Turnitin.com: Mindless Machine Requires Human Brain


Turnitin.com: Mindless Machine Requires Human Brain

“We cannot get grace from gadgets.”
J.B. Priestly

The website of turnitin.com cheerily proclaims that “Turnitin helps educators evaluate student work and provide great feedback to improve student learning. The cloud-based service is available at an annual subscription for schools, colleges, and universities.”

Like all tools, this one can be turned to malevolent use. I am a practitioner of forensic linguistics (www.language-expert.net ) and every year I get more plagiarism cases. The accused include high school and college students and even law professors, and more often than not, turnitin is the weapon of choice.

I say “weapon” because the plagiarism charge is usually part of a larger conflict – perhaps a professor is miffed by a student’s conduct. He or she runs the paper through turnitin, and lo and behold, similarities are found. And plagiarism is proved.

No, it’s not. The material may be in the public domain, especially in science, technology, academia, and the law — all language-intensive pursuits, where there is only a limited number of ways to say the same thing, particularly in the case of well-established technical background knowledge that the reader would know.

Turnitin cannot tell when a particular string of sentences is one of a few established ways to say something. And in the law, if a particular phrasing has “precedential” value, it tends to be repeated verbatim, by one source after another.

This raises another problem with turnitin: it can’t identify the source. After all, plagiarism is about knowingly misappropriating another’s creativity or originality. If the source material can be found elsewhere, no doubt it too is a copy, probably for one of the above reasons. Or maybe it was actually the same source as the accused has cited. In real (i.e., provable) plagiarism, there’s only one other source.

Finally, the student may be citing, but in a different format from the accuser’s preference. Here the accusation of plagiarism is particularly venal and malicious. If the writer properly cited the material, the choice of format is a trivial bit of filigree, not a sign of dishonesty.

The cases I defend, including careers threatened or ruined by turnitin, are in stark contrast to the bubbly testimonials on the website. Turnitin may well be helpful to many people, but overreliance on the mindless machine is making it an instrument of malice and persecution.

Once more: Mere pattern matching is not plagiarism. Many other factors come into play. Making simple citation and formatting practices a matter of grave offense is needlessly derailing people’s lives, and it must stop.