My Love-Hate Relationship With TurnItIn


I’ve fully embraced the benefits and strictures of being a professor in the digital age. In both my online courses and live ones, I have come to rely upon our online classroom portal to disseminate course information, post reminders, log grades, and to serve as the primary method by which students turn in their papers. It lets me engage in a variation of the minimal marking I find pedagogically useful, and at the same time avoid the detrimental effects of showering student papers in red. I don’t know if it is necessarily sounder on the balance to do it this way, but it’s a system that’s been honed course after course and seems to work well for both sides of the lectern. No doubt everyone has her/his own preferences and experiences, and certainly the online classroom has fueled plenty of conferences on teaching method since its inception some fifteen years ago. For better or worse, it’s here to stay. For me, at least, and for now.

It’s the last item on the list above that serves as occasion for this piece, for every paper turned into my class dropbox gets automatically run against’s plagiarism detection tool. No doubt many of you use TurnItIn, and have for years. I detest purposive plagiarists. They are, for me and no doubt for many of you, the bane of my professional existence. Like so many others, I’ve done my best to stamp it out with anti-formulaic assignment prompts, rotating exams, and gentle reminders through the semester that committing plagiarism invites the devil into your soul. I still get students who, with Machiavellian overconfidence and through abject laziness, plagiarize.

And so if asked, I’ll not pretend otherwise—I love TurnItIn. It’s painless, in my experience effective, and just as importantly, already there for me to use. It saves me some relatively significant number of hours each term, agonizingly Google-searching the paper of a student who has suddenly turned into David Foster Wallace on the final exam. And when I am forced to pursue an instance of academic dishonesty, it provides a nice, tidy, official-looking report that tends to convince students of the authority and weight behind the meeting we are currently having. So I use it, happily.

But recently I got an email from a student concerned about TurnItIn on dual grounds that I’ve assumed would surface at some point. The student was nontraditional, and this was her/his first college course in some years. Having read the paragraph above, s/he was concerned first about accidentally plagiarizing, and wondered (naively, but completely understandably) if TurnItIn let students run their work through for free to make sure this didn’t happen. Secondly, the student (in so many words) didn’t like the idea of being forced to surrender her/his work to a company that would make money off of it. S/he was articulate, respectful, and tentative.

My knee-jerk reaction, which thankfully lasted only a minute or so, was to throw up shields. Tell the student such anti-plagiarism tools were clearly spelled out on our syllabus, and that by staying in the course each student was assenting to such measure in the name of academic integrity. But in typing this into Outlook I decided I should probably be sure this was actually the case, and so I called up our university’s Academic Integrity Coordinator. Funnily (or sadly?) enough, the first thing our coordinator said was she’d been expecting a question like this for some time, but hadn’t gotten it yet (TurnItIn, by the way, has been around since 1997). In the end, the above position was confirmed: so long as it was in my syllabus, I could do what I wanted. I went back to click “send,” and discovered I was ambivalent about it. It must have taken some guts to send that email to one’s professor, and at the very beginning of the semester no less. Plus, the fact that there was no standing university policy pertaining to what was a potentially explosive issue—the “it’s in the syllabus argument” seemed astoundingly soft, in that it relies on student ignorance rather than legal standing—made me curious if anyone had challenged it.

A little searching turned up surprisingly few lawsuits brought against iParadigms, the parent company of TurnItIn. As it turned out, someone had issued a challenge. Six years ago a court weighed in, and the judge ruled in the favor of iParadigms on four grounds:

“1) Commercial use can be fair use, and, citing Perfect 10 Inc. v. Inc., use can be transformative ‘in function or purpose without altering or actually adding to the original work.’ TurnItIn transformed the work by using the papers to prevent plagiarism and not for factual knowledge; 2) The website’s use does not diminish or discourage the author’s creativity or supplant the students’ rights to first publication; 3) Using the entirety of the papers did not preclude fair use; and 4) TurnItIn’s use does not affect marketability.”[1]

I’m not a lawyer. I’m a history professor. But I don’t really buy the “highly transformative” argument (the ruling itself admits they don’t actually change the documents at all but merely “use” the papers in a different way. Probably Derrida would award me a demerit for saying this); nor do I really accept uncritically the “does not diminish or discourage creativity” one. Point four I’ll also take issue with. It completely misses the premise that one doesn’t have to be motivated by market value to produce an original written work (and so that shouldn’t be the standard to retaining full and exclusive copyright). But even acceding to the premise, on TurnItIn’s own terms, should a student want to start up her or his own plagiarism-detection company and use the corpus of her or his own work as a starting point, s/he’d immediately run into the fact that TurnItIn can claim (rightfully) that they already have not only this student’s body of papers but 336 million and change of other student papers. Talk about David vs. Goliath.

No doubt someone will come along and tell me this is a settled issue, legally speaking, which is fine but also not really the larger point of this essay. At this stage, all I’m left with significant questions. Do I keep feeding the beast, or try some alternative? To what extent, if at all, have we as professors crossed an ethical line by blithely  becoming complicit in this model over the last decade—such that TurnItIn is the only name in the game—and we’re now beholden to them in every practical way? It’s the flagship service of what is almost a billion-dollar company, after all, with annual earnings of fifty million a year. Do plagiarism detection services in and of themselves contribute to a fallacious notion of original authorship when in fact the whole endeavor is much more complicated than we’d like to admit when marking first-year student papers?

It also made me wonder how many other concerned students there were peppered among the undergraduate body, and how professors engaged them. Why hadn’t the university’s academic integrity coordinator ever run into this issue before? If we’re supposed to be fostering the next generation of critical, engaged citizenry not only able but willing to step up to bat for themselves on issues such as these, we must be failing in some sense or another.

These are all questions everyone who has either taken or taught a class which used TurnItIn has no doubt wrestled with at some point. In the end, I told the student I was sympathetic to the argument, and if s/he wanted to send me her/his papers instead of uploading them (since I can’t individually turn the detection function off) I’d take them that way. I’d have to check them manually still, I wrote, but it was a time investment I was willing to make given when I now knew. But this avenue won’t work as soon as two or five or ten more students email me with the same concerns, and so it’s not a long-term solution. It’s Band-Aid, and a relatively weak one. It won’t stick for very long. Eventually, I’ll have to decide which is more important: my time, or any overriding philosophical concerns. And I know which one gets rewarded on a daily basis, and that leaves me uneasy, to say the least.

This essay originally published at the Chronicle of Higher Education, September 8, 2015.

[1] Hakimi, Sharona. “To Students’ Dismay, Plagiarism Detection Website Protected by ‘Fair Use,’” Harvard Journal of Technology and Law, April 25, 2009.