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Colin Madland

A case against Turnitin

6 min read

There are numerous ways to get higher ed faculty riled up, and talking about plagiarism or intellectual property are two of them. And for good reason. Plagiarism is a significant problem in higher ed (although there are many faculty who can't be bothered). It is important for students to present their own work as a demonstration of their own learning in the course. That's a no-brainer.

And although 'intellectual property' is somewhat oxymoronic, it is an idea that animates many conversations, especially when one scholar uses the work of another scholar without appropriate credit. That sounds a lot like plagiarism, doesn't it?

The trouble, as I see it, is that a popular solution to the problem of plagiarism (Turnitin, or other 'plagiarism detection' software) is a direct threat to the idea of intellectual property. Here is why.

When a faculty member requires a student to submit their assignments through Turnitin, they are compelling their students give their intellectual property (and personal information) to a third party for the sole financial benefit of the third party.

Turnitin's business model and financial success is based entirely on the unpaid work of students who are compelled in one way or another to give their work to the company.

Imagine if researchers or authors were required by their employers to give their work to an external, for-profit business for the sole financial benefit of the business? But isn't that what we do with publishers, you ask? Well, no. When an author gives their work to a publisher, they do so with an expectation of compensation, whether that be direct financial compensation or indirect compensation via tenure and promotion or other career boosts.

Turnitin does nothing of the sort. Students are required to turn over their data and their work for zero compensation, monetary or otherwise. That seems unjust to me. If we are going to insist on retaining the rights to our own work to be used as we intend, shouldn't we do the same for our students?

I know that many faculty like to use Turnitin. I heard one justification today that now has me writing this post. The rationale?

It makes students fearful.

Yup. Here it is again: 'It makes students fearful'. This was given as a good reason to use turnitin.

How can a student possibly do their best work if they are afraid that what they say might be flagged by an unintelligent algorithm as plagiarism?

If instilling fear is actually a good way to motivate students, why don't we do more of it?

Imagine an analogous scenario where we used fear to motivate students to dress 'appropriately'. Everyone on the staff and faculty know that 'appropriate dress' means that you don't copy anyone else's wardrobe. We publish policies like

  • Students who violate the dress code will be expelled.
  • Students are responsible for knowing the rules of the dress code.
  • The dress code will be monitored by a for-profit company contracted by the university to place video cameras throughout the campus and analyze the video using an algorithm.
  • This company reserves the right to share video of our students with other companies for their own profit.


  • We don't tell students what the dress code actually is.
  • We don't talk about different cultural expectations regarding appropriate attire.
  • We don't tell students that the algorithm is wrong more than 30% of the time. Sometimes it will flag students who are dressed properly (false positive), and sometimes it will not flag a student who is not dressed properly (false negative).
  • We design our campus (somehow) to encourage a very narrow selection of garments.

We would almost certainly consider this system to be grossly unfair to students, who would be constantly under suspicion, whose daily living patterns would be recorded and analyzed, and who wouldn't know from one day to the next if they would be expelled or not.

Would the fear of being caught wearing the wrong thing and being expelled be real? Of course. Would it be helpful? Not even maybe.

It wouldn't be helpful because students would be powerless to do anything to avoid being caught copying someone else's clothing, and those in power have set them up for failure by designing an environment that encourages students to wear similar clothing.

This is very similar to what we do in trying to deal with plagiarism.

  • We tell students that they can be expelled if they violate the rules.
  • We tell students that they are responsible for knowing what plagiarism is.
  • We think it is ok to hire a private for-profit company to surveil all of our students and run their data through an algorithm.
  • We tell the company that they can use our students' work and personal data for their own financial gain.


  • We don't really teach them enough about what plagiarism is or how to avoid it.
  • We don't consider different cultural expectations.
  • We don't tell students that the algorithm in turnitin is wrong at least 30% of the time, indicating both false positives and false negatives
  • And we design our courses and assignments to ensure that plagiarism is more likely to occur.

Clearly, we could do a lot to reduce the amount of plagiarism in our courses if we would simply start doing more of the things on the list of things we aren't doing. We need to have open and honest conversations with our students about what constitutes plagiarism and how they can avoid it. We need to consider in those conversations the fact that different cultures view the teacher/student relationship very differently from how we do and that those different views have radical effects on how some cultures view plagiarism. Finally, we need to design our courses and assessments to reduce the likelihood of plagiarism.

Another way to think about Turnitin is to consider the message that it sends to students. When we require every single student to submit their work through turnitin, we are telling every single honest hardworking student that we do not trust them. This is just as bad as using fear as a motivator. Why would we intentionally set up a confrontational relationship between ourselves and our students when we know that learning is fundamentally a social process. Why do we presume guilt and require the accused to prove their innocence?

One situation that I have heard several times is that Turnitin is most useful for catching students using each other's work for the same class. I don't think that this is an argument that faculty should be using because it seems to betray a lack of engagement with what our students are writing. Either that, or that we are still using the same assignments for our courses that we have used for however many times we have taught the course. Either way, it is one poor excuse among many for giving our students' work and data away.

If you'd like to read a little more about why you should ditch turnitin, click here.