Ethics of Policing Plagiarism

As the Fall semester approaches I’ve been toying with the idea of using the plagiarism detection software,, in my classes.  However, I can’t help but have a bad feeling about using it.  On the one hand, there’s the issue of surveillence and policing which only has the effect of further coddling and infantilizing our students. What’s worse, in my mind, is that I feel like I’m accusing the students of (potentially) acting unethically based on a small number of previous cases.  This assumption of guilt is all the more troublesome since the students are subject to a college-wide honor code; so why should I violate my end of the code?  By using Turnitin am I not trivializing the code?  I should act as if students aren’t plagiarizing work. Otherwise, aren’t I somehow violating my own fidelity to the honor code? And I suppose, by extension I’m troubling the whole college’s relation to the code as well.  Maybe this is just too optimistic and high-minded. Or maybe I should just stop worrying about plagiarism period, but it’s just so aggravating taking the time trolling the interweb to find the original text.  One of my colleagues had told me–further making the case against turnitin– that once a student submits their paper turnitin maintains the “rights to it.” This isn’t quite the case.  As a representative from turnitin told me on Twitter: “Turnitin exercises Fair Use.” Here’s a link to their policy:

I’m still rather wary, however.  Any thoughts?  Have people used turnitin before?  Perhaps I’m turning this into more of a struggle than it needs to be,  but outsourcing plagiarism detection to a private, for-profit police force somehow seems wrong.

6 thoughts on “Ethics of Policing Plagiarism

  1. I’ve never used it. But I’m in a similar position now that having writing assignments even in Intro classes is not optional anymore per our departmental policy change. I find that students who are dumb enough to cheat are quite easily caught with a simple Google search. And those who are shrewd enough to cheat in a way that cannot be detected with a Google search should be left to their own cheating devices as it’s really not my business to police them and their morality. One might object that by not catching them, I encourage their future cheating, but that’s nonsense – they’ve made a decision to cheat and it’s not my job to investigate why and how I can “change them”…

    I think what is at stake here is what can be labeled a “are you taking me for a sucker?” problem. The reason I want to catch a cheater is not because I am concerned for his/her eternal soul, as you probably know, they don’t stop cheating even after they cry and tell you they’ll never do it again. So if correction is not my real goal, then it is the goal of showing them that I am not a sucker, i.e. it’s mostly about my pride and position of power. Not there’s anything wrong with it, but I think clearing up the exact goals could help you make up your mind.

  2. These are smart comments and thoughts by both of you. I am glad I read them. I haven’t used very much in the past. But definitely will not in the future. I will however have a brief discussion with them early on in the course about plagerism, ethics, and why “cheating” in the long run is really only “cheating” themselves.


  3. I’ve use Turnitin for the past few years, and I plan to continue to use it. I agree with Mikhail that power and pride serve as significant motivations for policing plagiarism, but they’re not the whole story. Provided, of course, that we still think that part of what we’re doing when we teach is initiating students into standards of scholarship, standards that include the production of original research and strict acknowledgment of the ideas of others. Perhaps this is an antiquated and overly-romantic sense of what we do, but there it is.

    There are really two separate issues here: should faculty punish students for plagiarism, and should turnitin be used to do so? I’d want to ask Rezeki why we shouldn’t use turnitin if we think that we should be penalizing students for plagiarism.

    • Corey, I think I agree with your distinction and I’m sure most agree that we MUST punish plagiarism. The issue for me is that of how far am I willing to go to catch a plagiarist. I certainly make sure that I announce in class that plagiarism is punished severely and that it is not acceptable, but we all know that that speech does not always have an effect, so when you do suspect a case of plagiarism, how far should you go to confirm or deny it? That’s my moral dilemma. There’s a difference between googling a few phrases and seeing if you can find a source (in most cases it’s that easy). Turnitin seems like going too far – it’s basically like hiring private detectives to investigate your case for you – is that really worth the effort?

      All of this is, I think, not even touching the very issue of plagiarism as a great enemy of the academy and so on. Most students, I find, plagiarize because they are lazy, not because they are evil and deceitful.

    • Provided, of course, that we still think that part of what we’re doing when we teach is initiating students into standards of scholarship, standards that include the production of original research and strict acknowledgment of the ideas of others. Perhaps this is an antiquated and overly-romantic sense of what we do, but there it is.

      Agreed. Initially, I wanted to use Turnitin to cut down on the amount of time I was spending finding the student sources, printing them out, having a discussion with the student etc. I think that plagiarism should result in some sort of punishment. Usually I just give the student a zero on the first offense, giving them the benefit of the doubt because sometimes they simply don’t know how to cite properly. The second time they may fail the course, the third time I file for formal college-wide disciplinary measures. I’ve only done the latter once, actually. My problem with turnitin, I guess, is that well, we do have a college wide honor code and as Mikhail noted, we are only temporarily deterring the students, not “correcting” the behavior. In my experience, such correction comes too late anyway. However, I’m starting to think that the surveillance issue I raised above (e.g. turnitin presumes guilt, infantilizes students) may not outweigh the benefits of using plagiarism detection software since it could force students to own up to what they turn it more rigorously. Still though, I’m on the fence.

  4. I appreciate as always the intelligence and decency of this discussion. I agree with everything Mikhail says and also cmcall’s point requoted by Shahar. On that exact point may I recommend a recent editorial by Stanley Fish, “Plagiarism is Not a Big Moral Deal.”

    I thing the foucauldian dimension troubling you, Shahar, is significantly more important than the practicalities of detection and punishment. I mean, if I put it that way it’s pretty obviously all part of the same ugly loop, right? I also agree with your intuition that turnitin is drastically disproportional, especially if Fish’s argument is persuasive. My further thoughts on pedagogical alternatives are at my post on how to plagiarism-proof your essay assignments.

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