Turnitin and The New Wave

1975 against 2005

Since the publication of the 2003 Report on Plagiarism in 2003, a dangerous new tool called Turnitin has made a widespread appearance on the American educational scene. My earlier paper discussed the ancillary considerations of the history of plagiarism as well as copyright, student and also faculty plagiarism, in a wide angle approach to the Plagiaristic Situation. This paper covers the updating Part II of the larger study noted above, it is reproduced for convenience here:

Briefly Turnitin is a google-style registry of everything which the electronic world has been able to robot-search, devised and run by a commercial company, which now sells its product to schools and teachers on contract, for the purpose of locating possible "plagiarism" of words and phrases in student papers. Originally a system designed to track down commercially sold term papers, it is now being used in many colleges for far different purposes.

In many schools students are required to hand a copy of a new paper to the teacher and simultaneously send a copy to Turnitin, which decides without any human judgment if the paper is plagiarized. This result is registered and made available by the company and the written material "archived" permanently in violation of copyright law. The Verdict is either documented on college transcript, or available online, and can be confirmed by questioning on job application with obviously disastrous results.


There is a growing awareness of Turnitin as the leading edge of a massive invasion of privacy. It is coupled with a court-style judgment on the source of written material, but works without a human judge or any possible review or appeal. Operating within the confines of a college or university, this constitutes a new kind of Private Law, unknown to the world since the days of Ecclesiastical Law which in the 17th century wielded the infamous powers of the Inquisition.

As it now stands, plagiarism procedure in our colleges starts with the teacher using a Turnitin report, and making an accusation to the student who is asked to confirm that it is accurate and true. The student, contrary to every procedure of Law in the Western World, is at that point presumed GUILTY. He or she can make an appeal to a college appointed Review Board but no adviser can offer an opinion. Reviews almost universally support the original charge. Many schools register this charge on the students transcript, a clear bar against subsequent employment, but even if not so listed, the charge can be raised by an employer who inquires about a "clean slate" history as preface to employment. The student gets caught either way.

There is much argument about this self-styled Anti-Theft program at the present time in 2007, too much for me to tabulate and discuss here. I urge you to search the net for yourself, to find information about privacy issues and this gross abuse of electronic power. If personally concerned, check the Internet for legal counsel on issues connected with Turnitin, where watchdog groups are already being formed.

But there could be a way out of this evil situation. Give to the student password access and permission to enter a paper before handing it to his teacher. This would determine if there have been unintentional slips in citing of material, and then Turnitin would be a teaching rather than a punishing instrument. Add to this a warranty that the entered student paper will be erased from all archived files on completion of the testing session, and we would have a good solution to a complex and troubling situation. The unintentional plagiarist gets warned and corrected, the plagiaristic thief realizes that he is caught before he gets into trouble, and all parties should be satisfied.

All parties except Turnitin, which would lose face and some income, if the program becomes an voluntary educational option. Of course there would be embarrassment in administrative Academe as Turnitin back-tracks from an unholy academic war.

What can be done right now? Many teachers see that this sort of electronic surveying represents a danger to our schools and to our democratic institutions. If a concerned teacher will give his Turnitin password to his students so they can check their work first, that would be a step in the right direction. Since passwords circulate magically on the Internet and are as reproductive as dandelions in a lawn, we can see the first erosion of the New Inquisition, done as correctly from the individual teacher's ground level up. Amen!

Why so many Plagiarism Cases now ?

The setting in which plagiarism occurs has changed radically in the last twenty five years. A student in l975 might find important passages in a book he was reading for a course assignment, and he would have a choice of how to retain that information. Writing a note on paper would be enough to get the central ideas down, and since it would be standard abbreviated 'note-taking' it could even if sued in a paper never stand as plagiarized material.

But if the intention were to lift the material and use it as his own, that would entail having the book open before him while typing out words and sentences, a slow and laborious process surely involving purpose and intent. But in either case, the read document would have been saved by a penciled note before typing up the paper, or it could be actually copied letter by letter as it was incorporated into the text of a student paper, in which case clearly Plagiarism.

At the present time it is entirely different. Much student material comes from an electronic source, where a touch of the mouse will 'copy-paste' words, sentences and whole paragraphs to the student's open notepad for later use. But the computer notepad has no knowledge of where the cited material comes from, and the student can easily mistake it for something he had merely noted, something the professor had said in class, or an idea from a seminar discussion. The copy-paste action can land the whole citation or any parts of it into a paper being constructed on the wordprocessor, without the merest touch of "Intent".

Students are moving nationally from the shelves of the library, to using material accessible on the computer screen, and it is the instant availability of this wealth of material which poses the newest danger to the student's work. If all copied material came with a coded source, like image .jpegs which are automatically coded with their point of origin, the present problem would not exist. Almost everything is free and open to lifting at the touch of a button. But the student, who is encouraged to search the web for new and pertinent information, has not been caution to add a clumsy URL in brackets after each copied sentence or paragraph. So it is by the freewheeeling nature of the Internet and one-touch instant copying procedure, that today's student is enmeshed in a new web of circumstances, now shifted from financial copyright issues to a questionable new area of "student morality".

William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College