The Morality of WriteCheck, or Why do we bother with door locks?

Out of the corner of my eye, or rather the corner of my screen, I saw numerous tweets, re-tweets and commentaries on plagiarism this week, namely on how students are circumventing ‘the system’.

The fact that students were avoiding detection by programmes such as TurnItIn did not come as a surprise to me. I have, on several occasions, found students taking lengthy, direct quotations from Wikipedia that were not flagged up by the system. I don’t mind. I consider it a bit of due diligence on my part to scan the most obvious Wikipedia articles right before the submission date in order to familiarise myself with the basic structure and level of detail it offers. I have a very good memory for phrasing so I usually spot this sort of low-level plagiarism easily. I also routinely type the essay questions into Google and Yahoo! to review the three or four most popular sites. This, of course, only catchiest the laziest (or most clueless) of plagiarising students, but these are probably the ones I want to catch most. If you can’t even be bothered to go beyond the first hit on Google to plagiarise, you deserve to be caught, and caught quickly.

What about those students who are more aggressive in their plagiarism? The ones who use Cyrillic fonts or HTML tags? TurnItIn probably won’t catch them. But that’s okay. TurnItIn is a tool, not a replacement for common sense.

There are numerous ways that I spot plagiarism. Wait, you say. Don’t list them! Your students will know your secrets. Nonsense. I don’t mind explaining them here because they are common sense and any half-way intelligent cheat is going to know them already.

  1. Does the font, size, colour, spacing, indention or any other formatting suddenly change in the text?
  2. Does the tone, vocabulary, phrasing or line of argument suddenly change?
  3. Does the formatting of references change?
  4. Is the referencing very consistent but wholly incorrect for use in your university / department?
  5. Does the turn of phrase sound very familiar (might it be from the core textbook)?
  6. Is the choice of synonyms consistently wrong (or ludicrously funny)?

Again, like using the four first Google suggestions, this is very low-level plagiarism and will almost always get caught by any marker with a modicum of common sense.

But then, I came across this article. Many lecturers were upset to find that the company that provided the TurnItIn software was also marketing a way to ‘cheat’ the system directly to students. WriteCheck. For a nominal fee, student can upload their document to the server and it will highlight all instances of possible plagiarism (as dictated by the same database used by TurnItIn). Scandalous. Students will see exactly what they need to change (and what they can leave) in order to sneak that plagiarism by you. This doesn’t worry me at all. As I explained earlier this summer, I encourage my students to submit drafts to the TurnItIn software as a way of reinforcing proper referencing and paraphrasing technique. If they want to spend $6.95 to do it again, that’s fine by me.

So, am I just not taking the whole ‘plagiarism thing’ seriously? Of course not. Plagiarism is a horrible blight on academic, journalistic and artistic discourse. It should be vigorously countered whenever possible and appropriately punished. At my undergraduate university, any instance of proven plagiarism resulted in automatic failure of the module, and additional counts led to expulsion from the university. This is a policy with which I fully agree. But if we as lecturers rely on some magic machine to point out plagiarism to us, we are behaving just as badly as the students we are trying to catch.

I do use TurnItIn in the first instance to weed out the lazy or ludicrously poor plagiarisers. It saves me the time and energy of typing obviously plagiarised sections into Google or JSTOR myself. But I also read the essays before I look at the TurnItIn report and pay close attention to their style and content. Even in a world without plagiarism, I am reading these essays to help students develop arguments and use evidence effectively. If an argument or a bit of rhetoric suddenly takes a left turn, I should notice it whether it is plagiarism or simply poor editing.

As for my title, think of student essays as your front door. You can buy an alarm system, or those lights that turn on in response to noise or one of those super-heavy-duty deadbolts. But if a professional and skilled burglar wants to steal your TV, your TV is getting stolen. If a student really wants to cheat on their essays, they will find a way, and they may very well get away with it.

But we should not get so obsessed with plagiarism that simply passing TurnItIn is sufficient to pass a module. I’ve failed plenty of essays without one word of plagiarism and I’ve helped several students with bad paraphrasing skills go on to become excellent researchers.

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