on automated "anti-plagiarism" tools

I was asked this morning for my take on Turnitin and other anti-plagiarism tools. Here’s the response I sent1 - may as well share with the rest of the class… The usual disclaimer likely applies: I don’t speak for the University. I could easily be wrong about the institutional policy implications, etc…

There have been some instructors who use Turnitin in an attempt to reduce plagiarism. It’s not foolproof, and raises a couple of issues:

  1. It tells the students that they are assumed to be cheating by default. This can undermine the relationship between student and instructor.
  2. It exposes additional privacy and copyright liabilities. Content is copied to Turnitin’s server, where it is stored and compared against existing and future submissions. This may not necessarily be conducive to scholarly discourse.

On the surface, tools like Turnitin appear to be useful. They do catch some plagiarism. But that needs to be balanced with potentially significant drawbacks.

That said, I don’t believe there is any institutional policy prohibiting it - as long as students are not forced to submit their content (or have their content submitted) in order to receive grades. But that likely defeats the purpose of the tool in the first place, which relies on complete submission of all content.

It was just a quick response. I may have to work up something with a little more substance to it…

  1. I’m actually taking the day off to be home with The Boy™ during teachers’ convention, and wrote this on my phone so they weren’t left hanging… ↩︎

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