Pitzer Debates Use of Plagiarism Checking Tool

Pitzer College students and faculty were given access last fall to Turnitin.com, a website that runs papers through its database to check for plagiarism, inciting a debate on campus about the use of the service.

Immediately following the announcement on the campus-wide e-mail listserv of Turnitin’s availability, some students and faculty members began accusing the administration of trying to police the student body. 

“All of a sudden we got these e-mail flames coming back from faculty and from students,” said Associate Dean of Faculty Thomas Poon. “People were really upset that this software existed and that we were paying for it.”

Psychology and Black Studies Professor Halford Fairchild was one such critic. 

“I don’t like the police state atmosphere that Turnitin creates,” he said. “I don’t like the hyperscrutiny that’s implied.”

The outrage died down after Poon sent an e-mail to the faculty explaining the program’s intended use on campus. It was originally used by the Office of Student Affairs in 2008 to help students with disabilities who may have trouble citing sources, and has been used by the writing center as well. 

Although the service is not necessarily meant to check students’ academic honesty, “the bottom line is that some professors started using it to check plagiarism,” Poon said.

Unlike at most high schools, where teachers scan papers they think might be plagiarized and inform students later, students who use Turnitin at Pitzer can check ahead of time what the results will be, said Assistant Director of Information Technology Joanna Zhang. 

“We don’t use this as a catch and punish tool, but as a tool for students,” Zhang said. It is intended to help students improve their writing, not necessarily to enforce academic honesty, she said.

In spite of the controversy that the announcement caused, Zhang said the low number of students who have asked her for help with the program suggests that usage is low. 

“I haven’t heard anything about it,” Carly Nathan PZ ‘15 said. 

No professors have set up Turnitin sites for their classes yet, Zhang said, but some have expressed interest.

“[Turnitin.com is] definitely useful from a teaching standpoint,” Pomona Politics Professor Jonathan Liljeblad said. “At the very least it helps professors recognize if there is a need to pay closer attention [to a student’s work].”

Pitzer is not the only Claremont College to make the service available to its students. Claremont McKenna College and Scripps College also subscribe to Turnitin.com.

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