Why I turned off TurnItIn

Now that the dust has settled after our conversion to the Canvas LMS, I've had a bit more time to look around and see where we've landed. I've been meaning to look into TurnItIn more closely for several months. Although TurnItIn offers a variety of editing and revision options, I am discussing it here as a plagiarism-detection program. 

I don't know when our school adopted TurnItIn. I was never asked for my opinion about it, and I don't remember any widespread discussion before it showed up in the LMS or even an email announcing that it was available. (In fairness, it's entirely possible that I did read an email about it and have completely forgotten doing so.) I've been using it here and there experimentally, until two things happened to change my mind this trimester. 

Opening a Window​

First, I listened to the following podcast from Teaching in Higher Ed (a podcast I highly recommend, by the way):

The ethics of plagiariam detection


I'm sorry to admit that I had no idea that the software requires students to agree that any work submitted will become part of their database. This is problematic on a number of levels, one of which is that the students are trapped into contributing to this database (which is being used for profit by TurnItIn) in an effort to "catch" them cheating. 

Another problem, one which I've struggled with before, is that using TurnItIn or any similar software essentially tells students that we don't trust them, that we're watching them, and that we think they might plagiarize.  Without framing, discussion or context, TurnItIn creates a "gotcha" environment - an example of hostile design in a classroom. 

One one hand, I have used plagiarism detection at other schools to help students identify troublesome sections of their papers before they submit. (You can allow students to see their plagiarism score and revise their work before submitting it.)​ This can lead to legitimate learning and saves time for everyone. However, I'm not sure it's worth the price that we pay either financially or in terms of our relationship with the students. And frankly, plagiarism isn't that difficult to detect or deter without any special software in place in my experience.  

Another Eye-Opener:​

The second thing that happened this trimester was an email from a student to ask me what he should do if he didn't agree to the TurnItIn terms of service before submitting an assignment. I had no idea​. We tried a few things, and it turns out that you can still submit work when TurnItIn is activated on a Canvas assignment even if you don't click "agree." 

While apparently schools can legally compel students to use the plagiarism software, ​that's not something I choose to do. After looking more closely at the terms of service, I see why he objected. I turned off TurnItIn. 

​You can view the user agreement here. The highlights are areas I thought were particularly important (created using hypothes.is, which I'll cover in a different post soon!). You can also see the TurnItIn legal questions FAQ here. 

Final Thoughts​

I'm disappointed in myself for not looking into these issues more closely before experimenting with this tool just because it was there. I'm also disappointed in the lack of conversation about TurnItIn between admin and faculty both before buying it, and after it was made available. Some discussion of these issues - including student privacy, when/how/why you may or may not want to use it, how to be transparent with students about its use, etc. - seems important. 

This has been a valuable lesson for me, and one that reminds me to keep following the "know better, do better" axiom. 

Questions & considerations:

  • When you require students to use TurnItIn, you are potentially creating a hostile space for learning. 
  • What specific purpose is TurnItIn serving in a course, and how do you - or how might you - communicate about that purpose with students?
  • Consider looking at the user agreement and privacy statements together as a class.
  • Will you insist that students comply with the user agreement if they would rather not? Why? 
  • How can faculty open a conversation with administration around decisions regarding this and similar purchases? Do we need this type of service? Does it align with our mission & values? 

Hi there. I'm Camille. I'm a professor at the Maryland University of Integrative Health, where I teach physiology and pathophysiology. I'm also a licensed nutritionist and herbalist, specializing in fertility and reproductive health. Lastly but not leastly, I'm a mom, a gardener and a pretty horrible housekeeper.