As you prepare for this semester’s final papers, take a close look at those assignment prompts and see if any of your instructors require you to run your drafts through Turnitin, the online “plagiarism” checker the University of Memphis paid $40,000 last year to license.
Did you know that the media conglomerate Advance Publications, the same company that owns Reddit, just bought Turnitin for $1.7 billion?
If you have ever been forced to use Turnitin, your intellectual property is what Advance Publications is buying. But how much of that $1.7 billion do you expect to get?
I’m guessing you aren’t getting any of it. That’s because you gave your writing to Turnitin for free.
Well, technically you didn’t “give” Turnitin your intellectual property, you actually paid the company to take it, at least insofar as your tuition dollars go to the licensing fee the university pays for the software.
If this makes you upset, that’s good. You shouldn’t be forced to feed your writing through a piece of third-party proprietary software that profits off your labor, and Turnitin’s business model absolutely depends on your labor. It collects the writing of students like yourself into a database that operates according to the company’s own intellectual property, algorithms that detect “similarities” (that’s the word Turnitin uses) when writing that goes into the database matches writing that already exists there. The company then turns around and charges colleges and universities to use this software.
It’s a bait-and-switch — one that works because instructors and academic administrators think it prevents academic dishonesty.
However, published research shows Turnitin is notoriously unreliable. I won’t cite specific figures here, but the real problem with Turnitin is that it fosters a culture of suspicion that requires you, the student, to prove to your instructor that you deserve to be trusted.
But that’s not how it should it work. Instructors need to teach the complexities of source use and information literacy alongside whatever else they are teaching — not force you to feed your work through questionable software that spits out a score.
So if any of your instructors require you to use Turnitin, I encourage you to take a stand and politely explain to them why you are uncomfortable with this requirement. You should not be forced to give away your intellectual property to a media conglomerate that profits from undermining the instruction you should be getting instead.