Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Is the use of anti-plagiarism software a form of academic policing?

As a graduate assistant teacher at Texas A&M University, the detection of plagiarism was stressed more during the week-long new teacher orientation than what to teach or how to teach it. Texas A&M had a big problem with plagiarism. As an English 104 teacher, I would see many attempts at plagiarism. The solution? We were shown how to input suspicious phrases into Google and hit “search.” Sometimes I didn’t even have to put phrases into a search engine because the student hadn’t bothered to change the font style, size or color from the webpage to his/her word document page. McKeever (2006) discusses how most plagiarism cases are “deemed to be product[s] of laziness and/or poor time management” (pp. 160-161). This is plagiarism at the collegiate level. What does it mean to plagiarize at the secondary level?

Colleen MacDonell (2005) suggests that most high school students “truly believe that their works aren’t plagiarized because they have changed some words” (p. 35). Many acts of plagiarism at the secondary level stem from a lack of knowledge on how to paraphrase or cite someone else’s intellectual property. The concept of intellectual property may also be foreign to most high school students. Most colleges have a plagiarism policy. The students are made aware of it as it appears on all syllabi for all classes. Many high schools do not have plagiarism policies. Plagiarism is simply considered cheating and the student is flunked for the assignment. It is important to understand present the full definition of plagiarism: “presenting someone else’s ideas or words as [one’s] own, allowing someone else to copy [one’s] work, writing something for someone else, and handing in the same work for more than one assignment” (MacDonell, 2005, 35). It is also vitally important to understand why the student chooses to plagiarize. With papers piling up on one’s desk, individually researching each paper and its author seems impossible. Anti-plagiarism software, such as Turnitin, exists to assist teachers in this task, but many see such software as unnecessary policing.

Academic plagiarism is considered a “societal blight” by John Barrie, founder of Turnitin. He calls Turnitin the cure for plagiarism. Student papers are submitted to the website electronically. Turnitin then “compare[s] those writings with texts in a giant database of books, journals, websites, and essays, and check[s] for evidence of plagiarized materials” (Brock, 2008, p. A1). The plagiarized and properly cited material is highlighted on the student paper and a percentage is given as to how original the paper is. Each paper submitted to Turnitin is then added to the massive database. “Turnitin has built much of its database with the help of clients” (Brock, 2008, p. A1).

Here exist the two criticisms of this software: it assumes a writer is guilty until proven innocent and it absorbs the intellectual property of the writer without due compensation. Students are resistant to anti-plagiarism software because it implies that they cannot be trusted. In some cases, students who resisted using Turnitin were given failing grades for assignments. It was assumed that the student had something to hide if he/she refused to use the software. In one such case, a student at McGill University refused to submit his work to Turnitin; he was subsequently failed by his professor. To appease the student in this unfair situation, “the university offered to grade [the student’s] papers without running them through the anti-plagiarism software” (Brock, 2008, p. A1).

Not only does anti-plagiarism software affect the relationship between the teacher and the students, many feel that it violates intellect property ethics. Since Turnitin relies on submissions from students to add to its database, many students feel as though they should be compensated since the company is profiting from the service. Turnitin argues that “the decision to archive the papers [is] protected by fair use” (Brock, 2008, p. A1). Students urge high school administrators mandating the use of Turnitin to reconsider because it violates their trust and their intellectual property.

Turnitin is a useful tool, but it should not be used to police student writing. Rather, Turnitin and other similar anti-plagiarism software programs should be used to guide instruction on proper citation and recognition of intellectual property. Such programs allow the teacher to “assess the level of a plagiarism problem and then to work with students to deal with it in a constructive manner” (McKeever, 2006, p. 163). There are ways to avoid plagiarism without having to turn to an anti-plagiarism software program. MacDonell (2005) suggests offering “at least one class on plagiarism to each grade level to ensure that students understand its definition, why it’s wrong, and how to avoid it” (p. 35). Teachers should also familiarize students with methods of citation. Since these methods are subject to change, teachers should remind students of particular citation methods before an assignment is due. Teachers should also provide citation crib sheets and examples of bibliographic entries as students learn well through modeling. Another way to help students avoid plagiarism is to break larger papers into smaller assignments with a turn-in timeline. This helps the teacher get to know each student’s style of writing; this helps students manage their time efficiently. Plagiarism is often a result of poor time management and a lack of skills in the art of citation. Educators should take the proactive approach of teaching citation and time management skills rather than the reactive approach of feeding each paper through an anti-plagiarism software program.


Brock, R. (2008). Anti-cheating crusader vexes some professors: software kingpin says

using his product would cure plagiarism blight. Chronicle of higher education, 54

(25), A1.

Johnson, J., Musial, D., Hall, G., Golnick, D., and Dupuis, V. (2008). Foundations of

American education: perspectives on education in a changing world. Boston: Pearson.

MacDonell, C. (2005). The problem of plagiarism: students who copy may not know

they’ve committed an offense. School library journal, 51 (1), 35.

McKeever, L. (2006). Online plagiarism detection services: savior or scourge?

Assessment & evaluation in higher education, 31 (2), 155-165.

1 comment:

Centenial College said...


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