Policy Against the Use of Plagiarism Detection Software

Composition Program Policy Against the Use of Plagiarism Detection Software

Composition Program courses do not use plagiarism detection software, including the SafeAssign software available on Blackboard. The Composition Committee’s decision not to use such software in writing courses is based on several factors:

We regard the teaching of writing with research, including citation practices, as a rhetorical act. Composition Program courses teach students how to interpret and analyze ideas from other sources and integrate those ideas into the students’ writing. We approach citation and bibliographic practices as rhetorical and critical thinking skills that are necessary to write effectively for a scholarly audience. The point of citing sources is to show for readers the “intellectual footprints” of your thinking. Plagiarism detection software, on the other hand, teaches students that the important issue is whether or not you get caught.

The use of such a service for student writers begins from a presumption of guilt. If we tell students that their papers must go through such a service before we read them, whether we threaten immediate punishment or not, we are telling them that we do not trust them to act honorably. We also tell students that when it comes to writing with other sources, the emphasis is on avoiding plagiarism, not drawing from and synthesizing the ideas of others. We tell students that their writing is not their own and that we will turn the judgment of their writing over to computer software.

The best deterrents to plagiarism are well-designed writing assignments that are distinctive to course material and involve effective writing pedagogy. Students asked to write something other than a canned assignment will find little worth downloading. Students asked to engage in pre-writing activities, such as notes, drafts, annotated bibliographies, and who are given instructor feedback on those activities before revising work for a final manuscript, are, among other pedagogical advantages, less likely to download work and easier to recognize when they do.  

Research on plagiarism detection software such as SafeAssign and Turnitin indicates that such software can produce many inaccurate reports, finding plagiarism where it doesn’t exist and missing plagiarism that does. Such a high rate of false positives makes the software unreliable and may create more work for teachers and students, not less.

The results of plagiarism detection software make make no distinction between plagiarism as a form of intentional cheating and students who are making mistakes in working with unfamiliar conventions of academic writing. The former is a matter for academic sanction. The latter is a matter for improved writing instruction across the disciplines, not just in first-year composition. Research indicates that such errors of quotation and citation (as well as errors of grammar) often increase as students move into new genres of writing, not just from high school to college but from one discipline to the next. Students need more discipline-specific instruction in how to use and attribute sources, not more punitive surveillance

The use of plagiarism detection software creates a poisonous atmosphere between teacher and student. The message to students is that they are all potentially cheating and need to be watched. Research on plagiarism indicates that the majority of instances result from student error, not student dishonesty. The message of such software, however, is that the citing of sources should be done to avoid plagiarism, not for intellectual and rhetorical purposes. Such an approach makes adversaries of teachers and students, instead of collaborators. It creates a prison culture of guards and the guarded, a cat-and-mouse game of detection and mistrust where the fear of being caught can also breed a desire to get around the rules.

Further reading and resources:

Carbone, Nick. “Turnitin.com, a Pedagogic Placebo for Plagiarism.” 2001.

Carbone, Nick. “Thinking and Talking About Plagiarism” 2001.

Council of Writing Program Administrators. “Defining and Avoiding Plagiarism: The WPA Statement on Best Practices” http://www.wpacouncil.org/node/9

Jaschik, Scott. “False Positives on Plagiarism” Inside Higher Education.

Howard, Rebecca Moore. “Plagiarisms, Authorships, and the Academic Death Penalty.” College English 57.7 1995: 708-36.

Howard, Rebecca Moore. “Should Educators Use Commercial Services to Combat Plagiarism? No.” CQ Researcher 13.32. 2003: 789.

Howard, Rebecca Moore. Standing in the Shadow of Giants: Plagiarists, Authors, Collaborators. Stamford, CT: Ablex, 1999.

Jaschik, Scott. “False Positives on Plagiarism” Inside Higher Education. 2009.

Valentine, Kathryn. “Plagiarism as Literacy Practice: Recognizing and Rethinking Ethical Binaries.” College Composition and Communication. 58.1 (2006): 89-109.

Williams, Bronwyn T. “Trust, Betrayal, and Authorship: Plagiarism and How We
Perceive Students” Literacy and Identity Column. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy.  51.4 2007 350-354.

updated 03/09