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March 05, 2008


Rob G

Unfortunately, GMU subscribes to Turnitin:

The "policies" page (
does seem to take your criticisms into account. However, your bloggin' has inspired me to create a petition against the use of this service by Mason. I might want your help in drafting a proper petition (never have done one). But the elimination of turnitin is quite within my politics...

James F. Trumm

My take is that as a student at a private institution, you are in a legally weaker position than my sons are. It's one thing for a private school to make submitting papers to Turnitn a requirement of the educational experience. It's another thing for a public school to condition provision of educational services upon students' agreement to turn their intellectual property over to a private concern.

On the other hand, as a graduate student, you probably have a stronger pedagogical and commercial argument. While few high school student papers have much commercial value, such is not true in grad school; in fact, much of grad school is aimed at getting students to produce commercially viable, publishable papers. Thus you're been robbed more significantly than my sons are.

You might want to look at the Cornell experience; they don't use Turnitin because of copyright concerns. Also, the attorney who is representing the plaintiffs in the suit against Turnitin, Bob Vanderhye, has his office in your neighborhood.

Rob G

Mason ain't private. It's the second biggest (or maybe the biggest) public university in VA. As such, taxpayer dollaz are goin' to turnitin.

Rob G

Plus, it's never affected me personally. I haven't had to (and would never, ever, ever) submit papers to that service. However, many of my colleagues teach courses here at GMU, and they use it. Perhaps they don't understand it? Perhaps they do but don't realize the implications? I'm not sure, but it's petition-drafting time!

James F. Trumm

I stand corrected. But in any event, it ain't petition-drafting time . . . IT'S CLOBBERIN' TIME!


... insidious, creeping, ultimately-everything is-plagarized, glutted data base.

OK, so I have another take on this, in addition to the heavy legal issues here, and maybe someone else has already covered this ... or this has already happened?

So, lets say I write something and properly cite it and everything, and it just so happens, that, owing to the obscenely-gluttonous database that turnitin has amassed, a great deal of my ORIGINAL writing matches up with a lot of hits in their database and I get heavily dinged for plagarism?

Now, since I was completely unaware of the existence of these other works, I cannot possibly have plagarized them, as all the identical concepts originiated within my own mind, completely independent of the existence of one, or hundreds, of substantially similar works.

Therefore, in this case, of what value is any assessment of plagarism provided by turnitin? None WHATEVER! USELESS!
Turnitin can NOT assess plagarism; it can only match against a huge glut of existing documents and report simlarities, from which it draws a false conclusion regarding plagarism.

Therefore, as turnitin continues to absorb more and more works, eventually (soon? already?) it will be impossible to write two consecutive words without plagarizing some other work, possibly your own.

Turnitin is an interesting "concept", and may have some modicum of usefuleness, but said usefulness can only be on a rapid decline of diminishing returns.

I'm sure they've made their money, and they'll probably make lots more, as there are plenty of fools around who willingly part with it.

But anyone planning to use it should consider well what they're getting for the price, and, back to the issues above, the price is becoming steeper and goes far beyond license fees, ultimately to be paid out in stupidity itself!

James F. Trumm

Kikiman, you make an excellent point. The more Turnitin is used, the less useful it becomes. I am reminded of this quote from Thomas Pynchon's first novel, V.:


The Crew had developed a kind of shorthand whereby they could set forth any visions that might come their way. Conversations at the Spoon had become little more than proper nouns, literary allusions, critical or philosophical terms linked in certain ways. Depending on how you arranged the building blocks at your disposal, you were smart or stupid. Depending on how others reacted they were In or Out. The number of blocks, however, was finite.

"Mathematically, boy," he told himself, "if nobody else original comes along, they're bound to run out of arrangements some day. What then" What indeed. This sort of arranging and rearranging was Decadence, but the exhaustion of all possible permutations and combinations was death.


You're right: sooner or later the number of original permutations of words that can plausibly be used to express a given concept will shrink to the point where Turnitin won't work. There are only so many ways, for example, that one can say that George Washington was born in 1732.

Thanks for an interesting post.


JFT -- thanks for that confirming post. I suppose the term, "thinking outside the box" may have some added relevance when Turnitin is the box (kitty litter-ature, anyone?). I first became interested in this when I found out that it was being used by some of our tenth-grade teachers; in speaking with the sponser he was quite pleased with the results and claims that it "... seems to help kids understand how plagiarism works, and in my
experience, saves several students each year from an uncomfortable clash
with intellectual property rights". Without clearly understanding what is meant by " ... an uncomfortable clash
with intellectual property rights" I suppose that, at that level, it could be somwhat instructive / illustrative of the concept of how some of the more blatant, low-level forms of plagarism can be "detected" by such a tool -- for whatever that might be worth. Probably not as much as it costs, and again, the more serious the work, the greater the issues.

I'm still waiting to hear the horror story that pits one (near-purely-) autonomous work against another and pronounces the impossible verdict of plagarism. Perhaps this has already happened? I shudder to think of the bloodshed of the poor victims going up against the Turnitin machinery and (the face-saving machinations of) those who bought into it (and will rather slaughter the innocent than admit ANY shortcoming in either "the system" or their blindly-religious adhereance to it). The glut problem aside, there is a major flawed premise that more than one individual can NOT think and express themselves -- in complete autonomy -- in exactly, or nearly-so, the same way as another individual. That flaw conveniently overlooked, the machinery and its supporters continue to (bank-)roll on ... and on .... and on

... and then there's the copyright / property issues ...

James F. Trumm

Kikimann, your post reminds me of the old saw about how a bunch of monkeys pounding on typewriters long enough would eventually write Shakespeare.

I share your concern about the student who innocently produces a paper that is substantially identical to something someone else has written over the last decade or so. Such a student would then be put in the near-impossible position of having to prove a negative, i.e., that he or she DIDN'T copy.

To me, though, the interrelated issues of copyright and pedagogy more important. I try to teach my students that their words matter, that they have value, that they are theirs and theirs alone. Turnitin undercuts this message by saying, in effect, well, these are just student papers with no commercial value, so who cares if we archive and use them?


I've just seen my daughter receive poor grades because her "overall similarity index" was 27% in a submission to Turnitin. But the individual source matches are 3% or lower. Even the 3% match was in a quote from a short story she was analyzing. Another came from a website that doesn't exist. I'd argue it would be impossible not to match a few words, given similar topics. Please tell me they don't add the individual matches to sources to come up with the overall similarity index? I can't seem to find anything on the internet, to this point, that explains how the index is determined, including itself. Any help would be appreciated.


AL, I wish I knew how to help.

But I should certainly *HOPE* that her TEACHER, who assessed her work, could FULLY EXPLAIN how he/she uses turnitin to arrive at those assessments. SURELY THE TEACHER UNDERSTANDS THESE THINGS WELL ENOUGH TO BOTH EXPLAIN THEM TO YOU AND HOW THEY WORK TO ARRIVE AT THE ASSigned grade, RIGHT?

By the way, what grade level is this - high school?, College?


JFT, disgruntled students, et. al.




James F. Trumm

Al, I wish I could answer your question about how Turnitin calculates its "similarity index," but I can't. This points out one of the problems with Turnitin, namely, that because they hide their methodology behind a "proprietary" wall, students and teachers have no way to know how their calculations are put together.

You don't say whether your daughter is in high school or college, private or public. I'd suggest you take a look at my annotated biblioraphy of critical materials relating to Turnitin at and then go meet with your school's principal or curriculum director. If your daughter goes to a private high school or college, you don't have as many rights as you would if she attends public school. Private institutions may claim that any hoops they make her jump through are contractual--you don't like 'em, you don't have to send her to that school. Public schools, however, are in a different position. It would be difficult for a public high school (to which attendance is compulsory) can condition her education on her surrender of her intellectual property--especially to an corporation whose methods are hidden.

James F. Trumm

Kikiman, I love spirit behind the V. for Vendetta approach you suggest. The problem is that Turnitin already has electronic dictionaries, book texts, encyclopedias, etc. in its database--and to the extent it doesn't, we'd just be doing their work for them.


James T -- true -- I suppose that it is not possible to make this sham any more worthless than it already is ...


... on the other hand, just think -- if you fed it randomly-sorted paragraphs and 3-5 word phrases from all of those sources pretty soon NO ONE could possibly re-phrase anything and not have it assessed as plagarized !!! :-]

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