I received an email from Turnitin this morning (in a less formal environment I would typically call it spam…) touting some of the new services they offer, and I planned to write a blog post about it soon.  Then, just a few moments ago, someone sent me a link to an article in the Chronicle about plagiarism.  It seemed too much to pass up.

The article, “Toward a Rational Response to Plagiarism,” by Rob Jenkins, an associate professor of English at Georgia Perimeter College, is a thoughtful discussion of why Jenkins doesn’t obsess over plagiarism.  In the process, he provides some good advice:

  • include a statement in your syllabus
  • tell your students you expect them not to cheat
  • make plagiarism difficult by carefully constructing assignments that can’t be found on the internet
  • require multiple drafts
  • and perhaps, most importantly, don’t penalize the nonplagiarists in your class by obsessing over and orienting too much of your teaching toward prevention rather than actual teaching.

Jenkins is fairly ambivalent about plagiarism-detection programs like Turnitin, and he scores a few hits.  However, I still believe there are solidly legitimate ways to use Turnitin as a teaching tool that outweigh its usefulness as a police mechanism.  And the features that we’ve recently added to our Turnitin account, including GradeMark, PeerMark, and our soon-to-come Sakai integration strengthen its teaching legitimacy even further.

In addition, that “spam” I received this morning touts a few additional improvements in the product.  First, a new feature called “class copy” allows instructors to copy a class and all of its associated assignments and rubrics to a new term without having to start over.  Also, a new feature in GradeMark allows instructors to see whether students have looked at the feedback on their papers or just checked their grade.  Finally, Turnitin claims to have improved their algorithms so that the random matches with other student papers aren’t so commonly flagged.

Indeed, perhaps my biggest gripe about Turnitin is the way it privileges matches with student papers over other sources, such that a paper with a couple of sentence copied and pasted out of a website will be found to match the paper a high school student in Phoenix who happened to copy the same two sentences.  But we don’t see the original source because of the student paper match.  Perhaps the improvements will cut down on this issue.  Either way, there may be a way to override this, but I haven’t found it aside from not having it check the student paper repository, and that would take away its power to recognize students copying each others’ work.  Please let me know if you have any suggestions…


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