much. But I still use the service because of all of its feedback functions, and I tried to let my students know that. I prefer it to Google docs or directly emailed Word files.
- For the record, I’ve taught 50-100 students per semester since I started using the service in 2006, and I never catch more than three to five students plagiarizing across all of my classes. Most students aren’t plagiarizing, and use of the service may discourage it.
- What about purchased papers? The people selling “custom written” papers aren’t particularly honest themselves, so usually do not sell clean product to their customers. These will show up with massive amounts of patchwriting, or copying and pasting numerous sources, without attribution, into a single paper. The service will often catch these papers.
- The service makes instructors grade to the comments. This concern is about instructors only looking for items defined by pre-written comments rather than truly providing individualized feedback based on student need. I think this concern is 100% legitimate, and anyone who chooses to use the service needs to watch out for letting the service take over his or her feedback on student papers. Now that I’ve had this idea planted, I’m going to watch myself grade.
- The service exploits students. The argument here is that the service has value only because students are contributing papers to it, and then the service charges students to use it (through their institutions, of course — once the institution pays for a subscription, instructors and students use it for no additional charge).
- Defining “exploitation” as uncompensated or under-compensated labor, I think this argument doesn’t quite work for the following reasons:
- Student papers typically have no economic value apart from the service except to be sold to other students (so a dishonest one). The service itself therefore creates the economic value of student papers for the service, so it’s hard to say that students are being exploited.
- If a student’s paper does have monetary value (e.g., can be sold for payment by the student for publication), the service does not prevent students from realizing that value. Turnitin.com doesn’t own student work. Publish away. Get rich.
- The service provides value to student users in the form of a permanent, informal copyright on their work: once a student uploads a paper to the service from a turnitin.com account linked to their own email address, the student’s work is protected as their own. I uploaded my dissertation to turnitin.com for this very reason.
- Uploading student papers to turnitin.com’s repository is optional, as is plagiarism detection, therefore there’s no necessary link between using the service and uploading a student’s paper to the repository.
- The service provides many useful tools apart from plagiarism detection.
- The service provides a service in exchange for pay, so it isn’t exploiting students. If we reject this argument, we also have to affirm that teachers are exploiting students by taking a salary for their work. Since everyone deserves to be paid for their work, this service is non-exploitative.
- The service only costs students a very small amount: maybe $2.00 to $4.00 a year. If we’re really worried about student exploitation, maybe we should look at sports programs instead.
- Students don’t have a choice about use of the service. Yeah…so? They don’t have a choice about writing papers, getting graded, showing up for class, etc. What matters is whether or not these required activities benefit the student. What matters most of all is explaining to students the benefits of required activities. All of them.
- You might find it interesting that there have been lawsuits against turnitin.com making a similar argument based on copyright infringement. Two. Both of these lawsuits failed.
That’s my overview of the service. I intend to keep using it for many of the reasons described above. But I want to emphasize — we should use it deliberately, carefully, and consciously. It is not perfect. The bottom line is that turnitin.com is just a computer system, and computer systems don’t know how to read. They don’t understand meaning or context. Only instructors can do that. As a result, it’s a supplement to an instructor’s work and care with student papers, not a replacement for instructor care and attention.
Any comments? I’d love to hear from you.