Turn it Down, Don't Turnitin:
Resisting Plagiarism Detection Services by Talking About Plagiarism Rhetorically

Turnitin's History

What is the history of the plagiarism detection service Turnitin.com, and how have its marketing messages targeted the field of composition and rhetoric?

Other People’s Papers

How can we use SchoolSucks.com and Turnitin.com as vehicles for critical rhetorical analysis in the classroom?

A Pedagogy of Resistance

What benefits might there be for compositionists to adopt a pedagogy of resistance toward plagiarism detection services?

In 1995, the site now known as Turnitin.com began as Plagiarism.org. Co-founder John Barrie, then a doctoral student at the University of California, Berkeley, created Plagiarism.org as a response what he described as "rampant cheating" in the classes he taught as a graduate assistant. After creating a peer review assignment for his large-scale classes of approximately 200 or more, Barrie's students came to office hours to turn each other in for selling term papers off the class peer review Web site (Hsieh, 2000, n.p.) "I had inadvertently created a mini-cheat site," stated Barrie, who then set out to create a deterrent to plagiarism, but "a real deterrent would require the real threat of being caught doing the wrong thing. ... [T]he only real threat would
involve creating a database so massive that, when a student is told that their paper will be compared with documents in that database, a student is then deterred from cheating" (Barrie, 2008, p. 17). Plagiarism.org was created and began the process of adding student papers, web materials, academic papers, books, and other sources to the database that Barrie hoped would act as a threat severe enough to deter any student who considered cheating.

The Turnitin Cycle of ProductsWhile Plagiarism.org began humbly, offering plagiarism detection at a rate of one dollar per student (Hsieh, 2000, n.p.), it promptly became a plagiarism detection behemoth. In 2004, iParadigms, LLC, the company behind Turnitin.com, registered ten million dollars in profit (Dotinga, 2004, p. 1). Today, Turnitin is the most massive plagiarism detection technology available, a billion-dollar industry that has expanded to include assessment, peer review, and automated grading. It now offers a suite of related services that include OriginalityCheck, GradeMark, and PeerMark along with specialized services targeted at students, admissions, and researchers. Institutions subscribing to the service can expect to pay several hundred dollars in licensing fees and a fee per student; schools with large writing programs could therefore expect to pay several thousand dollars or more per year for the service. Given the cost of the Turnitin suite, institutions that enroll are likely to require instructors to use the service in their courses or else strongly encourage their participation to offset the substantial monetary investment made.

Each subsection of the Turnitin suite specializes in a different aspect of writing: plagiarism detection, peer reviewing, or paperless grading. OriginalityCheck (the plagiarism detection portion of Turnitin that originally began as Plagiarism.org) runs submitted papers through a massive database that includes 24 billion web pages, 250 million archived student papers, and 120 million articles from journals, periodicals, and books. Grademark offers a set of commonly used comments such as awk, c/s, citation needed, and others that can be dragged and dropped onto a student’s paper. PeerMark is an online peer review portal for students; they can rate aspects of the paper under review for readability, logic, transitions, and support. For students, Turnitin offers a service called WriteCheck that integrates Educational Testing Services’ e-rater system and Pearson publishers’ online tutoring services. There’s also iThenticate for researchers, Turnitin for admissions, and finally, Plagiarism.org, which now serves as a marketing portal for Turnitin and as an educational resource that hosts information about citation styles and plagiarism for students.

Despite their widespread use outside of the field of rhetoric and composition—according to Turnitin, over half of the site's customers are from fields other than composition, English, and communications—plagiarism detection services have come under fire by many within rhetoric and composition for their reliance on a “guilty until proven innocent” model of student academic integrity. Turnitin in particular has been criticized widely on the basis of its use of students’ copyrighted materials to turn a profit, given that the site maintains a centralized database of work used to police uploaded papers for plagiarism that is gathered through the commercial use of its products. Yet its suite of products remain successful even in the face of these concerns; this success is driven in large part by marketing, which is unsurprising. What is interesting is how much of Turnitin's success is based on the product's responsiveness to issues of concern in the field of rhetoric and composition, even though we are not currently the heaviest users of the product. One of John Barrie's undergraduate degrees is in rhetoric, which may explain in part why the site has focused its marketing strategies in response to exigencies in our field (Barrie, 2008, p. 16). By attending specifically to the intersections of rhetoric and pedagogical exigencies that drive Turnitin’s marketing, we are better able to examine some of the metaphors Turnitin uses to represent its attitudes toward writing, which thereby serve as windows into tension points that drive the business of higher education today.

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