In an essay titled A Guide for Resisting Edtech: the Case against Turnitin in Hybrid Pedagogy, Morris and Stommel write of Turnitin:
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.”
BUT, Turnitiin ONLY looks for similarity. It is not checking for copying without attribution (plagiarism). In the essay, Morris/Stommel talk about intellectual property (e.g., a “product,” some of which, like Turnitin, are designed to eat our intellectual property] but the word copyright arises only in statements from turnitin.
One puzzles at what Morris/Stommel mean in the text: 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.
IPBiz suggests that Turnitin is NOT saying “our brand is your brand.” They are saying, by showing similarities of your presented work to past work, Turnitin enables you to weed out weak parts and strengthen your work. Turnitin is not using past student work for its original purpose (in contrast to say, an essay mill).
This key point is ignored by Morris/Stommel in the text: 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.
One knows from Feist that copyright requires only marginal creativity. The issue of “worth protecting” is not Turnitin’s point. They are not using past student essays as essays and trying to compete with students in the marketplace. The essays stay in a vault. The past essays are comparators.
TimesHigherEd pushes the IP angle:
“Plagiarism detection software, like Turnitin, has seized control of student intellectual property,” write Mr Morris and Professor Stommel [in an essay in Hybrid Pedagogy]. “While students who use Turnitin are discouraged from copying other work, the company itself can strip-mine and sell student work for profit.”
Turnitin’s practices have been ruled as being fair use in a federal court, and the company itself offers a different perspective on its operations.
“When students engage in writing and submitting assignments via Turnitin’s solutions, students retain the copyright of the submitted papers,” said Chris Harrick, vice-president of marketing. “We never redistribute student papers, or reveal student information via the service.
But to Mr Morris and Professor Stommel, the ceding of control of students’ work to a corporation is a moral issue, even if it’s legally sound. Time spent on checking plagiarism reports is time that would be better spent teaching students how to become better writers in the first place, they argue.
“This is ethical, activist work….we must ask ourselves, when we’re choosing ed tech tools, who profits and from what?” they write in the essay. “Every essay students submit – representing hours, days or even years of work – becomes part of the Turnitin database, which is then sold to universities.”
In an interview, Dr Morris and Professor Stommel said that they wrote the post with a view to rethinking on a pedagogical level how students are taught about plagiarism, and what should be emphasised when teaching students how to write.
IPBiz notes that it is hard to see how Turnitin “has seized control of student intellectual property.” Turnitin does not re-publish student work. It compares a new submission to archived work.
Of course, under the (circuit) law of AGU v. Texaco, archiving itself can be problematic. But the purpose of archiving is different between Turnitin and the archived research papers at Texaco.Continue Reading ...