A Critical Theory of Plagiarism Detection Technologies

Andrew Feenberg (1991) argued that technologies are infused with values and the interests of the dominant class by virtue of their creation. Our alignment with, rejection of, or subversion of particular technologies shape us as we also shape the technologies themselves: “In choosing our technology we become what we are, which in turn shapes our future choices” (p. 14). Much like Trimbur’s (1991) assertion that the language we prefer (for example, “literacy crisis” or ”Internet plagiarism”) works as an invocation that justifies our decisions, our activities, and our sense of self (p. 277), the technologies we choose similarly shape us. Feenberg’s (1991) Critical Theory of Technology fought against established theories of technology—instrumental theory and substantive theory—offering instead what he articulated as a critical theory of technology that made fundamental societal change possible (p. 5). Instrumental views of technology found technologies to be neutral and universal tools that could be used in service of particular values without actually embodying those values themselves; in contrast, substantive theories of technology characterized technologies as all-encompassing, often dehumanizing, relentlessly overtaking us and shaping culture and society (Feenberg, 1991, pp. 6-7). Neither view realistically adheres to the actual complex articulations of technology development and use, thus Feenberg’s insistence on a critical theory of technology that moved in between nihilistic determination and neutral instrumentalism. Both Trimbur and Feenberg remind us that language and technology are imbricated in a larger system of power relationships, and in the instance of plagiarism detection technologies, critical theory allows us to examine the values, assumptions, and reified terms that reveal power differentials in the university.

Within a critical approach to technology, then, plagiarism detection services not only can be used toward effective or ineffective ends, but they themselves are shaped by us and accordingly shape us too. Rather than immediately accept or reject such devices, we should delve into what we may gain, what we may lose, and even consider what we may not immediately anticipate as effects upon adoption. This critical approach is reflected in the Writing Program Administrators’ (WPA) statement on best practices for defining and avoiding plagiarism: “Make the research process, and technology used for it, visible. Ask your students to consider how various technologies … affect the way information is gathered and synthesized, and what effect these technologies may have on plagiarism.” Rather than an invisible tool seamlessly integrated into the classroom to make life easier for both students and instructors—an image that Turnitin relentlessly relies upon in its marketing to both of these audiences—we should pay careful attention to Turnitin as a technology, examining its terms of use, its allegiances, its history, all of which should assist us in making a more informed decision whether or not to use the technology in our teaching. Perhaps most importantly, we should pay attention to what goes unspoken and what is obfuscated in an attempt to sell the product to us. 

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index the specter of internet plagiarism the turn to turnitin.com page 1 page 2 page 3 page 4 page 5 page 6 authorship and anxiety page 1 page 2 page 3 page 4 page 5 page 6 critical assessment references