Why I Won’t Use TurnItIn to Check My PhD Thesis

‘A Belgian Politician’, by Flickr user Phillipe Put, illustrates a well-known Belgian plagiarism case

I’m in the latter stages of preparing my PhD thesis for submission, and I’ve been told I have to submit the whole thesis through plagiarism-detection software turnitin. But I’m not intending to do that, and here’s why.

Firstly, I received an email from a manager at my university stating:

There is now a requirement for you to put a draft of your research thesis through the turnitin text matching system before you submit it for examination.

I replied, stating I have objections to turnitin, and asked the following questions:

Could you please advise what is driving this requirement? Has the university completed any relevant research or risk assessments before engaging the services of turnitin for HDRs? Is there a specific policy that sets out this requirement? What is the process if a student were to refuse to submit their work through turnitin? Has the University negotiated any special conditions to protect its students?

The only question answered was the first — what is driving this requirement?

It is intended to be a checking measure to ensure compliance with the academic integrity policies of the university.

and I was fobbed off to the supposed instigator of the policy, the Dean of Research. So, I sent my original questions to that person, who responded:

I’m ccing your supervisors so you can discuss my response with them.
It is becoming increasingly common for phd examiners to precheck theses using turnitin and refuse to examine them if the level of matches found is too high.
It is a distressing experience for students and supervisors when this occurs. Its also time consuming for the student to defend a research misconduct charge, correct the thesis, have new examiners chosen etc etc.
This whole process can take 3 months
So its a simple form of assurance for HDR students and supervisors.

Essentially, it’s for my own good and I should speak to my supervisors to find out why. For the record, they both essentially agreed with my objections.

Although I think it’s unlikely my university will really take me on over this, for the benefit of both my administrators and my examiners, here are my objections:

turnitin will flag my own work as plagiarised

I have blogged extensively throughout my PhD, on sites such as Medium and my own website. Many of these posts have been copied or reworked into my thesis, and I have extensively used the thoughts and ideas I established in those posts. I have also published a paper in an academic journal which reappears in my thesis. turnitin will find these posts and papers and flag them as plagiarism, and I refuse to be accused of plagiarism by an algorithm for having an open scholarship philosophy and re-using my own work.

turnitin has terms of service to which I object

  1. One rule for us, another for you: While turnitin reserves the right to “change from time to time without prior notice to You” how their services operate and use data provided, they “You understand and agree that the Service may not be used for any other purpose, or provided to any other party, than as described herein”.
  2. You cannot quote from turnitin’s website after agreeing to the terms of service: “no licenses [sic] is granted to You to do any of the following, and You agree not to do any of the following: (i) modify, copy, distribute, transmit, display, perform, reproduce, publish, license, create derivative works from, transfer, scrape, gather or sell any information or Services from the Site without the prior written consent of Turnitin” (it’s a good thing I haven’t agreed, then!)
  3. While turnitin users retain ownership of their papers, “You hereby grant to Turnitin, its affiliates, vendors, service providers, and licensors a non-exclusive, royalty-free, perpetual, worldwide, irrevocable license to use such papers, as well as feedback and results” to provide the service, which includes sending papers onward to universities who want to check them against their student’s work for plagiarism.
  4. United States jurisdiction: “You hereby consent to the exclusive jurisdiction and venue of state and federal courts in Alameda County, California, U.S.A., in all disputes arising out of or relating to the use of the Site or the Services. You agree not to use the Site in any jurisdiction that does not give effect to all provisions of these terms and conditions, including without limitation this paragraph.” I cannot agree to the jurisdiction of a United States court in relation to the operation of Australian privacy laws and the handling of my personal information because, since I am not a lawyer, I cannot be sure they do not conflict. Nonetheless, I believe it is likely that unauthorised disclosure of my personal information by my University to turnitin would contravene Sections 17, 18 and 19 of the NSW Privacy and Personal Information Protection Act 1998. Specifically, Section 19 of the Act reads: “A public sector agency that holds personal information must not disclose the information to any person or body who is in a jurisdiction outside New South Wales”. Since turnitin wants users to agree to the jurisdiction of Alameda County, it is most certainly outside of New South Wales jurisdiction.

turnitin has a business structure that I find unconscionable.

These include the fact that they profit from the free labour of university students who themselves receive no direct benefit. Further, since turnitin is paid by universities for a service, it is actually earning twice from that labour.

Here’s how that works:

  1. When the University of Blah Blah pays turnitin for plagiarism detection services, students from that University produce papers which turnitin checks and then keeps in its databases.
  2. XYZ University then purchases access to the database on the basis of having those other papers (plus many thousands more) in it.
  3. Thus, universities pay for the privilege of their students working for free for turnitin which then takes more cash for that labour from other universities.

turnitin seeks to control academic debate with financial incentives

Inside Higher Education has reported that turnitin offered to fund academics to present papers favourable to their service at conferences where others had presented papers critical of plagiarism-detection software.

“Steven Epstein, director of the Science Studies Program at the University of California at San Diego, said he immediately sent a reply e-mail that he was “not for sale.”
“I was offended by the idea of being compensated by a company for making a scholarly presentation about the virtues of that company’s product,” he said via e-mail. “As a medical sociologist, I was struck by the apparent similarity to pharmaceutical industry marketing practices…”

And so, given these objections and the many other good reasons not to use turnitin, as suggested by other objectors and even in a court case or two, when it comes time to submit my PhD thesis, it will not come with one the bizarre little plagiarism reports that turnitin provides. If my examiners or administrators have any particular concerns about this, they are free to contact me at any time.