Plagiarism and Authorship: A Review and Retrospective of the CCCC Intellectual Property Annual

Clancy Ratliff

Screenshot of the Russian website Dissernet, which exposes cases of plagiarized dissertations.

Some of the articles about plagiarism in the IP Annual are, not surprisingly, focused on the classroom context. Several of these have examined plagiarism detection services, particularly Turnitin. When I first became part of the IP Caucus, I basically supported the use of Turnitin; at one Caucus meeting, when I heard Andrea Lunsford exclaim, "I want to put them out of business!"—I didn't quite understand why.

Now I think that mandatory submission of student writing through Turnitin before getting instructor feedback is like drug testing people before agreeing to give them food. How did we get here? I followed the research in rhetoric and composition studies about plagiarism detection services, which includes groundbreaking longer works of scholarship, most notably by Stephanie Vie (2013, 2015, 2017) and Jordan Canzonetta and Vani Kannan (2016). Some of our field's earliest responses to PDS, however, were short commentary articles in the IP Annual that brought questions about the ethics of Turnitin to the surface, highlighting two key messages: first, that students have rights as authors, and second, that Turnitin is motivated by profit. My sense, informed by over a decade in writing program administration, is that many faculty members in the university don't know that people, including all students, automatically own the copyright to everything they create in a fixed medium, that as soon as they save that document, they have copyright of that work for life plus 70 years. The guilty-until-proven-innocent assumption embedded in the use of Turnitin starts from the first principle that students are not authors—they probably didn't really write those papers anyway. But if we assume that students do write their projects for their coursework, we are obligated to respect their rights as authors under the law, including the right to deny a corporation permission to keep a copy of those authors' work in a database so that they can sell universities a license to search that database. When, during a meeting of a dozen or so faculty and administrators, I objected to the purchase of a Turnitin contract and pointed out that it violates students' copyright, the then-provost burst out laughing, and the other faculty members seemed indifferent. Only one other faculty member, my colleague in rhetoric and composition Keith Dorwick, spoke out in agreement with me. I would not have known to speak out had it not been for reading Wendy Warren Austin's (2007) and Traci Zimmerman's (2008) articles in the IP Annual, which insist on recognizing students' rights as authors.

Green background, white type. At the top: The Leader in Preventing Plagiarism. Below that, three icons: a globe, a stack of papers, and a notebook with a bookmark in it.
This image, taken in April 2018, is a real-time counter of indexed web pages, uploaded student papers, and scholarly articles as they are added to Turnitin's database. It was averaging about ten student papers uploaded per second.

The second key realization, or rather reminder, from those early IP Annual articles about PDS is that Turnitin is a corporation motivated by profit. When I first encountered it in 2000, it was known as "," which suggested to me, a second-year master's student at the time who wasn't paying much attention to it, that it could have been a nonprofit endeavor. When they became Turnitin, their canny messaging presented them as pedagogical support (and still does), which can elide the fact that they are for-profit. Austin and Zimmerman foregrounded the fact that Turnitin is concerned most with making money, not nurturing and respecting students as writers and taking their writing seriously. They reflected that a court of law decided that a company's financial interest outweighed students' copyright, declaring Turnitin's archiving of student work to be fair use. When universities, corporations, and the legal system do not uphold students' rights as authors, student may never realize that they have these rights; for my part, Austin and Zimmerman contributed to the development of my advocacy. The short articles in the IP Annual can often serve as our field's rapid-response (compared to typical scholarly publication) to events. In the 2017 IP Annual, Zimmerman wrote about the 20th anniversary of Turnitin, in which she reflected on how Turnitin has thrived in the face of two decades of challenges and critiques, both legal and ethical, but provides a scholarly rapid response on their new Authorship Investigation feature, alerting readers that it monitors students' writing and learns their style through machine learning, to help discern if students have a third party write a paper for them rather than copy-paste plagiarism.

The IP Annual's coverage of plagiarism within the context of the classroom and academia has by no means been limited to Turnitin, however. Scholars have written about publicized plagiarism scandals in academia involving dissertations that offer interesting comparisons to cases of first-year student writers in composition courses. Craig A. Meyer's 2010 article described the case of William A. Meehan, the president of Jacksonville State University, whose dissertation contained long sections of text that had been lifted from research by Carl Boening. Boening's work focused on faculty sabbaticals, and Meehan replicated Boening's study with a different institution. Replication of research is fair game in academia, even encouraged, but Meehan had copied pages of Boening's writing without attribution. Meehan deftly brushed off the allegations, arguing that the accuser, David Whetstone, had ulterior motives. Whetstone, a former biology professor at Jacksonville State, had taken Meehan to court over ownership of a collection of plant specimens that Meehan was claiming for the university and Whetstone argued were his personal property. Meehan remained president of Jacksonville State University until his retirement in 2015 and seemed not to experience any real consequences of plagiarism. This case is not only another demonstration of the circumstances and context of a plagiarism accusation not particularly rooted in defending academic integrity; it also demonstrates race, class, gender (Meehan is a white man, arguably afforded more default credibility and authority than those who do not look like him), and institutional rank privilege as a variable in the situation.

Meyer also wrote about another scandal involving plagiarized dissertations, this time in Russia, where dissertation plagiarism is widespread, particularly among high-ranking government officials, and is part of a larger culture of corruption. Meyer's article reviews the proliferation of copying and purchasing of dissertations over the last twenty or so years in Russia, including Putin's 1996 dissertation in economics. People are able to pay ghostwriters to write dissertations and then bribe the board (similar to a dissertation committee) to approve the dissertations. Such corruption is not limited to Russia; in fact, Meyer argued that it is spreading:

Presently in the US, there is a general distaste for fake, copied, or plagiarized material. However, with the reality of factual information being challenged and what appears to be an increase in cognitive dissonance, a new level of disinterestedness in education may take hold. When, and if, this occurs the meaning of an advanced degree and what it means to be an academic will have limited importance. If the continued proliferation of alternative facts continues, the American academy may find itself with a similar level of plagiarized dissertations—and people in positions of power telling us they aren’t plagiarized or simply ignoring the fact that they are. [...] While the international academic community may not be as mired as Russia, yet, we need to recognize the potential of how corrupt our educational system could become and recognize how precarious a position the U.S. system is resting. The factors that led to Russia’s corrupt system are becoming reality in the United States: poor teacher pay, attacks by political figures, cutbacks to education, and so on. These circumstances serve as beacons of alarm; we should not ignore them.

The case of dissertations in Russia is another piece of evidence that the punishment, or lack of punishment, for plagiarism falls along lines of class and privilege. Despite flagrant mishandling of source material by prominent people in their dissertations, the consequences of plagiarism are still very real for undergraduate students. Steven Engel and Chris Gerben reminded us of this in their 2012 examination of a situation at Harvard University in which students took a take-home exam, having been told that it was open book, open notes, open internet, but they shouldn't talk to each other about the exam. After the professor noticed similarities among some of the exams, the university did an investigation into the matter and found that students had collaborated with each other. Soon it became clear that students had received conflicting and ambiguous instructions about the rules for the exam; collaboration, for example, had been encouraged all throughout the course, and "open internet" may imply that discussion boards about the course material would be within the guidelines. Students may have believed that they were following the rules in good faith. Still, after the investigation, close to 70 students were "asked to temporarily withdraw" from the university, and another 30 were given probation. The administration made a new rule that faculty members must have a collaboration policy in the syllabus. The prestige of Harvard was at stake, and the students had to pay the price for preserving it.

We can't know what the long-term impact was for those students, but it's safe to conclude that it was severe, at least emotionally. Another IP Annual piece that explores the long-term impact is Kristi Murray Costello's (2016) essay about the FI grade, a grade that specifically signals failure of a course for academic dishonesty. This piece, which is from the 2015 IP Annual, is still the only analysis from a rhetoric and composition scholar of this institutional policy's implications. Costello argued that application of the FI grade correlates to levels of class and privilege—background and preparation for college, academic writing conventions as first language. The kinds of institutions that have FI grades tend not to be those with the aura of prestige. The FI grade is capricious, because it is ultimately left to individual teachers' judgment, and reporting of plagiarism cases is inconsistent.

Another excellent think piece from the IP Annual is from Kathrin Kottemann (2013), who reflected on plagiarism and catfishing (the term for creating a fictitious identity online and using it to engage in an online relationship with an unsuspecting person). Kottemann argued that first-year writing can be a high-pressure rhetorical context demanding impersonation (an argument with a long tradition, made persuasively in David Bartholomae's [1986] "Inventing the University"), in which students sometimes unwittingly engage in elaborate forgeries. In contrast to plagiarism, which is taking something that someone else wrote and making it appear as though you wrote it, forgery is writing something yourself and making it appear as though someone else wrote it. Both involve deception and, as Amy Robillard and Ron Fortune (2012) wrote, "the production of belief," creating a catfish-author-self that says exactly what the teacher wants to hear, the way she wants to hear it. The goal is to produce belief in the reader (teacher) that the writer is a legitimate academic, which will lead to a high grade for the student. Copy-and-paste plagiarism can assist in this endeavor, similar to the way a catfish uses other people's photos to create a fake online identity. Students are in a double bind: the teacher wants to hear something, and the student tells him what he wants to hear but is penalized for it. Kottemann calls into question the system that expects a circumscribed academic voice or register in first-year writing.

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