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Inside Higher Ed: Plagiarism betrayal?

By Elizabeth Murphy, for Inside Higher Ed


Inside Higher Ed


An arms race between instructors and students continues to escalate.

The prized ammunition? Plagiarism detection software.

Turnitin, plagiarism software released in 1996 and used by more than 10,000 universities and 20 million students, is now common in higher education. The popular system checks submitted papers against its catalogue of millions of archived student papers, journals, periodicals and books, producing a “similarity index” that alerts professors to the percentage of corresponding work found in its database.

But it is Turnitin’s lesser-known student-only sister product, WriteCheck, that has some faculty members feeling betrayed, although the company says that it is only trying to help students and professors.

“They are warlords who are arming both sides in this plagiarism war,” Alex Tabarrok, professor of economics at George Mason University, said.

The two products are owned by parent company iParadigms LLC, based in Oakland, California. Tabarrok wrote on his blog that WriteCheck basically gives students the ability to check their written work against the products’ shared database, allowing students to perfect their plagiarism enough to avoid Turnitin’s detection upon submission to instructors.

A 5,000-word paper will cost students $6.95 with WriteCheck, which gives them – in addition to checking for proper paraphrasing, quotations and citations – grammar, spelling, style, mechanics and word usage help. Students can submit revised drafts up to three times to the two-year-old program. The program also provides confidentiality for students, as submitted work is not added to the system’s database and is accessible only by the account owner.

Whereas WriteCheck has been around for two years, it has not garnered the same high user numbers as Turnitin. Some faculty members who work at institutions that use Turnitin said that they had never heard of WriteCheck. As a result, some recent blog posts by angry faculty members are the first time that many are learning about the service.

“It teaches you to obey the letter of the law, but not the spirit of the law,” Tabarrok said. “The only reason you would use this service is if you are skirting the spirit of the law by taking something from somewhere else and flipping things around a bit to pass the letter of the law.”

Tabarrok does not rely on Turnitin in his classes, but his university is licensed to use it. He said WriteCheck is sending students the wrong message about plagiarism. The program tells students what not to do instead of telling them what to do, he said.

Tabarrok said iParadigms is “playing both sides of the fence” by offering this student-only feature while simultaneously raking in revenue from colleges and universities that pay for Turnitin.

“I think professors in those universities are going to be outraged when they realise what’s going on,” he said. “It’s kind of like finding out that the arms dealer is selling to the other side.”

David Harrington, a Kenyon College economics professor, decided to test the systems himself after Kenyon administrators told faculty members that they were debating purchasing a licence for Turnitin.

Harrington pinpointed a book he felt lifted passages from several New York Times articles. He then put the selection of articles into one document and submitted it to Turnitin to be added to its catalogue of student papers. Then he went to WriteCheck and submitted a document that contained the beginning pages of the questionable book.

The result? WriteCheck warned that “a significant amount of this paper is unoriginal”, according to Harrington’s blog. Harrington then tweaked the book passages just enough so that the excerpt was given a passing grade in WriteCheck’s plagiarism detector.

“On a fundamental level, I wondered about the ethics of a company that is supposedly marketing this thing that is trying to suppress plagiarism when it sort of cynically offers a product which allows a student to get away with plagiarism,” he said. “It seems sort of ethically questionable.”

Harrington said Turnitin is a very sophisticated tool in his estimation – it’s one that he would even think about employing in his classroom. But that day won’t come until WriteCheck is no longer out there for students to use, as well.

“To have this system where you are selling a security system to colleges and universities that is trying to protect against plagiarism and then at the same time selling a system to the students that allows them to subvert the security system that you just sold to universities makes no sense,” he said.

He said that if the company truly wants to help students with plagiarism and grammar, it would encourage faculty to have students submit several drafts of a paper to Turnitin so that both are involved in the learning process.

But iParadigms says these critics have got it all wrong.

In fact, “a community” of faculty members said they were comfortable with the product, said Chris Harrick, iParadigms’ vice-president of marketing. WriteCheck is a writing coach, not a weapon students can use to trick instructors, he said.

For starters, he said, Turnitin’s output summary pinpoints the original content in places where there is a question of plagiarism. WriteCheck simply highlights and cautions the writer that certain passages are questionable – it does not lead the student to the original content. To put it simply: “They are different products,” he said.

“One is focused on engaging instructors in the classroom,” he said. “And the other is helping students check for grammar and proper citation as they engage in the writing process. When you think as the marketer, it’s just totally different targets and different use cases.”

Teddi Fishman, director of the International Center for Academic Integrity at Clemson University, said she does think iParadigms has benevolent intentions with these products, but that there is still a cause for concern.

“I think that we are in danger of almost adding an extra step to the writing process,” she said. “So instead of just a spell check students are doing a plagiarism check, too.”

Fishman also serves on the Turnitin UK advisory board, and has relayed concerns that by using these products students are not grasping the concept of plagiarism any better; they are just better at avoiding it.

“You want an atmosphere of trust, with both sides moving towards a mutual goal of learning,” she said. “The counter to that, though, is that there are more reasons that we should look at Turnitin and services like it because otherwise we just catch students who plagiarise clumsily.”

At the end of the day, it is important that products like these don’t pit students against instructors, she said. “We want the students to feel like we are on the same team. Not because we are all touchy-feely, kumbaya, but that’s how learning happens.”

“Educators are so frustrated and they really want to do something good,” Fishman said. “If Turnitin is used in a sophisticated way it can be a piece. But there is no easy answer for this.”

Jonathan Bailey, founder of Plagiarism Today.com, a website dedicated to spreading awareness of online copyright issues, said this so-called arms race is a complex issue. The main goal is for students to do quality academic work, he said, and that’s what iParadigms is trying to help students accomplish. The number of students paying for the WriteCheck service – about 230,000 so far – is minuscule compared with the tens of millions of students using Turnitin, he said.

“It seems to me that it’s at least not making a major change in this fight,” he said. “But I can see why some teachers would feel betrayed by this, especially teachers using Turnitin.”

The real problem, he says, is the culture of fear hammered into students through their educational careers. Students are running scared from this “tiki god of the computer giving it a thumbs up or a thumbs down because they don’t know how [plagiarism] works”.

“Plagiarism primarily is an education issue and that’s where we’ve got to approach it from,” he said. “We’ve got to teach.”

What’s more, using a system like WriteCheck to manoeuvre around Turnitin is more work than it’s worth, he said. The amount of writing and rewriting – with only three shots at submitting it to the system – would be “absolutely insane”.

After all, he said, “plagiarism is hard work”.

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