Preventing, not policing plagiarism

Why students and faculty should support the end of turnitin.com at Dal

Dalhousie’s long overdue decision to discontinue its relationship with Turnitin should move the university to consider the structural problems that contribute to plagiarism on our campuses.

The university made the decision based on information that student papers were being stored on computer servers in the United States, and not in Canada as thought, according to comments from Dwight Fischer, Chief Information Officer at Dal, in the Toronto Star.

Students and their allies have been sounding the alarm bells on security concerns about turnitin.com for a while. In 2006, students at Mount Saint Vincent University campaigned against turnitin.com partly on the concern that papers would be available to external parties (including the U.S. government under the patriot act.)

I went to King’s and Dalhousie for five years and never submitted a paper to turnitin.com. I also didn’t knowingly or deliberately plagiarize work in that time. When Turnitin was used in a class, I talked to my professor about alternative arrangements: submitting drafts, notes, etc., for example.

I’m not going to say that I didn’t sometimes think about cheating. I’m not lazy. I didn’t drink away my college nights. I like school, and I enjoy writing papers. But I was active on campus while in school: on the executive committee of the King’s Students’ Union, an editor of the Watch and the Gazette, active in student societies, trying to make it to campus events as much as possible.

I was also a working student. I worked as many as three jobs at once to cover costs. I got by in the same way thousands of other students do at Dal, at King’s, and at universities and colleges across Canada, where higher tuition fees have meant that more students are working more than ever before. (And still we graduate with tens of thousands of dollars in debt!)

Sometimes working through a pile of homework and readings in the middle of the night, between a long work shift and a morning meeting or class, getting out of a reflection by cutting and pasting something someone else did seemed like a good idea.

I was lucky, though. My professors and my departments understood. I had a lot of people accommodate me. I took some late paper deductions; I got a lot of extensions. In one extreme case, a professor of a compulsory class I took three times let me hand in all of my term’s assignments in the last few weeks of school so I could graduate.

I just can’t blame a student who took a shortcut facing academic pressures, work, family responsibilities, money woes.

I also can’t blame international students, many of whom come from schools where ideas about intellectual property are different. What if your schooling had taught you that people do not own ideas, that they are part of the common understanding of our world? Now, imagine that your grasp of English is poor, you have inadequate English as a Second Language (ESL) resources, and your one of 500 students in a class.

Or how about you and a few classmates are working something out together, you’re talking together about concepts, carefully thinking through something difficult as a group. Maybe it’s because you’re class is too big for class discussion, or you don’t feel comfortable speaking out, or maybe you’ve missed a class or two. The ideas in all of your work are similar to one another, even if you use different words. Who even is the plagiarizer and who is being plagiarized? Who owns the concepts or ideas generated in your discussion?

What if you take a short cut and you use something you’ve written before, for something else. Maybe you use it in its entirety, or maybe just part of it, but it’s work you’ve submitted before. Who decides you can’t use your own ideas again?

In any of these situations, turnitin.com may flag papers for plagiarism. The professor, then, would have to determine what reaction the turnitin.com result warranted. Maybe it would be a discussion with the students; maybe a hearing before the Senate Discipline Committee. But does that really solve the issues?

Plagiarism cannot simply be looked at as something that lazy, entitled, and dishonest students do. So many cases of plagiarism are due to structural problems caused by underfunding in universities. If our universities are truly concerned with eliminating plagiarism on campus then they will forefront the need for affordable post-secondary education, robust and diverse student services, smaller class sizes, and more academic supports. Preventing plagiarism should be the priority, instead of policing it.

Kaley Kennnedy graduated with a degree in Contemporary Studies and Social Anthropology from King’s in 2010. She is a former president of the King’s Students’ Union, and a former Nova Scotia Representative of the Canadian Federation of Students.

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Kaley Kennedy

Kaley was Opinions Editor for Volume 142 of the Gazette.

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