Why I use plagiarism detection services

Dr. J protests that her school has purchased access to the service Turnitin.com:

If I participate in Turnitin, I am negating their Honor Code promise and, effectively, treating my students as if they never signed it. Quite simply, I do not know how I can reasonably expect students to take the Honor Code seriously when my actions indicate that I am not taking it seriously. It’s like sitting down at a poker game with a pistol under the table. Or being in a relationship where you secretly check your partner’s emails or text messages.

My own view is that teachers ought to “trust, but verify,” and that we can do this without threatening violence (the pistol under the table) or violating privacy (checking emails). Perhaps this is colored by the fact that I have never taught at a school with an honor code, but in my experience, undergraduate student plagiarism is common and services like Turnitin and SafeAssign can easily and quickly nip it in the bud. Gone are the days when I had to call a student into my office, show them the evidence, and deal with the stages of grief: denial, rage, bargaining, acceptance. They cried, I cried, but it was already too late to fix, and so the teachable moment always surrounded the possibilities of reconciliation and redemption. Now, the plagiarism just doesn’t happen: students turn their own papers in late rather than turning in someone else’s paper on time. In many cases, this is simply a matter of attribution: a paper with many uncited quotes will be flagged for the student to fix, and it will still be a good paper after the quotes have been marked as such and properly attributed or paraphrased.

So for me, the services do not generate much excitement, anymore: they’ve simply removed an emotional stumbling stone and helped a few of my students to understand the nature of proper academic citation. That’s a win-win. But Dr. J’s post makes me wonder if I’ve disrespected the integrity of my students by asking them to verify that they are due my trust. It seems to me that this is not a matter about which we can both be right: either Dr. J is wrong to treat plagiarism detection as a matter of honor and dignity, or I am wrong to treat it as a simple technical fix to what is in fact a deeply moral and communal problem.

Since I consider Dr. J a dear friend, I feel that I cannot ignore a disagreement about something so fundamental. If she has something to teach me, here, I want to learn it. I must therefore take up Dr. J’s arguments as I understand them.

Argument One:

  • “What distingishes me from the police, I hope, is that I still believe the act of cheating hurts the student more than the consequences of being-caught-cheating does.”

Here, I take Dr. J to be describing some combination of the Platonic/Aristotelian theory of vice: to act immorally is primarily to do harm to one’s own soul. I believe she is suggesting that to cheat in an academic environment is to waste one’s tuition, to take on an instrumental relationship to education when in fact an education in the humanities is the best or even the only way to find the purpose towards which all means and instruments direct us. Dr. J also references Foucault (who has interesting and complicated things to say about surveillance, discipline, and punishment) and in her mention of the “consequences of being-caught” she seems to be suggesting that the two harms being compared here are the harms to one’s own soul and the harms to one’s career or academic record.

Yet this reminds me of one of the main arguments of Plato’s Gorgias, which is that the wise person should prefer that her own unjust acts be punished. Socrates suggests that we ought even to become advocates against ourselves, seeking punishment if it is needed, because the only thing worse than acting unjustly is to act unjustly and also to avoid punishment. To go unpunished is to be left to stew in one’s injustice, and perhaps to exacerbate that tendency in onself. I find Socrates more compelling here than Dr. J, but perhaps he is wrong. It’s a difficult issue, especially when the  punishment is unjustly applied or is not proportionate to the injustice done. What do you think?

Argument Two:

  • “My institution operates under an Honor Code, which (at least ostensibly) governs the conduct of the entirety of the Rhodes communtity, students and faculty alike. […] I believe that the Honor Code is, at heart, a trust-agreement. That is to say, all of our (tacit or explicit) participation in it constitutes a kind of social contract to which we have all agreed to abide, and out allegiance to it, like all social contracts, is derivative of our faith in the virtue of the other members with whom we have agreed to constitute a community.”

One interesting thing about this part of Dr. J’s argument is that it separates her situation from mine. It may be that Dr. J has different obligations and norms to adhere to than I do, because my school does not have a formal process of contracting with its students in order to gain their cooperation with a particular brand of honor. There’s something very appealing about this, insofar as one needn’t pay Turnitin or Blackboard for the service of policing academic honesty if one can persuade the students to do it themselves. This, indeed, is how Dr. J once described it:

“Now, the cynical Sartrean in me suspects that there is more shame than virtue at work here. When students pledge their honor, they become like Sartre’s voyeur in Being and Nothingness, who hears a bump in the hallway as he peeps through the keyhole and is ashamed, not because he is actually caught, but because intersubjectivity always implies the potential to be caught (to be “looked at” instead of being the one “looking”). The Foucaultian in me also suspects that the Honor System is yet another disciplinary practice which allows institutions to exercise the power they need to be “institutions,” that is, the power to produce the kinds of subjects who reproduce the power that produced them.”

The benefit of “honorable” subjects is that they will, like Socrates, prefer to hold themselves accountable through self-surveillance rather than waiting to be caught! But interestingly, the honor code Rhodes is not only a personal pledge: it also requires each of its signatories to

“report any such violation [of lying, cheating, or stealing] that I may witness.”

This obligation to “rat” on one’s fellow students has always bothered me, insofar as it demands that signatories of the code not only self-surveil but also participate in the surveillance and discipline of their colleagues. But since turning a blind eye to cheating would be a violation of the Code it seems to me that the Code itself militates in favor of plagiarism detection services: the Code itself demands verification of one’s honor.

Argument Three:

  • “if my obsession with pre-emptive security mechanisms indicate that I assume you already are cheating, what’s the motivation for you to take seriously your duty, your promise, to be honest with me? And, even if you are honest, how can I possibly merit you with that honesty under these circumstances, motivated as it is by a fear of certain reprisal and not a genuine respect for integrity, for the trust-agreement, for your or my honor?”

Dr. J’s final argument deals with the issue of merit and signaling expectations. As my readers know, some of my principle concerns are status games and merit claims, which may be another motive that drove me to comment on her post. Here’s what I wrote in January:

From the perspective of morality, all persons deserve equal respect. Our evaluations of a person’s actions may truly reflect the justice or injustice of those actions, but the only truth-tracking moral judgment is one that reports that persons are of equal moral status. Therefore contempt is immoral.

If contempt is immoral, then so too are deference, honor, and merit. Yet though many people seem to agree with me about contempt and disgust, they still wish to preserve a place for merited honor. The problem with discussions of merit (and honor) is that they often assume that merit is the most important metric for evaluation and that it trumps all other considerations. Yet honor killings and aristocracy are two other ways that honor and merit find their way into our discourse, and most people agree that these are not laudable or praiseworthy forms of merit. Might there be similiar problems with our other uses of these concepts?

The commitment to merit seems especially to operate among elites, who will not bear any questioning of their integrity and use this language to justify their privileges. So following Rawls, I believe it falls to anyone who argues primarily from merit to justify the particular scheme of merit in some other terms. How does the praise of this virtue or the blame of that vice produce a just world or a sustainable community?

One account seems to entail the kind of self-surveillance that Dr. J describes, the one that Nietzsche praised in the The Genealogy of Morals as making of humans “an animal that can make promises.” But if Nietzsche is right, this kind of self-surveillance first requires an external authority that excoriates the promising animal until it learns to value its honor and its commitments. Every year, a new generation of frosh come into our classrooms, and they have not learned the lessons of honor and the value of education that we imparted the year before. It falls to us to help them when they fail.

Finally, though we may not like this power, we cannot ignore our role as gatekeepers, giving grades and writing recommendations that will serve, in future, as the justification for claims of merit and honor. If those grades and letters are based on false premises, the subsequent merit will be similarly false. But oh, how its bearers will pretend otherwise!

I’m not a dogmatist about this, which means I want to be open to changing my opinion in light of new information. But perhaps I am failing to update carefully, for selfish reasons: I find SafeAssign to be a useful and non-intrusive method for enforcing academic honesty and fairness. I may well be wrong. So I ask my readers: what sort of information should cause me to change my opinion?

11 thoughts on “Why I use plagiarism detection services”

    1. I'm not sure I understand the question. Could you elaborate?

      Specifically, I don't use the SafeAssign service "in the classroom." It's integrated into Blackboard (our version of Penn State's Angel course management software) and all written assignments are submitted electronically through it.

      Since I haven't had a single instance of plagiarism since I started using the service, I suppose it significantly reduces the amount of time "in the classroom" I devote to academic integrity issues at all.

  1. I see. Yes, I do allow resubmission, although I think it's possible to turn that feature off, which seems dumb to me. I'm not interested in punishment if it can be avoided, and so far I've completely eliminated punishment in favor of gentle suasion.

    Turnitin doesn't really work the way you're describing (i.e. in the gotcha manner). Students submit their papers themselves. Given the kinds of justifications she's using, I don't think that Dr. J would be any happier with that method than with gotchas, but I could be mistaken.

    We do discuss research practices in upper level courses, though not in intro.

  2. I clearly don't think students should be allowed to resale their papers to other students. I do, however, still feel uneasy with a corporation making money from student work, when the students have little to no power in allowing the corporation to use their work.

    On the other hand, requiring students to produce a video and posting it on youtube is the same as the problem I just mentioned, and I have no problem with that assignment.

    I am finding myself becoming convinced on this issue. Also, when I think about this issue in conjunction with Stanley Fish's recent argument that plagiarism is a technical problem, rather than an ethical problem. I basically buy his argument, and these services with a resubmit option strike me as technical solutions, rather than ethical solutions.

    1. If there were a public agency or inter-university consortium devoted to plagiarism detection, I would support it. For the time being, we only have private, for-profit institutions like Blackboard and Turnitin. The profits they're making allow them to continue to develop the services they supply, so I'm not too troubled by them.

      As for Fish, I thought his point was that plagiarism is a violation like cheating at golf, not like cheating on your spouse? I'm not sure I follow you there.

      UPDATE: Oh, I get it. You're saying that plagiarism isn't about honor, and the services reduce the non-honor problem to the technical fix they deserve. Yes! I agree.

  3. That answers my question- it submits automatically. I use turnitin, but I have the students submit the papers themselves and leave open the option to let them resubmit (so they can revise if necessary).

    I’m not familiar with SafeAssign, but I think using Turnitin in this way serves an important pedagogical function. I find that even in my 400 level courses that students don’t know how to cite properly. In particular, they don’t know the difference between paraphrasing and quoting. Before I started using Turnitin, I had one 400 level class in which 5 out of 20 papers were plagiarized (and all of the students claimed it was accidental).

    Now I devote an entire class in all of my courses to citation and research practices. Overwhelmingly, my students appreciate that I use Turnitin this way. They see it as an opportunity to learn, rather than a “gotcha” mechanism.

    I think Leigh’s criticism of Turnitin applies to scenarios of professors using the services without students’ knowledge, only to nail them with charges after the fact. But letting the students use it themselves I find is empowering.

    And like you, I haven’t had a case of plagiarism since I started this practice.

  4. I don’t know how SafeAssign works in this regard, but is there any worry or fear about the way turnitin keeps the students’ papers on file? I assumed this is what Dr. J meant when she talked about violating the intellectual rights of the students. Turnitin profits from using the intellectual product of the student without remuneration and the student has no choice in this interaction.

    1. Neither Turnitin nor SafeAssign claims to own the copyright on students' work. Both services do make a claim to "Fair Use," however: they use the papers submitted to check new papers for originality. In that sense, they restrict the value of student's own intellectual property in one respect: they reduce the value original papers would have if sold on the greymarket for term papers.

      I do not believe that this violates student copyright, and nor does the Fourth Circuit. Do you disagree? Should students be allowed to sell their work to other students to facilitate plagiarism? It seems to me that this would be counter to the honor of both students, and facilitates a "market in honor" by which rich students can purchase what poor students must earn.

  5. Hi Josh (et al)! I only just saw this post. There's too much here for me to respond adequately in a comment, so I'll do a follow-up post instead.

    And, as always, thanks in advance for the provocation, friend.

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