Monday, September 27, 2010

On using plagiarism detection services

Recently Dr. J and Joshua Miller had a insightful and vigorous conversation on the use of plagiarism detection services (the most famous being turnitin). Please see the conversations here, here, here, and here (and make sure you read comments).

I use to hold almost identically the same views of Dr. J (and I should add I've never used turnitin or any of its variants). However, I found Miller's arguments surprisingly convincing (and generally fit in with my current views of plagiarism). But before I go any further, let me say for the present conversation that I am bracketing the question of honor, and if honor codes exist in tension with services like turnitin (I think Dr. J may be right on this last point). Now, I am not bracketing this conversation because I don't think it is unimportant, but rather that not all of us work at institutions with honor codes or the same honor codes (for example, when I was at Oglethorpe, I had no proactive obligation to turn in other people). So, I think the question of honor codes might require a separate conversation, and one that can be held to the specific nature of those codes.

I have had two basic objections to services like turnitin: (1) The first is that I feel it violates the student's control over her own intellectual work product. In other words, it allows a corporation to extract surplus value from the student's work, without her being able to control that at all. And, (2) that is makes me into a cop, and one of those people who come to view all students with suspicion, etc. On the first point, I am still wary. This is not a fear that my students are legally having their intellectual property taken advantage of, but rather one of extracting surplus value to support a corporation rather they want to or not. On the other hand, there are any number of assignments that I think would be fine that would still force students into these issues. Any assignment that required them to post videos on youtube, or maintain a blog, or any number of other assignments about interacting with websites that use advertising and participation to extract value from the students' work. In other words, I think this is still a problem from turnitin, and I think we need to broadly be more concerned about the ways certain assignments force students to support corporations, but as long as we all agree assignments on youtube are legit, I think there is no reason to uniquely condemn turnitin. This brings us to the second point, which is the major one from Dr. J.

I'm not a cop, and I am never a fan of the way there seems a desire to turn educators into police. For a while I thought I would teach high school, but I have seen increasingly the pressure put on high school teachers to spend more time exercising disciplinary power than educating. Or, indeed, that education seems utterly interchangeable with disciplinary power. Foucault got it right, "Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?"(D&P, p. 228). Now, what is so compelling from Miller's account is that plagiarism disappeared. Not, that plagiarists (whatever that being is) got caught, punished, given their just desserts. Rather, he stopped having to deal with plagiarism. If we agree that plagiarism is a problem, that is makes our jobs harder and hurts the student education. In other words, if we agree that plagiarism is something that we would have to confront if we discovered it (and I think we all agree with this), turnitin means I have to be less of a cop. I have to wield less juridical power. In this sense, turnitin becomes something like spell check, something that fixes a problem and comes to be an aid to students. I think this turns back Dr. J's arguments about universal belief in everyone cheating. I don't think everyone is cheating, but I always believe that there is a chance that a student could accidentally not cite something correctly through error, laziness, or ignorance. I no longer have to figure out if I am dealing with cheating or mistakes. It is a service that helps the students know what they need to cite, and it helps me not to have to punish students.
Now, Dr. J admits in comments of some of the posts that she thinks that the service that allows students to make changes before submitting reports to the professors are not as problematic. But, she feels that this isn't the primary function of turnitin and other services. I can't speak to that. I can say that professors looking to catch students and punish them, are obviously people who enjoy their position of power. I think that is clearly problematic, and pretty anti-educational. However, I don't see how using the plagiarism detection services in the way Miller describes is anything but a net gain (again, except for times with an explicit honor code, where I am less clear on the situation).

Is there some flaw in my thoughts here? As I said, this is a recent change in my outlook. And moreover, I have never used these services so there might be something obvious I am overlooking here.