The elearning revolution may have met its nemesis in plagiarism and it may be preventing professors from truly recognizing the teaching and learning potential of online courses. According to a report released by Turnitin, a leading provider of plagiarism detection software, 33.5 million papers were submitted between June 2010 and June 2011 and out of these an appalling 128 million content matches were found, which means an average of 3.82 incidents of plagiarism were detected per paper. Advocates of e-learning support the use of plagiarism detection software (PDSs) to help combat this high level of academic theft, but many professionals in higher education remain on the fence regarding the merits of these types of software. The Conference on College Composition and Communication just passed a resolution to censure the use of plagiarism detection software. According to the CCCC,
“plagiarism detection services can compromise academic integrity by potentially undermining students’ agency as writers, treating all students as always already plagiarists, creating a hostile learning environment, shifting the responsibility of identifying and interpreting source misuse from teachers to technology, and compelling students to agree to licensing agreements that threaten their privacy and rights to their own intellectual property.”
The CCCC, also called the four Cs, goes on to state that they publicly commend academic institutions that offer sound pedagogical alternatives to PDSs and encourages all schools that use such software to begin implementing policies that look out for the students’ interests. Examples of policies can be to openly notify students at the start of the term that all essays will be run through PDSs, provide students with the option to opt-out of plagiarism detection process, and finally the ability to submit essay drafts to the PDS before the final due date.
Chris Harrick, a Turnitin spokesman, responded to this resolution by stating “like any technology that is highly adopted, it is going to have its critics and we have a small, vocal minority in the four Cs that, we believe, misinterpret how the technology is used”. But the four Cs are not the only critics who have openly stated their worries and concerns over the application of PDSs. Arguments over the effectiveness of such software have been circulating for a while. According to Bruce Schneier, an internationally renowned cryptographer and computer security specialist, Turnitin “captures only the most flagrant form of plagiarism, where passages are copied from one document and pasted unchanged into another”. This does nothing to stop the majority of plagiarists that alter and scramble the text in order to pass it off as their own. Schneier criticizes Turnitin for offering another product called WriteCheck which allows students to check their writing against the same plagiarism detection database that Turnitin runs on. Schneier argues that “Turnitin is playing playing both sides of the fence, helping instructors identify plagiarists while helping plagiarists avoid detection.”
Are Universities and Colleges forced to turn to PDSs such as Turnitin, or is there another option looming in the distance? As Bruce Schneier states in his keynote address at the 2012 RSA conference, trust is a key component of being human and it separates us from other species on this planet. Are we jeopardizing our institutions of higher learning by using PDSs, and what are we saying about the level of trust or lack of we have for our students?