I realize many on this list believe plagiarism software is useful for teaching students how to not plagiarize, and some see it as being as "normal" a part of writing as the use of grammar and spelling checkers. Some have also managed to make the use of such software a positive developmental experience for students, but writing experts either need to learn to work with plagiarism checkers in the same way they have learned to help students use grammar and spelling checkers, or writing experts need to lead the fight against such devices. Or something else needs to happen that I can imagine at this point. Why?
Well, the main problem with the focus on plagiarism and plagiarism checkers, which use algorithms based on word strings to "match" plagiarized sections, is that emphasis is being directed away from helping students learn to read sources for ideas, not for quotes or passages to toss in a paper. Grammar checkers are pretty good (but debatable for some purposes, such as mass grading of standardized test essays) because they, for the most part, deal in yes/no rule-bound concerns and are usually taught as offering suggestions. That is, writing instructors and others tell students that grammar checkers can be wrong, so the student needs to check their suggestions and not take grammar and spelling checkers' offerings without thinking about them. There's even some suggestion that grammar and spelling checkers help students learn to spell because they see a flagged word and then see and think about the correction, especially if the misspelled word was one they didn't know how to spell. Cool.
Plagiarism checkers, however, are very different. They do not work in the yes/no rule-bound world. Yes, they offer an originality score, and students are often taught how to navigate the results much as they are taught how to navigate grammar and spelling checkers. But BECAUSE plagiarism checkers are looking for strings of words, users can patch -write: weaving pieces of copied texts (for the most part) together to meet the X-page limit and engaging in quote-trolling or copying and pasting passages into their papers and massaging them to fit the paper. This process may result in grammatically correct papers that follow APA or MLA or whatever format and meet the page length to earn B's or even A's. But that process can and does also shortcut the reading for ideas stage of writing, the meaning making, the understanding.
It's been reported (and I don't have a cite but I heard this from a plagiarism expert) that students in an English university have learned to use Turnitin to help them patch-write, especially students studying disciplines that are not writing intensive. Students get their own originality scores from Turninit and then change words in the 8-word string that Turnitin can catch until the originality score meets the paper requirement for not being plagiarized. At our writing center, we once had a graduate student come searching for Turnitin. She explained she wanted to writer her paper in just that way. She had copied and pasted passages together into a paper, and now she needed to "fix" any plagiarized parts. Yikes!
Plagiarism detectors seem to bring the old process vs. product debate from 1960s-80s writing instruction back into play: it's expensive and messy to help students, especially students whose writing is called "basic" or "developmental" or whose home language is not the same as the academic language in which they are writing, learn to read for ideas and engage with them and also produce correct academic prose. Unfortunately, Turnitin, even though the company offers lots of professional development on rhetoric and writing, seems to let students know that the main concern in their writing is the rule-bound realm. If correctness is what really gets a good grade, then why not patchwrite, especially when it's so much easier and so much more efficient?
An interesting source for students' current reading habits is the Citation Project, and here's a link that explains that research: http://projectinfolit.org/smart-talks/item/110-sandra-jamieson-rebecca-moore-howard
An interesting read about how computer software "reads" is Les Perelman's "Grammar Checkers Do Not Work," which can be accessed at the archive for WLN: A Journal of Writing Center Scholarship. This article is in March/April issue 40.7-8.
Western Michigan University Writing Center, Director
WLN: A Journal of Writing Center Scholarship, Co-Editor
Grammarly is another option to check plagiarism that also assists with proofreading. www.grammarly.com/Plagiarism_Checker
Similar to Turnitin, www.plagramme.com/
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