Think back to a piece of writing you produced that makes you proud. It could be an academic article, a grant proposal, a job application. I imagine it makes you proud because it was an experience that involved hard, engaged work. I bet it also gives you a strong sense of confidence in your ideas and professional identity.

I also bet you stole it.

Let those words linger a minute. Of course, I bet you didn’t steal it. But imagine that, when you submitted that piece of writing, someone said that you did.

Why You Shouldn’t Use Plagiarism Detection Software

I get the case for using plagiarism detection software. The argument typically goes: plagiarism threatens the value we place on critical thinking and undermines the reputation of an institution. I don’t take exception with much in that argument, except that it has at its core a big assumption: students are cheaters.

Scholars in my field of Rhetoric and Writing often condemn the use of plagiarism detection software. The Composition Program at the University of Louisville offers a detailed case for why, and I would encourage you to read it. Here, I would like to emphasize two points:

  1. Plagiarism detection software damages the student/teacher relationship from the outset.

If you felt defensive at my earlier suggestion that you stole your writing, imagine how your students feel (regularly) when they see plagiarism software statements on our syllabi. Such statements are not challenges to innovate, to create, to synthesize, to critique and advance; they aren’t invitations to explore the course content in ways that matter to them. Instead, they say “Writing is a proving ground, like a test, and you better get it right.” How we talk about plagiarism matters.

I mean, look at the names for some of these services: TurnitIn (an emphatic command), Safe Assign (your writing is “unsafe” and we must purge it before acceptance), and Ouriginal (you must generate original ideas that humanity has never considered before, that critical thinking is always revealed in totally novel expression). It is difficult to establish meaningful student/teacher relationships if they feel we look at them this way, and I don’t think we want our institution to have the reputation of seeing students these ways.

  1. The use of plagiarism detection software is ethically dubious.

Not only are students often forced to submit their own intellectual work to a privately-owned database, but essay mills use such services to guarantee that the writing they sell customers will pass a detection test. That means that professors across the country are essentially underwriting plagiarism by helping to create a comprehensive database that helps essay mills do it better. In an effort to alleviate our concerns about plagiarism in the present, we may be making the entire activity harder to detect (I have no evidence that is the case with Ouriginal, though the service does allow individual users to set up paid accounts).

If the two propositions above are so, then our use of these services are not ethically neutral.

I will go into more detail about pedagogical alternatives in another blog post, but let’s start with re-thinking our approach to student writing.

Offer Authentic Rhetorical Challenges

Rhetoric is thinking artfully (making intentional decisions) and ethically (considering the consequences of our language use on real audiences) about our communication. Our students will never face generic writing situations beyond the classroom. Writing is used to solve problems, to convey critical information, and to develop innovative ideas. When we think of student writing as proving grounds, we offer generic assignments that I would argue are a-rhetorical. Students aren’t making intentional decisions as writers, and they aren’t thinking about the impact of their words for real audiences—they are just trying to get the right answer.

In their 1991 book, Situated Learning, Lave and Wenger forward the idea of “legitimate peripheral participation.” They developed the concept through observing various traditional apprenticeship practices. For instance, the shoemaker’s apprentice doesn’t start out on day one cutting leather; instead, they may sweep around the shop and do other tasks that are not shoe-making, but they do complete tasks that legitimately engage the situation in which shoes are made. Over time, through exposure and guidance, they learn more about the direct act of production.

Our students would benefit if we thought of our writing assignments as apprenticeship. Students can’t write SOAP notes without actual clients to work with, but how can you create scenarios that model the rhetorical challenge in those situations? Students may not yet be able to offer a full dietary plan to a patient, but can they use writing to research the processes they should use in doing so? Students can’t write a police report, but what intellectual inquiry could you design to have them analyze and understand the written conventions of such documents?

Here’s the point: if we offer authentic rhetorical tasks for our students, they will be more engaged in their learning and it will be harder to plagiarize. It is difficult to get an essay mill to write something that engages a hyper-local problem, or that practices specific written conventions of professional genres.

In thinking of student writing as apprenticeship, we resist plagiarism and begin to respect our students’ writing as legitimate inquiry—as a real part of the work in our fields.

Further Reading:

Policy Against the Use of Plagiarism Detection Software (2009) University of Louisville Department of English –

Playing with Plagiarism: Remixing What Sticks (2014)  Dustin Edwards, Harlot of the Hearts –

A Final Nail in the Coffin for Turnitin? (2019). Inside Higher Education –