• Writing Teachers Oppose Plagiarism Detection Software

    by  • April 16, 2013 • Articles • 0 Comments

    As reported by Inside Higher Education, the Conference on College Composition and Communication has passed a resolution opposed to the use of plagiarism detection software.

    The resolution reads:

    Whereas CCCC does not endorse PDSs;

    Whereas plagiarism detection services can compromise academic integrity by potentially undermining students’ agency as writers, treating all students as always already plagiarists, creating a hostile learning environment, shifting the responsibility of identifying and interpreting source misuse from teachers to technology, and compelling students to agree to licensing agreements that threaten their privacy and rights to their own intellectual property;

    Whereas plagiarism detection services potentially negatively change the role of the writing teacher; construct ill-conceived notions of originality and writing; disavow the complexities of writing in and with networked, digital technologies; and treat students as non-writers; and

    Whereas composition teacher-scholars can intervene and combat the potential negative influences of PDSs by educating colleagues about the realities of plagiarism and the troubling outcomes of using PDSs; advocating actively against the adoption of such services; modeling and sharing ideas for productive writing pedagogy; and conducting research into alternative pedagogical strategies to address plagiarism, including honor codes and process pedagogy;

    BE IT THEREFORE RESOLVED that the Conference on College Composition and Communication commends institutions who offer sound pedagogical alternatives to the use of PDSs and encourages institutions who use PDSs to implement practices that are in the best interest of their students, including notifying students at the beginning of the term that the service will be used; providing students a non-coercive and convenient opt-out process; and inviting students to submit drafts to the service before turning in final text.

    Nowhere in this resolution is there any statement regarding the software’s tendency to produce false positives (accusing innocents of plagiarism) or false negatives (letting plagiarists off the hook). One might think that this would be the important issue.

    If the CCCC had focused on the software’s accuracy, or even mentioned it, of course, their resolution would seem that much less realistic. Plagiarism is endemic on college campuses. I had to fail five students for plagiarism my first semester teaching at a large state school, and four in the semester following that one. Students cut and pasted Wikipedia articles that I had a hand in writing. They cut and pasted each other’s journal entries. These were not borderline cases where students had been nailed by the software. These were students who acted as though no one would ever check if they cheated.

    One wonders how students made it to college with the impression that no one would check if they cheated.

    This is the learning environment that the CCCC feels would be threatened through the introduction of plagiarism detection software.

    There is a tension between the head and tail of the class, of course. Dumbing down the curriculum in order to avoid the angry protests of those unprepared for college work robs the brightest of a college education. This is outrageous. The CCCC resolution appeals to this same sense of outrage.

    The problem is that this kind of sacrificing the high for the sake of the low is not what is at issue with plagiarism detection software. Submitting your paper electronically does not make you “always already” a plagiarist. The radar gun pointed at the road does not mean you are being treated like a speeder. The idea that the proliferation of radar guns is responsible for an explosion of speeding or removes drivers’ “agency” is absurd.

    Now, perhaps I’m an awful teacher. I’ve asked people questions and had them answered, but I don’t know what this “agency” that should be safeguarded is or how I don’t treat someone as a writer because I have verified that they wrote what I have in front of me. The resolution adopts the tone of righteous indignation, but it is written as a string of vacuous buzzwords. It adopts the tone of righteous indignation, but it is in fact a defense of the elimination of standards.

    Let’s be clear precisely what is at issue here. Students submit papers. Either the class is entirely paperless with papers submitted electronically and graded the same way, or students turn in hard copies. In the former case (which I prefer, incidentally), running the paper through the software is automatic. It adds nothing to what the students must do. In the latter case, students submit a hard copy and an electronic copy. In either case, the software produces a score and a report showing other papers and websites with the same content. If the score is high enough, the professor should take a look at the report and see if the high score results from extensive quotation (which unfortunately does raise the score) or if the student has copied another paper. The professor sees the alleged source, sees the student’s paper, and decides if the two are close enough to constitute plagiarism.

    This procedure is no different from what professors had to do in the days of yore, except that possible sources for the plagiarism are easily identified. And students are not singled out for extra scrutiny because the professor thought they were too dumb to write the paper in front of her. It used to be that teachers first had to form ill-grounded suspicions about a paper and then guess where they thought it might have come from and track it down in the library. The new system is an obvious improvement over this, assuming that your goal is actually the reduction of plagiarism.

    The opposition to plagiarism detection software must, then, stem either from some Heidegger-inspired confusion regarding the nature of technology or from a desire not to check for plagiarism at all. The tone of the CCCC resolution makes it plain that it is the latter that is at stake.

    The resolution is an argument against checking for plagiarism, as simple as that. It appeals to a kind of easygoing exchange where the professors were not there for most of the students. They were there for the students who wanted to learn. The rest of the class was along for the ride. Father insisted they go to college or no trust fund for them. The quid pro quo regarding these students was that they wouldn’t be outrageously incompetent and the professor wouldn’t peer too closely at how they skated through. This bargain, after all, permitted the professor to think he was changing lives by the score.

    Whatever else might be said against this particular vision of higher education, this bargain is unconscionable within higher education as it now exists.

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