This letter is to respond to “The Truth about Turnitin,” an editorial by Emma Ziegellaub Eichler that appeared in The Spectator on April 18th, 2008.
As English teachers, we are committed to honoring honest work. We have chosen our careers because we enjoy young people, and because we hope to help our students grow into expressive, fully literate, morally responsible citizens. Because of these commitments, we view plagiarism as an ethical issue. When students present work that is not their own, they sacrifice their personal integrity and forfeit the opportunity to learn from our assignments and instruction.
“Instead of trying to catch students after they plagiarize, teachers should stop plagiarism before it starts,” writes Ziegellaub Eichler. In fact, all of us work tremendously hard in order to create assignments that are difficult to plagiarize, assignments that will help to develop student writing, reasoning, and creativity, yet every single one of us encounters plagiarism every single semester, and each case requires us to spend an enormous amount of energy locating, discussing, and confronting such academic dishonesty. Additionally, many of us feel that the emotional costs of plagiarism—disappointment, the feeling of being lied to, the sense that all our efforts have been in vain—are even more troubling than the actual time that such cheating costs us.
The real problem is not Turnitin; the real problem is Stuyvesant’s culture of cheating, a culture that creates an atmosphere of distrust that all of us suffer from, and one that tempts students to cheat in order to keep up. We view Turnitin as a protective measure, one that will deter some would-be plagiarists and reward the vast majority of students who are working honestly by punishing the few whose plagiarism contributes to the culture of suspicion that Ziegellaub Eichler so rightly rejects.
On a more technical note, one of the copyright cases Ziegellaub Eichler mentions was dismissed in March due in part to the notion of “transformative use”; the court reasoned that because Turnitin simply compares texts, rather than publishing or selling them, the copyright argument is irrelevant. On a more local level, Stuyvesant’s mathematics and science departments have been using the software for several years without student comment. It is therefore questionable as to why its use in the English department would now raise such objections.
There is also a factual error in Ziegellaub Eichler’s description of the originality report as solely numeric. Reports are narrative as well. Teachers have the opportunity to see and interpret student work when placed next to matching texts, thus allowing them to distinguish between properly quoted and blatantly stolen material. Should questions arise, students may view these originality reports, further preventing false accusations.
Citing Princeton’s use of an Honor Code, Ziegellaub Eichler argues that “if a respected Ivy League school can trust its students to do what’s right and not plagiarize, we should follow their example and do the same.” In fact, Princeton’s Honor Code is twofold; students pledge not to cheat, and to turn in anyone they discover cheating, thus taking responsibility for both themselves and for the members of their community. As teachers, we support such efforts to create a more ethical academic community. Turnitin is one of those efforts.
Emily Moore, Megan Breslin, Annie Thoms and Jennifer Choi