It's, like, the Turnitin carnival!
Kairosnews has been giving a lot of coverage to Turnitin, a plagiarism detection service used by many universities and high schools. An employee of Turnitin has engaged in a dialogue with composition teachers here (see also here). Kairosnews has also linked to the CCCC-IP statement on plagiarism detection services. Then there are other posts about plagiarism detection services.
My position on plagiarism detection services is maybe somewhat contradictory and possibly not what you'd expect. I'm more sympathetic to Matt's comments (Platypus Matt here) than one might think. Let me try to lay out my position by responding to the most common arguments against plagiarism detection services:
They make an enormous amount of money off student writing. This is by far the most persuasive argument, in my opinion, against plagiarism detection services. When students submit papers into Turnitin, copies of them are kept in a database. This is done without the student's consent (the consent is coercive, anyway). They are able to charge lots of money for university contracts because they have amassed such a large database of student writing. Truth be told, if Turnitin were a nonprofit service, I may not have had much of a problem with it.
They take the responsibility off the teacher -- the responsibility to design plagiarism-proof or plagiarism-resistant assignments, the responsibility to teach quoting and paraphrasing skills, the responsibility to get to know your students well enough to know what their voices sound like, etc. This I can agree with, but only to a point. I've heard this argument carried out to extremes that really don't suit my taste. My view is that, at bottom, it is not the teacher's fault if a student plagiarizes. Ultimately, it is the student's fault. This view is informed by my conviction that students are ultimately responsible for their own learning. To assume otherwise is paternalistic. I've encountered plagiarism cases in which colleagues have tried to rationalize the plagiarism: [after finding proof that an assignment was taken whole hog from the web] "Well, maybe she didn't understand the assignment. Maybe she thought she was supposed to go out and find an annotated bibliography, not do one herself." It's a writing class. I simply can't take arguments like that seriously.
Obviously, I do agree that teachers are responsible for teaching paraphrasing and integrating material from sources. They are also responsible for getting to know students. And yes, it would be nice for teachers to update assignments (writing about current and local events is a good way to do this!). One would think teachers would get sick of reading the same essays over and over anyway.
But, I don't think that the burden should be on teachers to design a plagiarism-proof assignment. I think teachers should be able, if they want to, to let students choose their own topics for essays without getting a "well, you asked for it" type of snide remark if students plagiarize. (See "it's the student's fault.") There are sound pedagogical principles behind giving students the freedom to choose topics they are interested in. I think teachers should be able to assign papers about Shakespeare's plays; Jane Eyre; important issues of ongoing debate and concern like euthanasia, legalization of marijuana, abortion, the death penalty, etc. Again, there are sound pedagogical principles ("teaching the conflicts," writing to learn, etc.) undergirding these. Are there some topics that students shouldn't be expected to have to engage just because a lot of people have written about them? Has the teacher really done such a bad thing if she has students write on these types of topics? Has it actually become unreasonable to expect students to do the writing themselves on these topics? If it has, then, to borrow from Obi-Wan in Revenge of the Sith, we are truly lost.
On to the next common argument against plagiarism detection services: They don't reflect the Internet generation's ideas about authorship and intellectual property. Eh, I guess this makes sense if teachers are assigning remix essays or doing plagiarism as part of the assignment (brilliant idea, by the way -- read those posts). But honestly, I mostly think this is another one of those arguments that takes the responsibility for learning off the student.
Plagiarism detection services foster a "guilty until proven innocent" culture. This is a perfectly reasonable and fair argument. Sometimes, though, well often, really, I google phrases and sentences I see in students' essays, and I don't see anything wrong with that. My job is to help students develop as writers, and I want to know that I'm not wasting my time commenting on some random person on the internet's writing. Part of me thinks that, even though I am very open with students about the fact that I google phrases from their papers, especially in red-flag circumstances like: 1.) an eleventh-hour "I changed my topic!"; 2.) a seemingly deliberate attempt to obscure the locations of sources in a works cited page; 3.) PhD-level vocabulary; 4.) a paper that has the formulaic sound of a newspaper article; it's more open and less sneaky just to use a plagiarism detection service. I never have, though. I stick to Google.