A Critical Perspective on Plagiarism Detection Services

Published on: Author: wkkw

Did you know that IUP Writing Center tutors wrote one of the first articles in the field to recognize and investigate problems with Turnitin? In 2007 Renee Brown, Brian Fallon, Jessica Lott, Elizabeth Matthews, and Elizabeth Mintie won the Best Article Award for their piece, “Taking on Turnitin: Tutors Advocating Change” in The Writing Center Journal (the official journal of the International Writing Centers Association). The purpose of this article is to help fulfill point three on the IUP Distance Education Quality Report (2015) for faculty support: Faculty receive training and materials related to Fair Use, plagiarism, and other relevant legal and ethical concepts.

Many teachers and programs may require teachers and students to use plagiarism detection services like Turnitin. However, are you actually using Turnitin to foster student learning, or are you using it as a as the Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning at Lehigh University describes? Larger organizations such as the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) do not support the use of Plagiarism Detection Services (PDSs); however, they note that if an institution uses a PDS, students should be informed that they have the choice to opt-out. The Council of Writing Program Administrators (WPA) advocates that teachers carefully consider the difference between a misuse of sources and plagiarism, which they define as a “deliberate” attempt to use someone else’s “language, ideas, or other original (not so-common knowledge) material without acknowledging it’s source”.

In an e-mail correspondence with Dr. Ben Rafoth, IUP’s Writing Center Director, he stated that one of the main problems with PDSs is that they:

“do not differentiate between formulaic text that is necessarily used in the same way in many  publications across a discipline, particularly in technical and applied fields, and text that is copied for no other reason than convenience or cheating. (An example of the former would be commonly used terms and definitions based on the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM5).”

Furthermore, Dr. Rafoth explained that Turnitin even flags peer-reviewed, published journal articles for plagiarism. Clearly, instructors need to have more critical awareness about the ways in which they are using Turnitin in their classrooms.

Other critics of Turnitin, Sean Michael Morris, of Middlebury College, and Jesse Stommel, of the University of Mary Washington bring up issues of student autonomy. Both professors Morris and Stommel serve in director roles for the peer-reviewed journal Hybrid Pedagogy published by Digital Pedagogy Lab, a non-profit that focuses on critical digital pedagogy. Morris and Stommel wrote an article against using Turnitin stating, “Every essay students submit — representing hours, days or even years of work — becomes part of the Turnitin database, which is then sold to universities.”

Furthermore, Morris and Stommel believe that plagiarism software creates an environment of hostility rather than promoting student learning. “I don’t think the job of teachers or the job of schools is to detect students’ plagiarism,” Stommel said. “Our role should be to meet students on the playground and have conversations about their work … Certainly if there’s an obvious case of plagiarism — and I notice it, and usually I don’t need Turnitin to help me notice it — having a conversation with students about where they’re at [is] very important.”

Morris and Stommel provide a nice summary of CCCC’s 2013 resolution on plagiarism detection services:

Plagiarism detection services:

  1. “undermine students’ authority” over their own work;
  2. place students in a role of needing to be “policed”;
  3. “create a hostile environment”;
  4. supplant good teaching with the use of inferior technology;
  5. violate student privacy.

At IUP, Dr. Ben Rafoth recommends all faculty to consider the Kathleen Jones White Writing Center as a valuable resource to send their students to receive help with properly documenting sources and receiving one-to-one instruction on incorporating other people’s words into one’s own writing. The writing center also offers a 50-minue workshop on plagiarism.

Please feel free to engage in a conversation about plagiarism on our blog our social media pages. How do you define plagiarism? What is your take on using plagiarism detection services? Do you agree with CCCC’s decision on not endorsing plagiarism detection services? Have you used any of the resources at Kathleen Jones White Writing center to address plagiarism? After doing further reading on plagiarism, how have your classroom practices changed, or how do you plan to change your current classroom practices?



Further Readings on Plagiarism:

Brown, R., Fallon B., Lott, J., Matthew, E. & Mintie, E.. (2007). Taking on turnitin: Tutors

advocating change. The Writing Center Journal 27(1), 7-28

Ouellette, M. A. (2008). Weaving strands of writer identity: Self as author and the NNES

“plagiarist”. Journal of Second Language Writing, 17 (4), 255-273.

Pennycook, A. (1996). Borrowing others’ words: Text, ownership, memory, and plagiarism.

TESOL Quarterly, 30(2), 201-230.


IUP Resources:

IUP’s Turnitin webpage: https://www.iup.edu/itsupportcenter/get-support/academic-services/plagiarism-prevention/

IUP Kathleen Jones White Writing Center Plagiarism Webpage: https://www.iup.edu/writingcenter/writing-resources/research-and-documentation/plagiarism/


Written by Marie Webb

Edited by Lauren Gaynord and Dr. Stephanie Taylor-Davis PhD, RD, LDN, Director of CTE

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