Since 2001, the University has invested $3,200 per year to subscribe to a plagiarism detection online program called Turnitin.com. Started almost 11 years ago, Turnitin now supports 6,000 institutions of higher learning across the United States, according to Turnitin support staff.
Some students and professors, however, question whether the use of Turnitin conflicts with the University’s Honor Code policy, which requires students to sign off that they have received “no aid, no violation.”
Tamar Charles ’11 believes programs like Turnitin successfully prevent plagiarism, but she has mixed feelings about their use at the University.
“These programs are resourceful for teachers, so I can see why they’re used,” she said. “On the other hand, they should trust us with having integrity with our coursework. When I first found out I was required to submit my work to Turnitin, I admit, I was taken aback.”
Ashley Williams ’08, a member of the Honor Board, noted that having an Honor Code on campus does not mean that plagiarism is nonexistent.
“Despite the Honor Code, there are people at Wesleyan who cheat,” Williams said. “I’m relatively certain that this fact won’t surprise most. And for anyone at this school who believes even slightly in the concept of academic integrity, I think it is simply a matter of principle that the Honor Code be enforced in the most fair, efficient, and productive way. Turnitin does this well.”
After professors set up Turnitin accounts through the school, students upload and submit their papers online. The papers are then scanned against a database of billions of pages and sent to the professor with the plagiarized phrases highlighted.
“Every paper is returned in the form of a customized Originality Report,” the Turnitin.com website states. “Results are based on exhaustive searches of…current and archived instances of the internet, millions of student papers previously submitted to Turnitin, and commercial databases of journal articles and periodicals.”
Although only a small number of University professors use the program, students and professors alike have raised further concerns with the site. Beyond the issue of possibly conflicting with the Honor Code, some also worry about work being permanently stored on the site. According to Celina Gray, Assistant Professor of Classical Studies who uses Turnitin for her classes, opposition to Turnitin has grown at other schools.
“At some schools in Canada, for example, students felt that they didn’t have a choice in the matter and there has been some resistance,” she said. “One of the reasons why students protested is that their work gets permanently put in Turnitin’s database without their consent.”
Samantha Sommers ’09, another member of the Honor Board, insisted on the importance of using Turnitin to reinforce the values of the Honor Code.
“The Honor Code exists to protect the integrity of an individual’s academic work,” she said. “Turnitin is a practical way of holding students accountable to their pledge to adhere to [it].”
Michael J. Whaley, Vice President for Student Affairs agreed, explaining that the Honor Code is still valuable in colleges today.
“Honestly, Wes would be a pretty different place if we didn’t have an Honor Code; take-home exams are common, and teachers often leave the room when they give exams,” he said. “More importantly, the faculty and students have more intellectual freedom because of it.”
Similarly, Williams noted that the Honor Code serves to remind students of the University’s standards.
“The Honor Code serves as a preemptive instruction and reminder, allowing those people joining the community to know what is expected of them, while allowing those already in the community to feel comfortable expecting a certain level of character from the other members,” she said.
Katherine Kuenzli, Assistant Professor of Art History, however, does not feel that Turnitin is a useful source for her.
“I use the Honor Code and I stand by it,” Kuenzli said. “College is about taking on responsibility and, thus, I have to trust my students. Turnitin may help professors catch more of the unintentional plagiarism, which is a grayer area, but I have a better use for my time.”
Although Turnitin has aided professors in detecting plagiarism, they are quick to emphasize that they rarely find students who have done so.
“At Wesleyan, I have found no instances of plagiarism in my classes,” Gray said. “During exams, I leave the classroom, and I give my students the benefit of the doubt that they are not cheating.”
“Honestly, though, incidents of plagiarism rarely happen because of ill intent, but more because of carelessness,” she added. “Students forget to reference a website, or they cut-and-paste phrases. To me, it seems to be more of a late-at-night, last minute decision, where students are stressed and make a bad choice.” Kuenzli and Gray both noted that, while Turnitin may be necessary at other schools, it may not be the best solution here.
“At Wesleyan, I don’t see plagiarism as my number-one worry,” Kuenzli said. “Yet, by using the program, it sets up a strange dynamic between teachers and students. It’s not treating students as the adults that they are.”
“I am very conflicted about the use of Turnitin because, at my school before, it was a necessity,” she said. “Here, however, it’s not as clear-cut. I don’t think Turnitin is the best solution, but it’s certainly a solution for now.”