Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Newsday Tuesday

McLean Students Sue Anti-Cheating Service

Two McLean High School students have launched a court challenge against a California company hired by their school to catch cheaters, claiming the anti-plagiarism service violates copyright laws. The lawsuit . . . seeks $900,000 in damages from the for-profit service known as Turnitin. The service seeks to root out cheaters by comparing student term papers and essays against a database of more than 22 million student papers as well as online sources and electronic archives of journals. In the process, the student papers are added to the database.

I haven't seen something this cut-and-dried since my dishwasher turned emo during the heat cycle -- obviously the company is archiving, using, and display other peoples' work for commercial purposes, without even providing any mechanism for opting out. The fact that the students put copyright notices and "Do Not Archive" notes on their essays is classic, and I'm hoping that they get the $900,000 instead of a cheap settlement and an apology.

Being a stereotypical middle-of-the-roader with occasional conservative tendencies who comes across as a flaming liberal online, I'm of the opinion that Turnitin and other companies of their ilk are completely worthless for three major reasons:

  1. Everything has already been said in every possible permutation: (I knew that Applied Combinatorics class would come in handy). Good students are taught to paraphrase encyclopedic information in their papers, but there are only so many ways you can paraphrase a statement before you start to repeat the work of another paraphrasing student. As more and more papers are added to the system, the amount of similarities to at least one of the papers will continue to increase until students are forced to use an eclectic mix of Pidgin and vulgar finger gestures to convey their points in a non-plagiaristic way.

  2. In today's society, everyone plagiarizes everything: I'm guessing that plagiarism hasn't necessarily blossomed with the advent of the Internet -- instead we're just more aware of it occurring since it's so easy to catch now. Of the millions of daily visitors to the URI! Zone, almost 50% of them arrive via Google while searching for essays and analyses of the poems, "One Art" and "Storm Warnings" (another 30% searched for "naked dancing BU"). Apparently my lackluster high school essays are now the #1 hit for Google searches, and I have no doubt that they've been resubmitted many a time in the past eight years. I don't particularly see a problem with using the work of people before you, especially if you have some confidence in their reputation. Plagiarizing is a time-saving measure too. By plagiarizing, I was able to free up some time this weekend, and Jamie and I headed over to Christine and Erick's for some ping pong and nerf arrow shooting. Although the fire pit was not full of burning furniture we did have a good time out in the country.

  3. Plagiarization is orthagonal to learning: The fact that someone plagiarized doesn't mean that they didn't learn a thing while doing it. People argue that today's plagiarizing kids are losing the power of critical thinking, but how much critical thinking is really used when you're rewriting multiple sources in your own words? Sure, some people will cut and paste without reading or learning, but they probably wouldn't have learned anything regardless. The students who actually read and understood the material will still understand it if they copy the text wholesale. For a true test of the students' knowledge or critical thinking skills, just have handwritten essays in the classroom. Unless one student has Keats tattooed on the back of his neck, there will be very little room for cheating in this setting.

Note that today's post did not get into the tangent of proper citations and footnotes, which is a whole 'nother ballpark. We might as well do away with those too -- no one ever checks them unless they're writing a Music Theory paper. Real academics steal their work!

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