Q&A on Turnitin

Essential considerations for instructors

Trish Serviss, Director of Entry Level Writing, University Writing Program, describes the essential aspects instructors should know about Turnitin.

Q: I recently attended a training on how to use Turnitin. What else should I know about using Turnitin before deciding how (or if) to use the software in my classes?

A. I’m so glad you reached out about this! There are a few aspects of the Turnitin software that are essential for instructors to consider.

  • 1. Turnitin can (inappropriately) replace faculty instruction about writing and source use if the campus teaching culture isn't diligent in displacing this idea.
  • Turnitin is not a replacement for instruction, for careful scaffolding, for transparent assignment design, for formative feedback throughout a writing project, etc. Turnitin does not teach or assess writing; it describes writing in one way. Turnitin reports are not an appropriate substitute for faculty explaining clear expectations for individual writing assignments, providing guidance about the genre expectations, and giving formative feedback. Turnitin cannot/should not replace things like writing-task specific rubrics. 
  • 2. Turnitin "originality" reports have limited scope and emphasize, potentially, the wrong things for formative writing assessment.  
  • The reports, based on an algorithm looking for a match of consequential words in common with any other text, are acontextual. This approach re-enforces the idea that written products themselves are acontextual--without a purpose, audience, situation. Writing curricula--here at UC Davis and across higher ed in general--are trying to teach the exact opposite and emphasize how successful writers make informed decisions based upon the context of the writing task. (See the frameworks for postsecondary success in writing and the ACRL's information literacy framework to better understand the way Turnitin's approach contradicts what writing and information literacy education experts say/endeavor to teach students.)"Originality" checking is not the equivalent of "proof reading," at least not if we want students to develop transferable literacy skills around information literacy and source-based writing.
  • 3. Turnitin's explanation of the "types" of misuse are not aligned with current scholarship or best practices in writing education.
  • Therefore, textbooks and curricula, if drawn from national models or movements like the Writing about Writing movement, may be divergent from Turnitin's explanations of source use. Likewise, faculty using the research of Writing Studies will be using different terms, concepts, and paradigms. Outsourcing writing instruction to this platform, especially when it contradicts our local writing education culture, seems particularly problematic.
  • 4. Turnitin's features obscure the developmental nature of student source use.
  • Rather than helping teachers and students inquire about/study their own writing and seek strategic opportunities for revision/intervention, Turnitin can cause students to think about source use in terms of compliance rather than rhetorical appropriateness. The compliance approach is contrary to all the writing culture we are trying to establish in our writing courses on campus. Source use is at the heart of most academic writing that represents and ideally contributes to ongoing conversations. Faculty (both intentionally and unintentionally) can weaponize Turnitin, replacing actual instruction about writing with sources in their discipline/in the context of a particular course assignment with the "detection" element of the tool. Most faculty (there is research about this) don't use the few formative features of Turnitin. They use it as a form of summative assessment of student writing. This is unhelpful and, I would argue, an unethical discharge of the faculty member's responsibility to assess only that which they teach. 
  • 5. Perhaps most problematically, Turnitin owns the student work it scans.
  • While students can opt out of certain tracking functions, there is no opting out of Turnitin’s ownership of their writing. Students are compelled to contribute their intellectual work to a corporation that will use--and profit from--their work without their consent or compensation.

This is a crucial moment for our campus that will impact writing culture; if instructors decide to use tools like Turnitin we need to focus on its descriptive, formative assessment potential and mitigate its dangers as an instructional or summative assessment tool. The crucial question seems to be--what can tools like these help us learn about student writing so that we can create more effective pedagogical interventions? 


Further Reading

Canzonetta, J., & Kannan, V. (2016). Globalizing plagiarism & writing assessment: a case study of Turnitin. The Journal of Writing Assessment, 9.

Howard, Rebecca Moore. “Plagiarism in Higher Education: An Academic Literacies Issue? – Introduction” in The Handbook of Academic Integrity, edited by Tracey Bretag. Singapore: Springer, 2016. 499-501. DOI: 10.1007/978-981-287-079-7_68-1.

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

Purdy, J. P. (2009). Anxiety and the archive: Understanding plagiarism detection services as digital archives. Computers and Composition, 26(2), 65-77.

Serviss, Tricia. “The Things They Carry: Using Design-Based Research in Writing-Teacher Education.” In Points of Departure: Rethinking Student Source Use and Writing Studies Research Methods. Ed. Tricia Serviss & Sandra Jamieson. Utah State UP, 2017. 102-122. DOI: 10.7330/9781607326250.c003

Serviss, Tricia.  “Creating Faculty Development Programming to Prevent Plagiarism: Three Approaches” in The Handbook of Academic Integrity, edited by Tracey Bretag. Singapore: Springer, 2016. 551-567. DOI: 10.1007/978-981-287-079-7_68-1

Serviss, Tricia. “Using Citation Analysis Heuristics to Prepare TAs Across the Disciplines as Teachers and Writers.” Across the Disciplines, 13 (3). online. 2016.