The Dark Side Of The Online Struggle Against Plagiarism

College students are under a lot of pressure, what with classes, resident activities, helicopter parents and a none-too-rosy job market waiting for them after graduation. Add the ease of cut-and-paste to the need to grab the almighty A and it's no surprise that many students turn to plagiarism. Unfortunately, I've seen that the technological war against plagiarism can do more harm than good.

As a college instructor, I have seen students with otherwise strict ethical codes panic and turn in work that doesn't belong to them, just because something in their world blew up and they thought getting something in on time was more important than doing their own work.

The Weapons Of War

Personally, plagiarism is not especially hard for me to detect. Years of professional writing and editing experience makes it pretty easy for me to detect a sudden change in voice. And in my current class there's not a lot of written assignments, so keeping up with the workload is not that hard.

But for my colleagues in other parts of the college, I know that is not the case. Essays and theses are more prevalent, and grading them can be very time consuming part of the job. Which is why online plagiarism checkers look very attractive to many professors.

Search-and-comparison engines are relatively common at the class, department or even school level at various global institutes for higher learning. The basic premise of these tools - such as Turnitin, PlagTracker.com and Dustball's The Plagiarism Checker - is the the same: a teacher uploads the document and the program checks the results against the vendor's database of submitted works and online sources. If a paper has passages that were also found somewhere else, it flags those passages for the teacher to deal with appropriately.

Sounds good, right?

Perhaps, but not everyone is convinced.

The Problems With The Solution

First, there is the cost. Turnitin, which is widely acknowledged to have the most extensive database, does not post its prices, using a private quote system instead. But anecdotal evidence can be found on the Internet: the Financial Times most recently pegged the cost at $2 per student per year. That doesn't sound like a lot, but if I were to use this service for all the sections of the class I co-teach, that's $1,400 peracademic year for one class.

Dustball's Premium service is $8 per month, for 50 uses, with each additional use costing $.25. Back to my class, assuming one essay per semester, that's a more manageable $246 per year, with subscription costs. Three essays per semester would run $311.

PlagTracker.com? Free of charge, at least for now. Presumably the Ukrainian-based service is building up its content database for monetization later.

There's also an ethical issue with plagiarism checkers - the questionable use of students' work as a money maker for these services. Sort of like Facebook, Turnitin and the other services are making money off of content that they did not create. Perhaps worse, unlike Facebook where the content owner typically uploads it willingly, students have no say in whether their paper is uploaded by the teacher to the plagiarism checker.

Many students and teachers are less than thrilled by this idea. Turnitin has specifically claimed fair use in defense of its use of this content, and in 2008 Turnitin's parent company iParadigms won a lawsuit brought against the company by four students claiming copyright violation. In its ruling, the court agreed that the content's use was indeed fair.

"It is clear that iParadigms' use of the Plaintiff's works has caused no harm to the market value of these works," Judge Claude Hilton ruled at the time.

That has not stopped faculty and students from having qualms about the use of students' papers in a for-profit enterprise.

Setting Up For Failure

The final issue is the atmosphere of distrust that routine use of plagiarism checkers can create. Assuming all students are guilty until proven innocent is not a healthy start to the student-teacher relationship. It might actually encourage an adversarial environment that pushes sneakier students towards getting more creative with their plagiarism while alienating students that never had any intention of plagiarizing.

"While some plagiarism detection software is conceived as helping students identify their own peccadilloes - as if committed inadvertently - the technological campaign to monitor and root out plagiarism is reminiscent of the war on drugs, where a large investment in cameras and dog-squads yields negligible returns in expunging the abhorred dependency," wrote Robert Nelson, Associate Director Student Experience at Monash University, Australia. "We chase students as if they are crooks instead of looking at why students are tempted to plagiarise."

Is There A Better Way?

Nelson's point echoes strongly with me. I am no naif, and I am fully aware that there will be cheaters every once in a while in my class. I live in a world where essay mills like this one exist; how could I not know bad choices are getting made?

When I approach my students' works, though, I don't go in thinking about catching a cheater. If there is an issue, it's usually that something jumps out at me and then I start checking.

I have the Honor Code conversation with students at the start of every semester, and I always try to separate ethical concerns from the conversation, just to shake them up. Even in an amoral situation, there's no long-term percentage in cheating. By skipping the work, all they might get (if they aren't caught) is a decent grade. But the thoughts they might have had if they had done the work on their own? Never happened.

That's a much greater loss than getting a bad grade.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock