Turn out TurnItIn

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BRANTFORD (CUP) — Plagiarism is a conversation topic that flies under the radar for most of the academic year. It’s reintroduced to students only when papers are due or when ethics policies are reviewed at the beginning of a school year. But plagiarism is thrown into the spotlight when students are asked to submit their works to the online database, turnitin.com.

Last year, I interviewed Jesse Rossenfeld, a former McGill University student who refused to submit his paper to TurnItIn. Back then, he was a lonely voice crying out against injustice, and although he won the right to a personal exemption, he did not succeed in getting rid of the site’s use altogether. Recently, Dalhousie University took that plunge. Following in the footsteps of a few American schools, its students’ union has won the battle to get TurnItIn out of the school completely. This means there is no longer a contract between the two parties and professors no longer use the site to check for plagiarism.

This was a pleasant surprise, as after talking with the Dalhousie Students’ Union last winter, I was left with the distinct impression that the fight was proving to be tedious and difficult. Amazingly, student leaders stuck to the fight, citing the protection of intellectual property and necessary privacy.

I consider this to be an important victory, even though I know many naysayers will scoff at my optimism and call TurnItIn a useful or practical tool. But a critical examination of the site blows away its illusion of prestige. Rossenfeld and other academics said a professor who is on his or her game would be able to nail any sort of plagiarism 10 ways to Sunday, and never need turnitin.com to find major issues. The site is also infamous for its false positives and questionable algorithm – that’s strike one, as far as I’m concerned.

Next, there’s the issue of intellectual property. Most students, when asked, aren’t particularly over the moon about giving their work to a company that will then use it to build its database and even market its product. Strike two.

Lastly, and most importantly, we should be seriously concerned about allowing businesses to come into the classroom as teaching mercenaries. They have absolutely no interest in improving the situation. For TurnItIn, the worst possible scenario would be a decrease in plagiarism or an increase ethical policies and practices that would bridge the divide between student and teacher and address the root causes of plagiarism. Strike three.

Academic plagiarism shouldn’t be our scarlet letter. It is a real issue, of course, but not one that should make us hang our heads in shame or turn our classrooms over to corporations. What we should be judged on, measured by and scrutinized for, is how we deal with plagiarism. Do we pull together and stress a higher sense of ethics? Do we strive to come up with more creative assignments? Do we reach out and provide more support services for students trying to write papers? Or do we assume everyone’s guilty and turn the classroom over to corporations to ferret out the criminals among us?

Leisha Senko
The Sputnik (Wilfrid Laurier University)

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