Historicizing the Rise of Turnitin.com

The turn to Turnitin.com began in the early nineties, just as increased reliance on computer-mediated composition emerged. In 1994, graduate student John M. Barrie (co-founder of iParadigms, LLC, and creator of its sister company Turnitin.com) created websites for undergraduate students in a neurobiology course for which he worked as a teaching assistant. A novel idea at the time, the websites were meant to introduce students to the peer review process; students were required to electronically submit a term paper for anonymous peer review, and two classmates were then asked to anonymously review one submitted paper. While Barrie (2004) noted that students self-reported a higher level of understanding of course concepts after participating in the peer review process, he also lamented an unseen side effect: “significant levels of digital plagiarism and collusion” (p. 3) among students who used these websites. He believed that approximately 15-30% of the 123 students enrolled in the course had plagiarized in some form (Barrie, 2008, p. 17). By 1996, Barrie had co-founded iParadigms, LLC, and the company created the precursor to Turnitin.com, Plagiarism.org, in April 1999. In co-founding iParadigms, LLC, Barrie created a response to an issue (plagiarism) that reflected dominant understandings of authorship at the time (and, arguably, that we still struggle with today).

That is, when Barrie (2004) noted “digital plagiarism and collusion” (p. 3) among his students, his response—creating a technology that would prevent students from borrowing from each other—indicated his belief in reified concept of single authorship common in academia. The irony is that Barrie's work emerged from his desire for his students to participate in the peer review process, a process that relies on trust, sharing, working together: collaboration, not collusion. Collusion and plagiarism rely on capitalistic views of authorship, a view that commodifies knowledge and privileges an individual's work as something to be circulated and consumed (Vie & deWinter, 2008, p. 112).

Barrie (2008) does not define what he means by collusion in his analysis of the unseen and significant side effects in his Berkeley class; the closest we can see is that he articulated that "worst of all, students were taking papers from my class website and submitting them as their own to other classes" (p. 17). However, it is important to note that he uses this specific word—collusion—and not collaboration. Collusion, often listed as a violation of academic integrity policies in many European and Australian institutions, is less frequently found in academic integrity policies in the United States. Derived from the Latin colludere, to "have a secret agreement," collusion is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as a "secret or illegal cooperation or conspiracy, especially in order to cheat or deceive others." Deakin University in Australia, for example, described collusion for its students as "acting with another person with the intention to deceive. It is unacceptable to submit the work, or part of the work, of someone who studied the subject previously, even with their permission. It is also unacceptable to have someone else write any part of an assignment for you" ("Plagiarism and Collusion," n.d.). The Ohio State University has perhaps one of the clearer discussions of collusion among American universities, noting that:

When a student submits work in his/her own name that has been written wholly or in part by another person—regardless of whether or not it has been taken from unattributed source materials—he/she is engaged in a kind of plagiarism known as collusion. Collusion should not be confused with the kind of collaboration that arises in writing courses during workshops, peer responses, and student/teacher or student/tutor conferences, all of which are endorsed by writing pedagogy; collusion involves receiving “unauthorized” aid. The university’s Committee on Academic Misconduct expands on this definition of collusion to include any instance where two or more students work together and/or share information in a manner that is unauthorized, deceitful and/or fraudulent (oaa.osu. edu/coam.html). ("Policies," p. 1)

In contrast, "collaboration," defined by the Oxford Dictionary (n.d.) as "The action of working with someone to produce or create something," takes a neutral stance compared to collusion (with its overtones of secrecy, illegality, and conspiracy). As the policy from Ohio State above points out, collaboration occurs in accepted peer-to-peer work-related settings like peer response sessions or conferences. But the line is a fine one; how does one know, for instance, whether an idea was produced by two individuals working together in a collaborative relationship? It's often difficult to tell.

Policies such as those at the University of Texas at Austin that attempt to define collusion for students can potentially become confusing for those same students; the Department of Writing and Rhetoric's Statement on Scholastic Responsibility (n.d.) notes that: "You also commit collusion if you allow someone else to edit your papers. It is scholastically dishonest for students to employ tutors to correct, edit, or modify essays in any substantive way. ... you may use the [Writing Center]. Tutors at these facilities are trained to comment on essays and to offer advice without editing or rewriting papers." Easily a student could become confused in attempting to determine where the line might be drawn regarding "substantive" modifications to essays.

Thus Barrie's assertion that students participated in collusion in a class that deliberately asked them to engage closely with each other through peer review is important. Indeed, Barrie (2008) appeared to call himself out as a guilty party related to the collusion: "I was more than a little irritated that a significant minority of students were cheating ... And I was aiding and abetting by providing hundreds of students with their peers’ manuscripts via the class website"(p. 17). But instead of tackling the problem through creating a culture of honesty or offering true collaborative opportunities, Barrie (2008) found the answer in technology: "The proper goal should be the deterrence of the problem, but a real deterrent would require the real threat of being caught doing the wrong thing. In my analysis, the only real threat would involve creating a database so massive that, when a student is told that their paper will be compared with documents in that database, a student is then deterred from cheating" (p. 17).

Barrie and David E. Presti (1996) noted that the ethical questions raised by students with Internet access would need to be addressed in the coming decades as the Web became more influential:

Besides a presumption of integrity, what prevents students from another university from presenting as their own work any term paper found on the Internet? What will instructors do to prevent plagiarism? What guarantees will a student have that their personal information or intellectual property will not be scattered through the electronic universe? With the Internet anticipated to expand 1000% over the next few years, we must find answers to these procedural and ethical questions. (p. 372)

These questions show how, from the start, Barrie's endeavors were all for-profit technological “solutions” to the problem of Internet plagiarism: Technology was offered to police a problem that emerged from a different technology. Plagiarism.org offered to assure “academic work originality” and “high standards of ethics” by “providing institutes of learning with an easy means of deterring and detecting plagiarism” at a cost of $20 to check up to thirty student papers and 50 cents additional for each paper over thirty (“Plagiarism.org FAQ,” 1999; “Plagiarism.org Registration,” 1999). Barrie decided that the name Plagiarism.org might turn students off from submitting their work; thus he sought a name that was more neutral and settled on Turnitin.com (Templeton, 2003). (Indeed, as I have described elsewhere – see Vie, "Turn it Down"—Turnitin has engaged in a continual rebranding process meant to disassociate itself with past lawsuits related to students' intellectual property.) When Turnitin emerged in January 2000, it was a simple site where students could cut and paste their paper into a text box and the results would be mailed to their teachers. As the site gained in popularity, it regularly changed the language and look of its website along with its costs. Initial costs for a large institution (over 5,000 students) had a licensing fee of $1,500 with 25,000 reports at a total cost of $4,000 (“Turnitin Cost and Report,” 2011). Despite the fact that similar technologies were freely available—including simply searching the Web with suspected phrases enclosed in quotation marks—Turnitin.com rapidly cornered the market on plagiarism detection services. Today, costs depend on the institution and the number of students served but are individually negotiated with the company; Brown University, with almost 8,500 students, considered the service in 2012 and cited a $13,000 licensing fee per year, while Baruch College in New York, with 17,000 students, noted an approximately $11,000 licensing fee yearly.

What ensured Barrie's success was a combination of aggressive marketing, kairotic timing, and (perhaps most important) database building. Every paper checked by Barrie's services was retained in a central database that formed a corpus of works that could then be used to check subsequent papers for plagiarism. Along with spidering the Web and searching archived Web pages, Plagiarism.org and Turnitin.com relied on this database of uploaded works. As Turnitin grew, so did its digital repository of materials submitted to the site for originality checks—and its coffers grew as well. Today, Turnitin boasts that over 220 million papers are housed in its database, which grows by approximately 150,000 papers per day (“Turnitin: Products”). Quotation from Howard stating that through media coverage and aggressive marketing, all have come to fear Internet plagiarism

Plagiarism.org became (and remains to this day) a repository of selected resources and facts about plagiarism, but today it largely operates to drive traffic to the four main branches of iParadigms, LLC: Turnitin.com, iThenticate.com, Turnitinadmissons.com, and WriteCheck.com. Each offers academic integrity related services targeted to particular audiences (secondary and college instructors, academics and researchers, admissions offices, and students, respectively). Each site speaks to the particular audience, highlighting services that play upon the anxieties of that group. iParadigms' ever-growing databases are largely driven by fears that emerge from a discourse of crisis.

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