Plagiarism Detection Pilot Program Launches

By Kelsey Collins

Nine professors at the College are currently piloting a trial run of turnitin.com, an Internet-based plagiarism prevention service and electronic grading system.

The implementation of the pilot program comes on the heels of recommendations made by the Honor Code Review Committee (HCRC) last spring.

Last year’s Honor Code Review Committee report, which includes the results of a survey circulated to faculty members, reported that professors often feel that source identification for suspected plagiarism is “difficult and time-consuming” and many faculty members indicated a desire for a more robust tool for detecting plagiarism. This semester-long trial of Turnitin is part of a larger anti-plagiarism agenda put in place as a response to the findings of that committee.

The executive summary of the 56-page document detailing the findings of the HCRC’s report concludes, “Middlebury’s Honor Code is not facing a moment of crisis, nor is it functioning with optimal effectiveness.”

According to Associate Dean of Judicial Affairs Karen Guttentag, 10 to 15 students face official allegations of plagiarism each academic year, although she added that the problem is likely much more prevalent than the numbers would suggest.

The nine professors were invited by Dean of Faculty Development and Research Jim Ralph to participate in the pilot program based on their varying degrees of comfort with educational technology, levels of initial skepticism towards the platform, and previous experiences with incidents of plagiarism and the Academic Judicial Board. All of the professors are teaching writing-intensive classes this semester, such as first-year seminars and college writing courses in the humanities.

“Often as a faculty member in a large course in the humanities where the assignments are typically essays, it’s hard to know,” said Assistant Professor of American Studies Holly Allen, who served as a member of the Honor Code Review Committee last spring. “Sometimes a work sounds like it’s not the students work, and so to put one’s mind at ease, it would be useful to determine one way or the other. There’s a sense that plagiarism is something that might be slipping under the radar, and that we needed to contemplate new ways of addressing plagiarism.”

“I always assume that students are exhibiting academic integrity in all of their work,” Allen said.  “I don’t want to be a policeman. It’s not my job. My job is to teach. The students’ job, among other things, is to abide by the honor code that they entered into when they came to Middlebury.”

While some professors are embracing Turnitin, citing its function as a “learning tool” and a platform that might be used only to confirm suspicion of plagiarism, other professors expressed reservations about the service.

“Personally, I’m very skeptical about outsourcing something — a skill that I think should be taught and discussed and customized to each individual course and discipline — to a technology that treats everything more or less the same,” said Jason Mittell, professor of film and media culture and one of the pilot program participants. “Ultimately, I think that the way to prevent plagiarism is to educate students. Turnitin would encourage students to check their work in order to avoid plagiarism, but it wouldn’t help them learn what’s actually happening. It’s focused on the product not the process.”

Reactions from students enrolled in courses using Turnitin this fall ranged from indifference to skepticism.

“We care about plagiarism for both philosophical and practical reasons,” Guttentag said. “Not only does [attribution] allow the contributions of others to be acknowledged and appreciated, but it allows faculty to distinguish the work of the student from that of others. Understanding the student’s own intellectual journey and comprehension of material is obviously critical to the educational process, and that includes not only what a student thinks about a topic, but the student’s ability to express those thoughts cogently. Without a roadmap to help professors make these distinctions, the process of teaching is critically compromised.”

The nine professors participating in the program along with the students enrolled in their courses will provide the College with feedback on Turnitin at the end of the semester, which will help shape the decision whether or not to extend the scope of the Turnitin platform at that time.

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Plagiarism Detection Pilot Program Launches