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.com, 2001Turnitin.com also presents multiple opportunities to analyze the site from a critical rhetorical perspective. Like SchoolSucks.com, Turnitin evokes particular metaphors that reveal the ways it constructs identities for students and teachers, plagiarists and those who catch them. For example, throughout the years, Turnitin has relied on a bold color scheme of red and white (and, today, blue), evoking images of Americana; early instances of the site, in fact, relied heavily on sepia-toned photographs of students and faculty that seemed to suggest a nostalgic view of higher education. The splash screen on the left from July 2001 focuses on a group of several young women, smiling and laughing, in old-fashioned dress and in sepia tones. The tagline, "Solutions for a new era in education," provides an intriguing contrast against the old-time imagery. This reference to a new era can be looked at from several directions. First, Turnitin may have meant to reference a divide between a kind of educational glory days where plagiarism was less likely because technologies like word processors did not yet exist and today's reliance on computer-assisted communication. Second, Turnitin may also have called upon the image to the left to bring to mind days when classroom hierarchies were clearer and the divide between instructors and students starker.

The color scheme focuses on light colors—grays, whites, and sepia tones—contrasted with the repeated use of red, most significantly in the logo for Turnitin but also in other site graphics. The repeated use of red on the front page as well as in the site’s "originality reports” echoes “getting caught red-handed” as a plagiarist. Indeed, an early testimonial on the iParadigms, LLC website gleefully described catching several students “red, green, orange and yellow-handed” (“iParadigms Testimonials,” n.p.), referring to the color-coding of the originality report that used red as an indicator of plagiarized material alongside blue, green, orange, and yellow to indicate the percentage of plagiarized material in a submitted paper, what Bill Marsh (2006) has described as an “ethical drug test” (p. 434).

Only a few months later in 2001, Turnitin made its front page more complex while still retaining the use of old-fashioned photographs depicting students and a red, white, and gray color scheme. The image to the right shows the new fact of Turnitin.com, still relying on the old logo but now including testimonials from instructors, beginning with David Presti, a professor of neurobiology at University of California, Berkeley. Barrie worked with Presti as a teaching assistant to create the database that later became Turnitin.com; the two wrote about their experience co-creating the technology in a 1996 Science article.

Early instantiations of Turnitin more heavily referenced plagiarism prevention and academic integrity; phrases such as "a higher standard of academic integrity" and "the level of trust in [the] classroom" work alongside the images of students and faculty and the red, white, and blue design scheme to metaphorically suggest traditional American values. Other language on the site reinforces this focus on values, such as a blurb on the services page that notes "Plagiarism not only undermines the educational experience of those students who plagiarize—it also devalues the efforts of their hard-working classmates." Similarly, a testimonial from an instructor says "This is a very valuable service, and the only practical deterrent I know of to web plagiarism, which seems to be the order of the day for today's students. I don't think they even think they are 'cheating.' I believe that what we would absolutely call plagiarism ... is what they call 'research.'" The emphasis throughout is on hard work, values, integrity, and trust. Turnitin uses this emphasis on aspects of credibility to build its own credibility, intriguingly using ethos to set up ethos.

As time has passed, though, Turnitin's marketing messages have incorporated more contemporary metaphors such as time-saving and eco-friendliness. While the site still emphasizes values and integrity, the reliance on old-fashioned images of students and faculty working together to achieve a common goal is downplayed. Instead, as Turnitin has expanded to include different services for peer review and automated grading, the subpages of the site have become more clearly targeted to the intended audience. As well, the marketing messages have become more clearly targeted to issues of concern for those audiences.

For example, the testimonials on Turnitin’s main page (for its OriginalityChecker) are crafted to speak to the concerns of its intended audience, faculty members. Here, the rhetoric is not of integrity and values but of ease of use, the seductive sway of technology that promises to make life easier for you. So, for example, we see the claim that Turnitin allows an instructor to “cope” with 120 students as if they were 30 students. The language choice of “coping” is interesting and again reflects back to the tension points or exigencies in higher education that encourage the adoption of a service like Turnitin. Other comments echo this metaphor of ease of use for instructors; one states “Now I can provide more extensive feedback without exhausting myself” while another testimonial couples the ease of use with environmental friendliness: "[T]eachers have found that the program has cut back on the amount of time it takes to review and grade papers, while significantly reducing the amount of paper used in the classroom since the process takes place electronically." Though articles on effective commenting practices like Rich Haswell’s College English article “Minimal Marking” have been around for quite a while, instructors still struggle with how much and what kind of commentary to provide on student papers. In steps Turnitin’s suite of services to save the day, helping us cope with students and ensure integrity without exhausting ourselves doing so.

The video below highlights the attention being paid to ease of use and time-saving; in it, Jiansheng Guo, a professor and interim associate dean at California State University East Bay, reflects on his grading practices before Turnitin, stating that he would previously collect stacks of paper in hard copy and take 20-30 minutes per paper to finish grading. After Turnitin, Guo stated he could finish each paper in five minutes using the rubrics and drag-and-drop comments available in GradeMark "and that's why I can cope with 120 students as if they were 30 students." Even though the video uses the phrase "faster grading, richer feedback" (2:19), the richness of the feedback is never addressed; instead, some of the words and phrases Guo uses are easy, saves time, focus, concentrate, and productivity. His discussion of how the rubric allows for him to explain why students received the grade they earned emphasizes assessment (and rubrics) as a way of defending a grade rather than as a tool to guide students in later writing assignments by showcasing strengths and weaknesses and giving suggestions for continued growth. A 2012 white paper from Turnitin.com evaluating the most commonly used comments in GradeMark reiterates that the majority of users focus on assessments of writing that respond to surface issues like grammar and spelling rather than allowing for substantive commentary, particularly end comments, that encourage students to attend to higher-order rhetorical concerns. This white paper analyzed nearly 30 million marks left on student papers submitted to GradeMark between January 2010 and May 2012; the top marks were missing comma (13.6% of all marks left), awkward (12.3%), spelling error (8.8%), delete (7.5%), and cite source (6.4%) ("From the Margins," 2012, p. 4). Of course, if an instructor only has five minutes to grade a paper (or only gives him- or herself five minutes), then it is unsurprising that easy-to-sight aspects of format like missing commas will take precedence. The white paper argues in its implications that "a ... troubling implication emerging from the data is the suggestion that student work may be remarkably consistent in reproducing the same types of grammatical and compositional errors across grade levels (secondary to post-secondary) suggesting that there is not enough effort being applied to improving student writing earlier on" ("From the Margins," 2012, p. 5). What this white paper misses is a more troubling implication for instructors of writing: the data may also suggest that instructors are being encouraged to pay attention to surface issues and fail to attend to rhetorically situated issues of concern as well as potentially fail to offer constructive feedback that helps a student engage more critically with their work the next time they write. Unlike the video "Santa Grades Millions of Letters," the GradeMark comments lack any positive feedback like "proud" or "gift—yes!" Not a single pre-loaded GradeMark comment offers positive feedback.

The metaphors Turnitin uses for faculty emphasize coping and time-saving, and focusing on the idea that the technology can take care of the boring stuff (teaching citation habits, commenting on student papers, working on peer review) so "you can get back to what you do best—teaching." In the video above, Guo ends by discussing the budget: With this tool, he states, "You will allow and enable and empower the instructors to be able to teach more students without sacrificing the educational product. ... It will save you money, so that the computer can do the people work and save people's time so the instructor can use their valuable time for more academic-oriented components of the teaching." To return to Neal Lerner’s (2005) discussion of tension points in writing instruction, he ends his CCC article by noting his concerns that “a new wave of machine response and evaluation will offer an automated solution for writing instructors to pursue ‘the fun stuff, the challenging stuff’” (p. 204). That is exactly what Turnitin’s suite of services offers—machine response and evaluation of writing. But if you take away peer response, if you take away responding to student writers through conferencing and careful commentary on drafts, and if you take away the teaching of citation styles as disciplinary-based moves that academic authors make, you’ve taken away a great deal of the pedagogical work that writing and rhetoric instructors do, particularly in the first-year writing classroom. Turnitin will do the "people work" of grading, assessing, and responding to papers—but that "people work" is exactly the kind of work that keeps writing instructors employed instead of simply herding masses of students into writing MOOCs. The "people work" also may fail to offer positive feedback to growing writers, the kind of feedback that they need to continue developing rhetorical flexibility and sophistication; instead, the technologies frequently push the focus to surface issues of grammar, spelling, and format.

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