Turnt in For What?

6 September 2018

Students who submit essays to Turnitin might find their essays commodified for paid plagiarism-checking services such as WriteCheck.

The application is developed by Turnitin—an American company which provides plagiarism-detection services to institutions over the world, including the University of Melbourne. According to its website, WriteCheck uses the same technology as Turnitin, and can identify similarities with “600+ million student papers” and “60+ billion current and archived web pages.”

The plagiarism-checker also gives an automatic grammar check during its plagiarism detection process, and provides paid online essay-writing tutoring services. Students can pay for up to five essays to be checked at a time.

“Turnitin and WriteCheck are owned and operated by the same company to serve different audiences,” said Martin Kelly, the international marketing manager at Turnitin’s Australia office. “WriteCheck was developed in partnership with instructors to provide students a formative check on writing before submission.”

“The service is most often used for group assignments, to check for citation accuracy and to avoid accidental plagiarism and for feedback on writing and grammar.”

Farrago purchased one of the packages for our own testing. We collected two media essays, two politics essays and one environment report written in the last two years by UniMelb students. All of the essays received grades of H2A or above. While one media essay and the environment report were untampered, duplicated or paraphrased Wikipedia extracts were added into the rest of materials. Farrago also tested one English essay found online as a reference.

It turned out that all the essays we submitted, including the untampered originals submitted by UniMelb students, displayed high similarities to other essays in the system, although WriteCheck does not detail the original sources.

On the WriteCheck website, the company describes the process of engaging Australian law firm Blake Dawson Waldron to ensure that their use of student work complies with Australian copyright and privacy laws. The advice claims that “it is highly unlikely (although not completely inconceivable) that a Court would consider that the use of the Turnitin system by a subscriber to the service in Australia would infringe a student’s copyright”. The advice from Blake Dawson Waldron is from April, 2004.

Kelly also told Farrago that Turnitin has taken policies to ensure Turnitin respect its users’ data privacy.

“We provide students, instructors and institutional clients the option of storing papers in the Turnitin database, within a private repository or not at all so that they maintain control over their intellectual property,” said Kelly.

Several students who offered their papers to Farrago for testing didn’t see a serious problem with the service. “I don’t care if they have my finished essay,” said one. “I just don’t want what would effectively be someone standing over my shoulder while I work.” The student was referring to Cadmus, a controversial anti-plagiarism software that the University has been trialling to potentially replace Turnitin in the future.

However, some students expressed concerns about data privacy. “I can see how useful it can be from a student’s perspective to see to what extent their essay is plagiarised, but the fact that they are able to essentially sell a service that uses my data and assignments that I have spent hours and hours working on; I can see how it would make people uncomfortable,” said Jesse Seeberg-Gordon, one of the students who offered his work for Farrago’s testing.

One UniMelb lecturer told Farrago about their concerns with the Turnitin, as the syste could subject the best students to institutional anxieties.”“And in doing all of this, it appropriates the intellectual labour of the students and the markers only to sell it back, at a premium, to the University.”

The lecturer also criticised the efficiency of software like Turnitin in identifying plagiarism.

“Turnitin is essentially ineffective: it catches only the most banal form of plagiarism (copy and pasting), and it does so poorly. Its real function, I suspect, is simply a training in subordination to our new algorithmic masters.”

The University of Melbourne Student Union Education Officer Toby Silcock said paid plagiarism checker services in general could scam students.

“It looks like students are basically being rorted—that Turnitin is, without the knowledge or consents of students, selling students’ essays and making money of another group of disadvantaged students who are afraid of plagiarising,” said Silcock. He also said the University should take action on protecting students’ intellectual property.

A University spokesperson said that the University was aware of the WriteCheck service offered by Turnitin. “The University takes very seriously the protection of students’ personal data and all new tools are subject to privacy impact assessment to minimise risks and ensure compliance with relevant privacy laws,” said the spokesperson.

“All students provide their consent to their work being submitted to the Turnitin service when they submit assignments. The consent thus provided includes the Turnitin–WriteCheck service.

“While Turnitin is a commercial service and the University itself and other institutions benefit from having a broad corpus of data within the Turnitin similarity dataset, it is important to note that the way student data is stored within the corpus data set makes it intrinsically unidentifiable.”

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