Blogging an Unpublished Paper: South African & Egyptian Academic Developers’ Perceptions of AI in Education Part 5: Attitudes Towards Turnitin.com

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes, 50 seconds

In case you missed my first post, I am blogging an unpublished paper as a series in parts over several days. You can read that post to understand the story and the reason behind this. Comments on each post welcome. This is the fifth post, and it will have “Attitudes Towards Turnitin.com” which is part of the findings section (see previous post part 4 for the beginning of the findings section), and part 1 for abstract/references, part 2 for intro/lit review, part 3 for research methodology/positionality.

Findings (continued)

Attitudes Towards Turntin.com 

Both departments in this study were involved in supporting Turnitin in their institution, though for SAU it was integrated in the LMS, and the center sometimes held seminars about ways of using it, whereas for AUC, CLT members created accounts for individual instructors upon request and routinely offered one-on-one training on how to interpret reports to everyone who creates an account. 

Attitudes towards Turnitin.com were largely positive in the sense that detecting plagiarism is important and needed, and that automating it was really helpful. It is important to note that in both Egypt and South Africa, the majority of students are introduced to plagiarism, citation and referencing for the first time in college and very few, those from elite high schools, will have been introduced to it earlier. During the interview, I also learned from one participant from the US that there are schools in the US in less affluent areas where students would not get exposed to citation practices in high school. In both Egypt and South Africa, students struggle to understand things like copyright, but according to SAU1, students tend to absorb the values behind plagiarism easier than copyright. Anecdotally from AUC, I feel students struggle with both.

Participants (all but AUC4 and SAU5) felt that plagiarism detection services like Turnitin.com or iThenticate allowed both learners and teachers to see how well students cited sources and paraphrased rather than copy/pasted. AUC3 said “For me, Turnitin, I cannot substitute it; I cannot say I am not going to use it”. AUC participants mentioned how it can be used to teach paraphrasing (e.g. AUC1, AUC2, AUC5) and SAU1 felt it was useful for all writers in general to check the originality of their work. SAU2 used iThenticate (Similar to Turnitin) as a researcher because, she says, “I am a sloppy researcher”. SAU2 found it useful but that it missed some nuances. Still, she considers it “necessary for research and… education”.

All but one participant had used Turnitin themselves, whether as teachers, academic developers or researchers. One of the main reasons one participant mentioned for using Turnitin regularly (AUC3) was to ensure fairness among students – faculty had different degrees of “intuition” with regards to plagiarism, but Turnitin would be able to detect things that those without this intuition might miss. SAU4 talked about a recent seminar their department ran about Turnitin and how it was very well-attended, with lots of questions coming up about the nuances of using Turnitin. 

There were, however, several concerns voiced about Turnitin.com. First, (AUC1, 2, 3, 5, SAU4, SAU2) all mentioned the need for a human eye to look at the reports beyond Turnitin.com, as it missed things, misunderstood things, and students also sometimes did workarounds that fooled the system. Students’ approach to Turnitin can turn into “gamifying cheating” (AUC4), something which all participants from AUC had seen in practice. SAU4 believed that this happened when Turnitin was used as a “punitive strategy” rather than a teaching tool, because then “you lose the teachable moment aspects of it and people start gaming it”. Those at AUC (AUC1,2,3,5) spoke extensively about ways of using it for pedagogical purpose, helping students learn how to paraphrase, and many (AUC1,2,3,4,5, SAU4) spoke about the importance, as academic developers, to suggest to faculty how to use it in ways that promote student learning by showing them their mistakes in paraphrasing and how to improve, and allowing them another chance. AUC4 suggested letting students themselves interpret the report rather than letting the machine interpet for them.

SAU5 is someone who had used Turnitin briefly and believed it was intended as a good thing, but when it over-reported plagiarism (what she believes was a glitch, as it was marking reference sections and quoted text as plagiarized) it made her students panic and she decided to stop using it. She felt that a good teacher could intuitively detect copied text (even with large numbers of students, especially non-native speakers) because of sudden bursts of eloquence or change in writing style. If teachers are going to read the papers anyway, she felt there was no need for Turnitin which caused “nightmares” and “stress” for her and her students.

Second, some (AUC1, SAU1, AUC4) expressed concerns over the way the platform was monetizing the work that is rightfully the copyright of the students (similar to Morris & Stommel, 2017), and collecting their data largely without their consent as they are required to submit things by their teachers in order to pass courses. AUC1 had a particularly emotional reaction to this, despite understanding why Turnitin needed to put student work on its repository, but “I am the one who wrote this paper, it belongs to me, and it shouldn’t belong to someone else”. 

AUC4 claimed to be “not a fan” of Turnitin.com and called it a “lazy man’s solution” that proposes a narrow solution to the factors that promote plagiarism and cheating. SAU3 used similar language, that Turnitin is used “in quite a lazy way by academics” and although it had potential as a teaching tool, it was not always used effectively. AUC4 felt teachers should find pedagogical solutions to this problem, redesign their assessments, rather than use a solution that creates a threat without guiding the teacher what to do next after catching students. Although AUC3 found Turnitin useful, they recognized that it emphasizes only one kind of plagiarism, the cut and paste type, but missed other kinds, like getting help on a paper from someone, or paraphrasing ideas without citing them, which were important dimensions of plagiarism.

Participants from South Africa tended to relay a pragmatic view of why Turnitin would be used despite its shortcomings, mainly by recognizing that teachers in large classes struggle to give feedback on writing, and so Turnitin helps. Participants in Egypt found it helpful, but they did not have the “large class” context in mind as much because AUC writing and language classes are often small (less than 20 students) and other classes are usually less than 40 students. However, the small classes have heavy writing loads, so teachers are still expected to grade large amounts of writing.

Students everywhere coming into college have varying familiarity with citation and plagiarism, and although some participants thought Turnitin was useful and needed (AUC1,2,3,5, SAU1,2,3,4), AUC4 suggested the solution needed to be “constant repetition” of values and practices of citation  across the curriculum, so that it would become “ubiquitous” rather than the current “hodge podge” which didn’t help students internalize the principles. AUC4 said “good teaching is effortful” and the responsibility of teachers is to promote learning, not catch cheaters.

Altogether, all participants (even AUC4 who would rather it not be used at all) believed that Turnitin.com needed to be used carefully, in ways that were not punitive but rather in ways that support student learning.

That’s it for now – how do you think attitudes and take up of Turnitin have changed during the pandemic?

Featured image from Pixabay. You may wonder at that particular choice: actually, Pixabay and Unsplash could not give me anything for “Turnitin” and decided to give me turnips instead. After trying many other keywords, I didn’t find any photos I liked, and thought any choice I made would show my bias (I mean you can see my bias everywhere, I’m explicit about it, but I didn’t want the photo to add to that). In hindsight, a turnip is a root vegetable, and I don’t think Turnitin addresses the root causes of plagiarism. Maybe I’ll stick with metaphors like these for the photos and see where it takes me? What do you think?

3 thoughts on “Blogging an Unpublished Paper: South African & Egyptian Academic Developers’ Perceptions of AI in Education Part 5: Attitudes Towards Turnitin.com

  1. I’m not sure whether other people’s attitudes toward plagiarism detection software are changing, but mine certainly are. Increasingly I’m finding that uploading student work to a plagiarism detection software program is a waste of time. My students generally understand why plagiarism is not acceptable but often need support when working on their paraphrasing and citation skills. The software can’t guide students through the process. It can only indicate — and not always accurately — if it finds matching text on the Internet.

    As you correctly point out, Turnitin and co. do not address the root causes of plagiarism (and the turnip photo fits this idea beautifully). I think it makes more sense for students to focus on writing for a real audience (their peers and me) than for a software program. Also, in my classes students can work in pairs or small groups to develop their paraphrasing and citation skills. By working together teachers and students can cultivate these essential academic honesty skills so that students can take part in the discourse of their disciplines with more confidence.

    1. Thank you for sharing this. I like that you’re engaging with the featured images as well, and that it adds a dimension to the posts. I appreciate your comments for letting me know what you are thinking and how it applies in your own teaching. Thank you 🥰

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