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TURNITIN: Institutionalized Plagiarism

The Irony behind Anti-Plagiarism Software

Feeling powerless is the direct expression of a loss in agency. Educational environments are becoming increasingly constraining and the process keeps accelerating exponentially with the implementation of modern technologies.

Amidon continues to argue that interfaces, far from being value-neutral, are in fact laden with power-relationships. They are implicitly geared towards exclusion, as they tend to increase the distance between teachers and students. With technological artefacts such as TurnitIn, power becomes structural and anonymous. When entering into a binding, legal contract with a powerful corporation is a mere “side-effect” of submitting an assignment, perhaps it would be smart to start asking complicated questions and opening up space for a critical discussion.

And let’s not forget about the “alternatives” that we are given when confronted with the institutional regulations and submission policies in academia. To be brief: Most of the time, there are no alternatives; you either use the software or you fail the class. For those of us who are less privileged, grades mean academic success, which eventually means employment opportunities, which in turn boils down to questions of bare life and the ability to procure a living for oneself.

Under the banner of anti-plagiarism (and plagiarism is indeed a real problem, not to be taken lightly), universities all over the world have now implemented a security apparatus that serves to render students powerless. And just like any other act of ruthless policing, it has had lots of “success”. Without a doubt, we cannot argue that the implementation of the TurnitIn online submission system has not had a significant impact on the problem of plagiarized work. It would be safe to assume that plagiarism has gone down in the aggregate. That is, statistically, overall there must have been a reduction in cases of intellectual fraud and dishonesty. The question is, at who’s expense?

At the expense of the individual - the unique case. At the institutional level, or we could say politically, universities do not have a vested interest in the well-being of their students. Universities have to make sure that they look good. That they receive good rankings, positive reviews, and most certainly: Reduced (or ideally null) levels of plagiarism. As long as the data shows an overall drop in acts of plagiarism, it is assumed that the system is running smoothly. So if the numbers are good, it is assumed that the policy is effective and so why should one concern oneself with a couple of outliers, anomalies, errors or exceptions? And at this point the answer is very clear: Because there are real, living, breathing and vulnerable people that have fallen within your “margin of error”.

On a closer look, TurnitIn is the perfect example of how power has become productive in training us to not only consent to the terms and agreement, but to actually want to submit our so-called freedoms willingly and even enjoy the process. It’s fast, simple, convenient etc. — all the comforts that are usually ascribed to technology; it’s supposed to make our lives easier while remaining neutral and impartial.

In “Do Students Turn Over Their Rights When They Turn in Their Papers? A Case Study of” Stephen Sharon points out the deeply sedimented hypocrisy in the normalization of anti-plagiarism software. Not to mention the general inefficiency of the algorithm, its “detection” of false positives as well as its failure to detect real negatives, TurnitIn may turn out to be the worlds most efficient agent of copyright infringement. It really seems to be the case that with TurnitIt, we are dealing with an instance of legal, institutionalized plagiarism on a massive scale.

Even things that were considered self-evident; clear as daylight, have now become an object of dispute in the digital age. “The exclusive rights granted to an author to control duplication and distribution sound straightforward, but in the digital age nothing is as simple as it sounds” writes Sharon. It seems that TurnitIn not only allows for the policing and indefinite distribution of the student’s intellectual property, but as a matter of fact, it actively encourages it. This is the main problem with false positives, it allows for institutions and those in privileged positions within the faculty to falsely accuse certain persons of plagiarism, when in fact the real problem could have been something as insignificant as “double-dipping” which in academic jargon refers to the practice of re-using ones own material for different courses.

Double-dipping could be considered tasteless at best, it does not even fall into the (already and in-itself quite ridiculous) category of “self-plagiarism”, because at least the way the term is used here, it implies that the rehashed material has not been published in an academic journal, but only submitted for a different course. The material cannot be cited, because it was never officially published. Far from a legal copyright violation or examination-fraud, double-dipping is nothing more than going against the norm, and here lies the essence of the problem and the real danger with software like TurnitIn. With TurnitIn, the most minor and insignificant “infractions”, essentially expressions of human freedom and originality, the right to say “no”, to refuse to conform to accepted behaviour and resist oppressive practices, can now acquire a legal dimension to the detriment of those refusing to be governed this way. The juridical is now present in the norm, the very same normal or normalized behaviour that essentially forces us to “agree”, “consent”, “accept cookies” or otherwise hand our civil rights and freedoms into the hands of anonymous, corporate powers.

It is precisely through the blurred boundary between the normal and the legal, that power takes hold of us. What was a recommendation or a tacit rule in the past, turns into an explicit command and an obligation. One might perhaps object and state the question: “How is double-dipping an expression of creativity?” Making new connections is a creative act, often much more creative than writing a paper on command. Institutionally, and in terms of what one is expected (as opposed to legally compelled) to do, it is an expression of originality. It also testifies to the internal coherence of one’s ideas. It is a testament to the consistency of one’s thought.

“If new authors are so afraid that they may be infringing on another’s rights, they may choose not to express themselves creatively and this would upset the founders’ goal of promoting the arts,” Sharon is not even talking about “self-plagiarism” in this case, but what would normally be considered typical plagiarism. This should help us gain some perspective on whether double-dipping is a real issue or a clear instance of a trivial problematization. Precisely the type of problematization that makes universities look good on paper at the expense of the students who fall within the margin of error of the statistical analysis and implementation of anti-plagiarism policies.

The TurnitIn corporation has actually duped the world into thinking that they can prevent plagiarism by stealing the works of millions of students, collecting our intellectual property into a database and then selling it back to the universities. By deploying a world-wide textual policing apparatus, TurnitIn now controls, monopolizes, manages or otherwise governs our intellectual activity. Far from “solving” the problem of plagiarism TurnitIn itself presents a clear case of legal, normalized and institutionalized copyright infringement. The universities fear for their reputation, prestige, rankings and finally of course — profit, the faculty fears the administration which insists on implementing solutions like TurnitIn and the students end up bearing the brunt of it all by having to comply with university regulations, TurnitIn’s hidden terms and agreement statements that are impossible to either read and understand or reject, and finally the teachers and professors who enforce the use of various EdTech software.

Morris and Stommel quote Tim Amidon, writing: “iParadigms’ Turnitin employs a rhetoric of fear to turn educators away from, as Rebecca Moore Howard puts it, “pedagogy that joins teachers and students in the educational enterprise [by choosing] … a machine that will separate them,” but also leaches the intellectual property students create within educational systems only to sell it back to schools.”

The passage speaks for itself. We are left with a practical question: How do we resist TurnitIn? Morris and Stommel identify 5 basic features of anti-plagiarism software that, in my opinion, makes this particular educational technology into a value-laden security apparatus. Or in other words, an instrument of structural or systemic oppression.

  1. It reduces student agency by alienating them from their work
  2. Enforces a zero-trust policy where you are assumed guilty until proven innocent i.e. it turns us into ‘objects in need of policing’
  3. It creates a hostile environment between students and professors
  4. It substitutes technology for dynamic teaching environments
  5. Violates student privacy

Morris and Stommel continue to argue that resistance must take place at several fronts, we must employ a multiplicity of techniques and tactics. First, the student must be given a wider array of options when submitting her work and second, one must criticize those institutional structures which legitimate the use of EdTech software and surveillance algorithms. I would add a third option, which would be to always have the opportunity to return to analog and submit one’s paper as a hard copy. Of course with the Pandemic Lockdown, this would be even more difficult to achieve. And nonetheless it is a battle that needs to be waged.

More importantly, Morris and Stommel offer us a very clear, straightforward and concrete solution to the problem. We can simply take the letter below and send it to our professors, supervisors, examination committee or any other person with enough decision-making power and/or vested interest in enforcing the use of the TurnitIn algorithm.

This is the letter and it can be found on the bottom of this webpage:



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