Why Critical Assessment of Plagiarism Detection Services is Necessary

Despite my unease regarding Turnitin.com (and by extension similar plagiarism detection services and software), I know that many faculty teach on campuses where the software is mandatory; I also know that other faculty members choose, after careful examination, to incorporate Turnitin into their pedagogy. (See Vie, "A Pedagogy of Resistance," for potential ways to incorporate Turnitin into a rhetorically based composition course that can assist instructors who teach where Turnitin is mandatory.) Previous literacy crises, as Trimbur (1991) articulated, directly benefited our field—through reinstatement of freshman composition requirements, the creation of new writing courses in professional, technical, and scientific writing, and a greater sense of the importance of writing in literacy (pp. 277-278). Conversely, when it comes to the multimillion dollar plagiarism detection industry led by iParadigms, LLC, I believe that if anyone is not benefiting from the adoption of Turnitin, it is our students.

Our field has published many excellent pieces outlining the ethical concerns regarding Turnitin’s archive of student papers, the atmosphere of mistrust that detection services tend to evoke, the reinforcement of binary views of students versus instructors, and the contradictory discussions of plagiarism and academic integrity housed across iParadigms’ websites. Yet critical theories of technology outline the possibility to not only be shaped by, but to shape, the technologies we rely upon. If we choose to work within the dominant cultural paradigm, one that includes growing support for and reliance upon iParadigm’s products, then it behooves us to become involved in an ongoing conversation that helps shape the narrative into one that we agree we can stand behind.

We can incorporate a critical approach to iParadigms, LLC's suite of products whether or not we rely on the services themselves (Turnitin, GradeMark, PeerMark, iThenticate). The following list of suggestions is certainly not exhaustive but is meant to provide some ideas if you are interested in incorporating critical analyses of plagiarism detection services in your classroom.

Ultimately, what is most important is that the use of plagiarism detection technologies is an informed decision, one that does not rely on coercion through power differentials and one that offers alternative pedagogies upon request. If a student, based on her research, determines that she does not wish to comply with the terms of use of Turnitin, her instructor should research alternate means of assessing that student's work. Further, if instructors, departments, writing programs, and/or writing centers feel that reliance on iParadigms products would compromise their shared instructional vision, they should not be forced to use these products by others. While outlining our understandings of the technologies we use and that shape us is a complicated task, it is also a task that opens us up to considerations of who we would like to be and what role technology may play in that future.


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