a pink flower rests gently on the trigger for a wood-and-metal mousetrap

A Guide for Resisting Edtech: the Case against Turnitin

 Published on June 15, 2017 /  Written by and /  Reviewed by Kris Shaffer and Robin Wharton /  “The trap” by Aftab Uzzaman; CC BY-NC 2.0 /  18

Students often find themselves uploading their content — their creative work — into the learning management system. Perhaps they retain a copy of the file on their computer; but with learning analytics and plagiarism detection software, they still often find themselves having their data scanned and monetized, often without their knowledge or consent.

— Audrey Watters, “Education Technology’s Completely Over

A funny thing happened on the way to academic integrity. Plagiarism detection software (PDS), like Turnitin, has seized control of student intellectual property. While students who use Turnitin are discouraged from copying other work, the company itself can strip mine and sell student work for profit.

For this bait-and-switch to succeed, Turnitin relies upon the uncritical adoption of their platform by universities, colleges, community colleges, and K12 schools. All institutions that, in theory, have critical thinking as a core value in their educational missions. And yet they are complicit in the abuse of students by corporations like Turnitin.

The internet is increasingly a privately-owned public space. On April 3, 2017, Donald Trump signed into law a bill overturning Obama-era protections for internet users. The new law permits Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to access, without permission, data about our internet use patterns — from the sites we visit to the search terms we use. And this data isn’t restricted to the work we do on computers. Thanks to the “internet of things,” all our various connections can be monitored by our ISPs — from our physical location to the temperature we keep our homes to the music we ask Alexa to play for us. (In fact, Alexa processes all of our speech when it is on, even when we are not addressing it.)

Every day, we participate in a digital culture owned and operated by others — designers, engineers, technologists, CEOs — who have come to understand how easily they can harvest our intellectual property, data, and the minute details of our lives. To resist this (or even to more consciously participate in it), we need skills that allow us to “read” our world (in the Freirean sense) and to act with agency.

Critical Digital Literacies

Tim Amidon writes in “(dis)Owning Tech: Ensuring Value and Agency at the Moment of Interface”,

Educational technologies, as interfaces, offer students and educators opportunities to discover and enact agency through strategic rhetorical action. Yet, realizing this agency is complex work … [that] requires an increasingly sophisticated array of multiliteracies.

Developing these critical multiliteracies is vital if we want scholars and students — and all the digital citizenry — to retain ownership over their intellectual property, their data, their privacy, their ideas, their voices. Even tools we love — that have potential to do good work in the world — need careful scrutiny. It is, in fact, part of our care for those tools and students who use them that demands we approach educational technology critically. There is no good use in tool fidelity. For example, uncritical belief in the superiority of the Mac OS over Windows or Linux may lead us to overlook how single-platform solutions exclude those without access to them. Tools (and software) are not something we should ever be “loyal” to. Even when a company’s ideology is sound, the execution of that ideology through the platform may be flawed. For this reason, it’s important to understand how to look deeply at any digital tool.

This isn’t, as Howard Rheingold writes, “rocket science. It’s not even algebra. Becoming acquainted with the fundamentals of Web credibility testing is easier than learning the multiplication tables. The hard part, as always, is the exercise of flabby think-for-yourself muscles.” There is no special magic to digital literacies, whether we’re assessing information or which word processing tool to use — and no pre-defined set of “transferrable skills” that can only be drawn upon by “experts” in the field. Rather, the work involves a shift in orientation and acknowledgement that the Web works upon its objects and people in specific and nuanced ways.

At the Digital Pedagogy Lab Institutes where we’ve taught, there’s one exercise in particular we return to again and again. In our “crap detection” exercise (named for Rheingold’s use of the term), participants use a rubric to assess one of a number of digital tools. The tools are pitted, head to head, in a sort of edtech celebrity deathmatch. Participants compare Blackboard and Canvas, for instance, or WordPress and Medium, Twitter and Facebook, Genius and Hypothes.is.

We start by seeing what the tools say they do and comparing that to what they actually do. But the work asks educators to do more than simply look at the platform’s own web site, which more often than not says only the very best things (and sometimes directly misleading things) about the company and its tool. We encourage participants to do research — to find forums, articles, and blog posts written about the platform, to read the tool’s terms of service, and even to tweet questions directly to the company’s CEO.

This last has led to some interesting discussions on Twitter. One CEO, for example, wondered defensively what his own politics had to do with his tool. Others have been incredibly receptive to the conversations this activity has generated. We would contend that this is the exact kind of work we should do when choosing what tools to use with students. (Jesse has also done the activity with a group of digital studies students at University of Mary Washington.) Educators should be looking under the hood of edtech tools and talking more directly with technologists. Meanwhile, edtech CEOs should be encouraged (and sometimes compelled) to better understand what happens in our classrooms. Otherwise, we end up with tools — like ProctorU and Turnitin — that not only try to anticipate (or invent) the needs of teachers, but ultimately do damage by working directly at odds with our pedagogies.

Slide of the Critically Evaluating Digital Tools assignment; text (copied below in article) on rainbow-striped background

The goal of the exercise is not to “take down” or malign any specific digital tools or edtech companies, but rather for participants to think in ways they haven’t about the tools they already use or might consider asking students to use.

Here’s the rubric for the exercise:

  1. Who owns the tool? What is the name of the company, the CEO? What are their politics? What does the tool say it does? What does it actually do?
  2. What data are we required to provide in order to use the tool (login, e-mail, birthdate, etc.)? What flexibility do we have to be anonymous, or to protect our data? Where is data housed; who owns the data? What are the implications for in-class use? Will others be able to use/copy/own our work there?
  3. How does this tool act or not act as a mediator for our pedagogies? Does the tool attempt to dictate our pedagogies? How is its design pedagogical? Or exactly not pedagogical? Does the tool offer a way that “learning can most deeply and intimately begin”?

Over time, the exercise has evolved as the educators we’ve worked with have developed further questions through their research. Accessibility, for example, has always been an implicit component of the activity, which we’ve now brought more distinctly to the fore, adding these questions: How accessible is the tool? For a blind student? For a hearing-impaired student? For a student with a learning disability? For introverts? For extroverts? Etc. What statements does the company make about accessibility?

Ultimately, this is a critical thinking exercise aimed at asking critical questions, empowering critical relationships, encouraging new digital literacies.

Sean sees these kinds of literacies as a vital component of teaching and learning in digital spaces:

What lies at the heart of these literacies also forms the primary concern of critical digital pedagogy: that is, agency. The agency to know, understand, and thereby be able to act upon, create, or resist one’s reality. For the student, this can mean anything from knowing how and why to read terms of service for a digital product or platform; recognizing the availability of networks and community in digital spaces, even in the LMS; understanding the multitude of ways that digital identity can be built, compromised, and protected; discovering methods for establishing presence and voice, and the wherewithal to reach out to others who are trying to discover the same.

This is ethical, activist work. While not exactly the Luddism of the 19th Century, we must ask ourselves when we’re choosing edtech tools who profits and from what? Audrey Watters reminds us that, for the Luddites, “It was never about the loom per se. It’s always about who owns the machines; it’s about who benefits from one’s labor, from one’s craft.” Because so much of educational technology runs on the labor of students and teachers, profiting off the work they do in the course of a day, quarter, or semester, it’s imperative that we understand deeply our relationship to that technology — and more importantly the relationship, or “arranged marriage,” we are brokering for students.

Because what’s especially problematic in all of this is that instructors compel students to comply with the terms of these software and tools. And administrators or institutions compel faculty to compel students to comply. Meanwhile, everyone involved is being sold a “product,” some of which, like Turnitin, are designed to eat our intellectual property and spit out control and hierarchy on the other end. When adopting new platforms, we shouldn’t invest in or cede control to for-profit companies more interested in profit than education. And, when our institutions (or teachers) make unethical choices, we must (if we are able) find ways to say “no.”

In “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” Herman Melville writes, “Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance.” We must become conscious of, as Jesse has elsewhere observed,

the ways we respond (both actively and passively) in the face of institutional demands we find unethical or pedagogically harmful … And if we object to the increasing standardization of education, how and where do we build sites of resistance? What strategies can we employ to protect ourselves and students? What work-arounds can we employ as we build courage and community for revolt? What systems of privilege must we first dismantle?

Critical analysis is resistance. Questions are our sabots.

Turnitin: Academic Integrity at $2 per Student

Some platforms are not agnostic. Not all tools can be hacked to good use. Critical Digital Pedagogy demands we approach our tools and technologies always with one eyebrow raised. Some tools have good intentions squandered at the level of interface. Some tools have no good intentions at all. And when tools like these are adopted across an institution, the risks in mounting a resistance can be incredibly high, especially for contingent staff, students, and untenured faculty.

Turnitin isn’t selling teachers and administrators a product. The marketing on their website frames the Turnitin brand less as software and more as a pedagogical lifestyle brand. In fact, the word “plagiarism” is used only twice on their home page, in spite of the fact that the tool is first and foremost a plagiarism detection service. The rest of the copy and images are smoke and mirrors. They are “your partner in education with integrity.” They are “trusted by 15,000 institutions and 30 million students.” (We feel certain they didn’t ask those 30 million students whether they “trust” Turnitin.) The “products” most prominently featured are their “revision assistant” and “feedback studio.” For the teachers and administrators using Turnitin as a plagiarism detector, these features function like carbon offsetting. When asked whether their institution uses Turnitin, they can point to all the other things Turnitin can be used for — all the other things that Turnitin is not really used for. The site even attempts to hide its core functionality behind a smokescreen; in the description for the “feedback studio,” plagiarism detection is called “similarity checking.”

Screenshot of Turnitin main page as of June 2017; relevant content discussed in article text

As we wrote above, thinking critically about digital tools means weighing what the tools say they do against what they actually do. In the case of Turnitin there are some marked discrepancies. For example, at the top of Turnitin’s Privacy page (which they grossly call their “Privacy Center”), a note from the CEO declares, “Integrity is at the heart of all we do; it defines us.” Then later, Turnitin declares that it “does not ever assert or claim copyright ownership of any works submitted to or through our service. Your property is YOUR property. We do not, and will not, use your intellectual property for any purpose other than to deliver, support, and develop our services, which are designed to protect and strengthen your copyright.” Even if it is true that Turnitin doesn’t assert ownership over the intellectual property it collects, their statement is misleading. They are basically saying our brand is your brand — that by helping them build their business we all simultaneously protect our own intellectual property. This is absurd.

Robin Wharton encourages educators, at the end of her 2006 piece “Re-Thinking Plagiarism as Unfair Competition,” “to take a long hard look at how their own practices may foster an environment in which students are disenfranchised and relegated to the status of mere consumers in the education process.”

In a recent conversation where he tried to explain why Turnitin’s violation of student intellectual property was a problem, Sean’s argument was countered with a question about whether that intellectual property was worth protecting. After all, most student work “isn’t worth publishing.” Ignoring for a moment this flagrant disregard for the value of student work, the point to make here is that Turnitin actively profits (to the tune of $752 million) from the work of students.

Let’s look closer at Turnitin’s terms of service, keeping in mind that complying with these terms is not optional for students required to submit their work to Turnitin.

Any communications or material of any kind that you e-mail, post, or transmit through the Site (excluding personally identifiable information of students and any papers submitted to the Site), including, questions, comments, suggestions, and other data and information (your “Communications”) will be treated as non-confidential and nonproprietary. You grant Turnitin a non-exclusive, royalty-free, perpetual, world-wide, irrevocable license to reproduce, transmit, display, disclose, and otherwise use your Communications on the Site or elsewhere for our business purposes. We are free to use any ideas, concepts, techniques, know-how in your Communications for any purpose, including, but not limited to, the development and use of products and services based on the Communications. [emphasis added]

As Jesse wrote in a piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education: “What we see there is a blur of words and phrases separated by commas, of which ‘royalty-free, perpetual, world-wide, irrevocable’ are but a scary few. The rat-a-tat-tat of nouns, verbs, and adjectives is so bewildering that almost anyone would blindly click ‘agree’ just to avoid the deluge of legalese. But these words are serious and their ramifications pedagogical.” Note also that this rather crucial paragraph is currently buried in the middle of Turnitin’s TOS, over 5000 words in.

For papers submitted to the site specifically, the Turnitin TOS states “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, for the limited purposes of a) providing the Services, and b) for improving the quality of the Services generally.” The gist: when you upload work to Turnitin, your property is, in no reasonable sense, YOUR property. Every essay students submit — representing hours, days, or even years of work — becomes part of the Turnitin database, which is then sold to universities. According to the company’s website, as of this writing, Turnitin has a “non-exclusive, royalty-free, perpetual, worldwide, irrevocable license” to more than 734 million student papers.

734 million student papers.

Turnitin doesn’t reveal its pricing on its website, going instead for a “get a quote” model, but Financial Times reported in 2012 that the cost per student was around $2 per year. So, that means an institution of 10,000 students will pay Turnitin $20,000 per year so the company can build its business. But Turnitin does not do a large chunk of the labor it sells. Students do. And even if students don’t actively object to donating that labor, educators should never be in the business of removing student agency.

The abuse of student labor and intellectual property is only the beginning of the problem with Turnitin. If the company’s financial and legal model isn’t troubling enough, consider then how the application of its services affects the pedagogical relationship between students and teachers.

Tim Amidon observes:

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.

Turnitin supplants teaching. Whereas intellectual property is a multivalent issue in the academy (especially in a digital age when authorship and ownership are mutable and contested), Turnitin’s solution is writ in black and white. “Students uploading their work to Turnitin are turned from learners into potential plagiarizers,” Jesse writes in “Who Controls Your Dissertation?”, “and the teaching moment (about attribution, citation, and scholarly generosity) is given away to an algorithm.” To an issue of academic integrity that has been the project of teaching for decades, educational technology answers with efficiency. Plug it in. Add it up. Point a finger.

Behind this surrender to efficiency over complication, Turnitin takes advantage of the perennial mistrust of students by teachers. Turnitin relies on suspicion of plagiarism as an assumed quantity in the teacher-student relationship, and it feeds that polemic through its marketing. In their “Plagiarism Spectrum” infographic, for example, student writing is reduced to quaint icons and graphics. Plagiarism comes in flavors — from CTRL-C to Hybrid, from Remix and Recycle to 404 Error — which assign students to 10 discrete types. Easily managed, simple to define, less than human.

Rebecca Moore Howard writes that

Many of our colleagues are entrenched in an agonistic stance toward students in the aggregate: students are lazy, illiterate, anti-intellectual cheaters who must prove their worth to the instructor. Turnitin and its automated assessment of student writing is a tool for that proof…

There’s something terribly parasitic about a service that plays on our insecurity about students and our fears of cheating. And it’s not just leaching student intellectual property, and reinforcing teachers’ mistrust of students, it’s actually handicapping teachers from exercising their pedagogical agency. Inside Higher Ed reported in 2015 that:

The Council of Writing Program Administrators has noted that “teachers often find themselves playing an adversarial role as ‘plagiarism police’ instead of a coaching role as educators.” As a result, the “suspi­cion of student plagiarism has begun to affect teachers at all levels, at times diverting them from the work of developing students’ writing, reading and critical thinking abilities,” the organization wrote in a statement on best practices from 2003.

So, if you’re not worried about paying Turnitin to traffic your students’ intellectual property, and you’re not worried about how the company has glossed a complicated pedagogical issue to offer a simple solution, you might worry about how Turnitin reinforces the divide between teachers and students, short-circuiting the human tools we have to cross that divide.

These arguments and others led the CCCC Intellectual Property Caucus to issue a statement about Turnitin and other plagiarism detection services. In short, the statement cites five irreconcilable problems with Turnitin (none of which even begin to mine its problematic business model):

Plagiarism detection services

  1. “undermine students’ authority” over their own work;
  2. place students in a role of needing to be “policed”;
  3. “create a hostile environment”;
  4. supplant good teaching with the use of inferior technology;
  5. violate student privacy.

Resisting Turnitin

How does a student push back against the flood of a tool like Turnitin, especially when that tool has been adopted across an institution? Resistance has to be on multiple fronts, offering individual students ways to respond when they are asked to compromise their intellectual property, while also addressing the systemic issues that leads to the institutional adoption of Turnitin in the first place. Many students instinctually understand the problems with a tool like Turnitin. Many have told us both how it feels to hit submit, turning over their work to an algorithm, and how helpless they feel to challenge a system that has distrust at its core. As educators, we can advocate and work to educate others about the problems of tools like Turnitin, but we find ourselves wanting better solutions, in the moment, for students who find themselves staring down the requirement of submitting to Turnitin.

Toward that end, we’ve put together a draft letter that students can send to faculty, that faculty can send to administrators, to help them better understand the problems with Turnitin. The tone of the letter is intentionally non-combative, and it includes a list of further resources. We encourage anyone to fork, remix, re-imagine this letter at will. Help us by offering suggestions on how we can continue to revise. And, if you send some version of it, let us know.

Dear [Name]:

In 2014, the Conference on College Composition and Communication, a branch of the National Council of Teachers of English, concluded that plagiarism detection services, like Turnitin by iParadigm, “create a hostile environment” in classrooms, “undermine students’ authority” over their own work, and violate student privacy. Despite this fact, I am asked to submit my work frequently through Turnitin in the name of academic integrity. Unfortunately, the use of student intellectual property and labor for profit by a third party is neither academic in practice or spirit, nor does it model integrity.

Plagiarism detection services rely upon the labor of students as their business model. Although Turnitin markets itself as a “partner in education,” “trusted by 15,000 institutions and 30 million students,” in fact the service does what no collaborator should do—forces me to license to them my intellectual property and makes it impossible for me to reclaim my full rights to that work. Turnitin’s terms of service state very clearly:

If You submit a paper or other content in connection with the Services, 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, for the limited purposes of a) providing the Services, and b) for improving the quality of the Services generally.

This means that, not only do I surrender the license to use my work in perpetuity to this plagiarism detection service, but Turnitin sells my work back to you.

I’ve gathered together a few resources on the matter for your consideration:

Please stop using Turnitin at our institution. Choose instead to keep academic integrity a human problem with human solutions. Or, at the very least, allow me to individually opt out. Should I ever unintentionally plagiarize, I would rather have the opportunity to speak with my instructor about my mistake than receive a machine-generated report. Please put teaching back in the hands of teachers, where it belongs.

There is no reason to surrender this institution’s tradition of teaching and academic integrity to a third-party technology solution. Thank you for your support.


Add to the Conversation

18 Responses
  1. Brilliant article. I would also add that TII encourages faculty to design essay based assessments and effectively discourages them from designing authentic assessments that are difficult to plagiarise.

    There are, as you know, many ways of assessing students that don’t rely on large quantities of written text.

  2. dwb

    I’m as against Turnitin as they come, but this is a whole lotta words to restate research and practices that are years old. Likewise–again, I detest and resist Turnitin at all turns–this article selectively omits the option that teachers/institutions can select not to submit student essays to the proprietary database. In short, this is an administration-facing article (admittedly a very dated one) that is written toward (potentially agency-less) instructors.

    1. Agreed that many of the points here about Turnitin are dated. Sean and I have been making many of these points since at least 2007 or earlier. The problem: Turnitin’s market share keeps growing. Which makes the issues here pretty evergreen in my view.

      And this isn’t just an administrative problem. Every single person has the ability to say “no.” Administrators that sign a deal with Turnitin. Technologists that help implement it. Teachers that require their students to submit. Students that comply. Each of us isn’t equally positioned to say “no,” but in order to stop the adoption of this (truly absurdist) tech, we all have to find ways to work together.

      What we can do more effectively, and what this piece is really about, is evaluate other tech more thoroughly before we adopt it en masse.

      1. I would add, too, that part of the impetus behind writing this article now was that we had both been recently approached by graduate and undergraduate students who felt exactly “agent-less” with regards to Turnitin. Conscientious objection doesn’t go over well in most classrooms, so we wanted to provide *students* with both and argument and research to help them resist Turnitin.

    2. pierce

      Thanks DWB, I was about to say exactly the same thing.

      There is an option to not store essays in the TII database which means that student work doesn’t put money in pockets of the company as an asset. I advise academics about this every time I show them how to use the tool and I include it in all support material that I create.

      My, admittedly limited, legal understanding of the boilerplate licensing conditions for uploaded work is something that has to be used on any site that files are uploaded to to authorise them to have possession of the files.

      I would certainly prefer that academics set richer, more meaningful assessment tasks that would negate the need for these kinds of tools – sadly this isn’t always feasible. Maybe they have 800 students in the class, maybe they are equipping students with the skills to perform particular writing tasks and most likely they have never actually learnt how to teach better, their own studies involved essays and their primary research outputs (journal articles) are essentially still just big essays. (When you only think you have a hammer…).

      I would certainly also prefer that students didn’t cheat and that there weren’t lucrative essay-writing mills and other forms of contract cheating that disadvantage honest students. Making the argument that tools like this – and they are just tools – creates an environment of distrust seems to ignore this fact.

      I can appreciate that this might well paint me as some kind of pro-corporate shill but I think I’m far from it. I have enormous concerns about the commodification of education and the profiteering (and worse) of corporations in this space because some things are too important to simply ‘make a buck’ from. We absolutely need to forensically examine what we’re signing up for and make informed decisions about which tech is implemented. (I was surprised that in your description of how to do this – read other opinions beyond the company website – you seemed to leave out test the tool for yourself. MITx has a fantastic series of MOOCs about implementing education technology).

      I guess my ultimate point is that it is better to be an informed user of an appropriate system than simply throwing up one’s hands in dismay. Pushing for better evaluation of ed tech is important and I’ll readily admit that too many times a senior executive comes back from a conference or a conversation with a sales rep and has decided on a new system without any of this. No idea how to deal with that.

      We haven’t even touched on the fact that sometimes similarity matches that look like plagiarism are actually just about picking up poor academic practices when it comes to citations, which can teach students to write better.

  3. Matt Patenaude

    I’d just like to note that a central point of the latter part of the article is completely false. You claim that the Terms of Service (which you selectively bolded) give Turnitin an “irrevocable license” to 734 million student papers.

    “Any communications or material of any kind that you e-mail, post, or transmit through the Site (excluding personally identifiable information of students and any papers submitted to the Site).”

    Note that, in the parenthetical, it explicitly excludes student papers submitted to the site from their license. They are not claiming to be able to use student papers for anything other than plagiarism detection.

    1. Hi Matt,
      Thank you for your comment. Your observation points to part of the problem with the Turnitin TOS, namely that it can be very unclear what they “own” and what they don’t. For instance, we also cite this passage in their TOS: “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, for the limited purposes of a) providing the Services, and b) for improving the quality of the Services generally.” Particularly concerning here is the phrase “license to use such papers.” In this case, it’s obvious that Turnitin lays a certain claim to the papers students submit to their service.

      There’s a thin–but important–line between ownership and license, and that deserves teasing out. Regardless, the thrust of our argument remains stable: that Turnitin profits from the work of students and teachers. A significant portion of the database they sell to universities, colleges, K-12 schools, and teachers consists of the written work of students.

      The discussion of academic integrity and plagiarism is an ongoing, nuanced one. Ownership and authorship are contested ideas. Turnitin erases that nuance in favor of a business model driven and sustained by student labor.

      Thank you again for your comment, and for being a reader of Hybrid Pedagogy.


      1. Josh Moon

        I think Matt is also making a constructive distinction between two versions of the argument. The claim that the authors basically know what Turnitin is doing (using millions of student-submitted papers to enhance and monetize their product) and therefore object feels stronger than “we don’t know exactly what Turnitin is allowed to do with this sweeping license and that worries us.” Maybe I’m being naive, but the TOS doesn’t read to me as ambiguous. Isn’t the gist, essentially, “when you upload work to Turnitin, your property is now part of a database that we’ll use to make our product do what we want more effectively?” That’s what I get from ” for the limited purposes of a) providing the Services, and b) for improving the quality of the Services generally,” anyway.

  4. Hello! I really like your rubric for evaluating edtech. Would it be ok if I excerpted it in a blog post for the Center for Open Educational Resources and Language Learning (COERLL)? In our communications we don’t usually address all of the social/economic/political implications of choosing classroom technology and I would like to bring this to people’s attention.

    1. Chris Friend

      Hi, Sarah. Thanks for your interest. Articles on Hybrid Pedagogy are published with a CC BY-NC 2.0 license, so please attribute the authors when you excerpt. (If you could give a nod/link back to Hybrid Pedagogy, that’d be great, too, but it’s not required.)

  5. Christina

    Hi Sean,

    Great article, thank you very much for it! It brings up the issue of intellectual property and using Ed-tech in education. I guess it’s the common thing that some features of the product aren’t disclosed. Sometimes students are unaware of the fact that their works will be used somehow as a part of software’s marketing strategy. Moreover, the soft is usually chosen by a high academic staff and students can’t influence this process. Being able to work with different online software, I must admit that this questionable issue of using someone’s texts for ad purposes should be discussed before the soft is implemented in the educational process. I’ve got the experience of using Turnitin, Copyscape and Unicheck https://unicheck.com/plagiarism-checker. The most performative and accurate was the last one. We as a students community know this Turnitin’s feature and try to escape such one again dealing with another checker. However, there was an option of choosing whether we want it to save our doc as its database or not. I guess it’s a simple add-on but really helpful one. It makes users feel secure about their works and not participating in the wilful marketing strategy behind their backs.
    I even don’t wanna think about how many hidden features there are in the digital products we use every day in the educational process.

  6. Thank you Sean & Jesse for this informative article. Thank you also for creating a letter we (students) can use to address this issue with our educational institution. I’m considering how best to address this issue at my school. I’m working to combine your letter and the paper I’m working on below.

    Why are some professors at Saint Leo University using Turnitin?
    Turnitin is a deeply flawed plagiarism detection system (PDS). It is not fair to any student who does all the work in creating a paper and yet loses all his/her rights to the paper once it's in the hands of Turnitin. Also, at Saint Leo University, we (the students) pledge to abide by the honor code of the University. However, Saint Leo's decision to use Turnitin, undercuts students opportunity to live by that code of honor. Instead of an atmosphere of trust being the basis of the University and student relationship, when Turnitin is used, the atmosphere becomes toxic and filled with implied guilt. Using Turnitin says to the students, you can't be trusted. The University of Louisville's Department of English understands this, and therefore rejects PDS use. On the Department of English webpage they state; "The use of such a service for student writers begins with a presumption of guilt." By its very nature, Turnitin and other such software create a climate of distrust, the very opposite of what we stand for at Saint Leo University. Students are trustworthy, until proven otherwise. So why must all Saint Leo University students suffer under the oppression of Turnitin because of those rare few who willfully cheat? Why would Saint Leo University purposely undermine all students opportunity to establish and build trust with faculty and the school? This thought alone should give Saint Leo University pause to reconsider using the deeply flawed PDS known as Turnitin. That said, is it possible that there are even more reasons that Saint Leo University should reject PDS like Turnitin? Yes.
    Cost to the University. Conservative estimates, place Turnitin costs to each institution of higher learning to average around $2-4 per student. As of the Spring of 2017, Saint Leo University had over 16,000 students. This equates to the University paying Turnitin from $32,000 $64,000 (or more) every year to have the service. Where does the money come from to pay these fees? Students know a cost to a university always ends up translating into cost to the student. A perfect example includes all online students at Saint Leo beginning for the fall of 2018 now have to pay a $25 technology fee. Why are Universities not using other software (some of which are free) instead of Turnitin? If Saint Leo University insists upon using a PDS company, are they not aware that there are several PDS companies that offer their service at a fraction of the cost of Turnitin? Some are even currently free. Dustball is a company that offers their services at a cost that is less than a fourth the cost of Turnitin. Brian Profitt relates in an online article that "Dustball's Premium service is $8 per month, for 50 uses, with each additional use costing $.25" (Profit, 2012). That would equate to less than a ¼ of the cost of Turnitin. He states PlagTracker.com is free.
    Do other Universities and departments within Universities reject PDS? Yes. The University of Louisville's English Department is a great example. The University of Louisville's Department of English webpage, says "The Composition Committee's decision not to use such software in writing courses is based on several factors:

    1. We regard the use of teaching of writing with research, including citation practices as a rhetorical act.
    2. The use of such a service for student writers begins from a presumption of guilt.
    3. The best deterrents to plagiarism are well designed writing assignments that are distinctive to course material and involve effective writing pedagogy.
    4. Research on plagiarism detection software such as SafeAssign and Turnitin indicates that such software can produce many inaccurate reports, finding plagiarism where it doesn’t exist and missing plagiarism that does.
    5. The result of plagiarism detection software makes no distinction between plagiarism as a form of cheating and students who are making mistakes in working with unfamiliar conventions of academic writing.
    6. The use of plagiarism detection software creates a poisonous atmosphere between teacher and student” (University of Louisville Kentucky).

    The University of Louisville is spot on in this matter. Morris and Stommel wrote an insightful online article detailing the hypocrisy and toxicity of plagiarism detection software. In the article they stated;
    “A funny thing happened on the way to academic integrity. Plagiarism detection software (PDS), like Turnitin, has seized control of student intellectual property. While students who use Turnitin are discouraged from copying other work, the company itself can strip mine and sell student work for profit. For this bait-and-switch to succeed, Turnitin relies upon the uncritical adoption of their platform by universities, colleges, community colleges, and K12 schools. All institutions that, in theory, have critical thinking as a core value in their educational missions. And yet they are complicit in the abuse of students by corporations like Turnitin” (Morris and Stommel, 2017).
    The University of Louisville is not alone, as many other schools reject PDS and haven’t given into doing what is expedient, but instead have decided do what is right. Let us not however follow other institutions, let us adhere to our core values. Let us seek to do not what is expedient but what is right. Let us be clear, Saint Leo University was created for a noble purpose, and to that noble end it must free itself from half measures suited up as innocent and good, but underneath that guise a wolf lurks in our midst. Saint Leo is founded on much deeper principles than that. Therefore, I ask for the educational leaders of Saint Leo University, for the sake of all present and future students, and for the sake of the core value of integrity that Saint Leo University stands for; say no to all toxic and destructive anti-plagiarism software. Let us put aside all half measures of PDS and rally to the noble ideal of integrity. “The faculty, staff, and students pledge to be honest, just, and consistent in word and deed” (Saint Leo University Core Value of Integrity, 2018).


    Morris, S., Stommel, J., (June 15, 2017). A guide for resisting EDTech: The case against Turnitin. Retrieved June 25, 2018 from: http://hybridpedagogy.org/resisting-edtech/

    Profitt, B., (October 5, 2012). The Dark Side of the Online Struggle Against Plagiarism. Retrieved on June 25, 2018 from: https://readwrite.com/2012/10/05/the-dark-side-of-the-online-struggle-against-plagiarism/

    Saint Leo University (2018). Core Values. Retrieved on June 25, 2018 from: http://choose.saintleo.edu/about-saintleo/core-values/

    University of Louisville (n.d.). Policy Against the Use of Plagiarism Detection Software. Retrieved on June 25, 2018 from: https://louisville.edu/english/composition/policy-against-the-use-of-plagiarism-detection-software.html

    My blog is https://sunshineinstructionaldesign.wordpress.com.

  7. GAH–I’ve missed you two!!! I loathe Turnitin. So far I’ve been able to avoid using it by crafting essay prompts that make plagiarism more trouble than it’s worth or by using other forms of composition. Last time I checked, Turnitin doesn’t handle images and remixes. Thank for articulating WHY I refuse to use it.

Leave a Reply

Explore Related Articles from Hybrid Pedagogy

journal logo (two nested mathematical Unity symbols in light and medium blue) above the following text: “Hybrid Pedagogy: An open-access journal of learning, teaching, and technology”

Open to Chance?

Latest Comments on Hybrid Pedagogy

Hybrid Pedagogy on Twitter

Support Our Work