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?

Turnitin says it saves timeTurnitin’s success has relied heavily on marketing messages that tie together concerns about labor issues in higher education and efficiency through technological innovations. So, for example, messages about reducing one's grading time, which are reinforced by metaphors about technological efficiency such as coping as well as metaphors of eco-friendliness, are repeated throughout the site. "See how you can reduce your grading time by 1/3!" trumpeted the main page of Turnitin when it celebrated the milestone of 20 million papers graded using its services in October 2012, as seen in the screenshot to the right. The site further notes that it has saved instructors time grading, which supposedly corresponds to higher levels of student engagement ("Celebrating 20 Million Graded Papers").

This emphasis on saving time through the use of automated tools for plagiarism detection, grading and assessment, and peer response is reinforced in a recent marketing video created by Turnitin called "How Santa Grades Millions of Letters." In the video below, Santa receives letters from children across the world that are turned in as submissions to an assignment space he has set up in Turnitin called "Christmas 2012." (Santa urges the children to "please BE ORIGINAL!" when asking for their gifts.) Next, he selects from pre-loaded grading rubrics and chooses the "Naughty or Nice" six-trait rubric to assess the letters he receives. Some of the comments Santa can drag and drop onto letters include be nicer, gift–yes!, proud, and gift–no :(. Santa zooms through the letters he has received, quickly checking the originality of the letter, assessing the child using his Naughty or Nice rubric, and adding short comments indicating whether or not he will be giving the child's gift of choice this year.


When I first watched the video above, I laughed; I thought that it certainly had to be a parody, satire, or other kind of joke mocking Turnitin's services. I soon realized, however, that this was actually a serious marketing video released by none other than Turnitin itself. It was then that I understood that iParadigms, LLC had found a marketing angle that resonated with the average working conditions of those in higher education today; cloaked in a humorous message, the video nonetheless responds to concerns that plague faculty members who attempt to incorporate writing into their classrooms about the time needed to respond effectively to all of those papers. That is, the desire for plagiarism detection services is a symptom of labor issues bound up in the teaching of writing and reveals what Neal Lerner (2005) has described as “tension points” in higher education that make effective writing pedagogy increasingly difficult (Vie, in press).

For example, one of the tension points showcased in the video above is the move toward standardized assessments of student writing, both at the secondary level (through the use of Common Core State Standards and Six+1 Trait Rubrics) and the post-secondary level, where the creation of learning outcomes for writing courses alongside assessment of general education have become prominent goals for many institutions across the United States. In her critique of the Six+1 Trait Writing Program, Virginia Crank (2010) argues that while pre-packaged writing approaches such as these can be used successfully by instructors committed to their careful, critical incorporation, more frequently they are used by instructors who are not guided effectively. She states, "Like the five-paragraph essay formula, the Six + 1 Trait Writing product stifles teachers by enabling a shortcut approach to the teaching of writing. Although thousands of teachers use the package with great success ... the package is also being sold to thousands of teachers who have no experience or background in writing pedagogy; the package itself doesn’t adequately prepare these teachers to use it, thereby perpetuating the myths and abuses of writing that leave so many college students unprepared for the next level of composing they will encounter when they arrive in first-year composition" (Crank, 2010, p. 45). Similarly, Paul Kei Matsuda and Jill V. Jeffery (2012) urge us to remember that while rubrics can be useful and allow for efficiency in assessment, we must be careful not to let them drive curricular choices, but instead rely on well-informed theories of writing (p. 162). These careful critiques butt up against marketing materials like Turnitin's Santa video, which highlights the easy use of the product in a decontextualized manner divorced from larger scholarly conversations about assessment and writing processes.

Instructors are justified in approaching with caution plagiarism detection services (and other automated technologies that purport to make assessment and grading of writing easier) in the writing classroom, even when these services are deemed mandatory by their home institution. Despite valid concerns regarding the use of plagiarism detection services in writing courses, some institutions will mandate their use or strongly suggest their incorporation into classes; for example, despite valiant efforts by prominent plagiarism scholar Rebecca Moore Howard of Syracuse University to complicate understandings of plagiarism, source use, and academic integrity, the school still subscribed to the service. In such instances, these technologies can be repurposed to involve students in critical rhetorical analyses of plagiarism and ethics. In this webtext, then, I offer pedagogical opportunities that ask students to rhetorically analyze Turnitin.com's OriginalityChecker service and SchoolSucks.com, an online "paper mill" site that houses sample student papers that can be downloaded, modified, and turned in as one's own. To demonstrate the potential for such assignments, I rhetorically analyze portions of these sites to showcase their possible use in the composition classroom. I compare text on selected pages of these sites, including the sites' splash pages, messages to students and to educators, and "about this site" pages; I also visually compare and contrast these sites, considering the visual argument presented by the images and colors used as well as the graphics. This analysis of noteworthy websites related to plagiarism and its detection can guide students to critically consider the power differentials inherent in instructors' and students' use of paper mills as well as plagiarism detection services. In this way, instructors who are required by their institution to use Turnitin or similar services can lead students in an analysis of the ethical issues brought up by these services even prior to their use in a course. This is one way to meet the CCCC-IP Caucus' recommendation that "students ... at an institution that uses [plagiarism detection] services ... should be informed of submission requirements and the nature of the PDS's use of their work" (pp. 1-2).

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