Friday, March 13, 2009

TurnItIn pays profs (who praise) to attend conference

In an article titled False Positives on Plagiarism , InsideHigherEd presented Texas Tech results suggesting the presence of "false positives" for plagiarism from TurnItIn.

However, more interesting to IPBiz was the report that TurnItIn was paying for travel expenses for some profs to give papers. This issue once arose for Cass Sunstein (getting money from Exxon who had an interest in punitive damages vis-a-vis Valdez) and arises for certain intellectual property profs (eg Mark Lemley) who get funding from the IT folks.

Here are a few sections from InsideHigherEd:

This year's meeting [of the Conference on College Composition and Communication,] also comes at a time that Turnitin is trying to encourage different kinds of presentations to the composition meeting. Turnitin is paying the travel costs of some of those who are speaking here. The Texas Tech professors are not among those in San Francisco on Turnitin's dime and the company won't reveal those who are receiving support.


The Texas Tech session was a critical look at plagiarism detection, but other sessions in the program had titles that sounded less critical. For example, Jim Lee of Texas A&M University at Corpus Christi was to speak on "Improving Writing and Analytical Skills Through Turnitin." And Diana Vecchio of Widener University spoke on "Turnitin Originality Report: Not Just for Plagiarism Anymore." They were scheduled to share the podium with Lanette Cadle of Missouri State University, speaking on "Fighting the Fear: Plagiarism as an Expression of Technophobia." Cadle is the only one of the three who wasn't awarded Turnitin funds. She said that she wondered whether her fellow panelists were receiving support from the company. Cadle said she was not offered money, and wouldn't have accepted it if offered, given that she was speaking about the industry at an academic conference.

Lee said via e-mail that he applied for and was promised Turnitin money, but that when he didn't get details that he expected about the payment, he decided not to go to the meeting and so won't be giving the talk. "Having a company sponsor presentations of its service represents a conflict of interest, but I thought the company would have no influence on whatever I was going to say," said Lee.

Kent Williamson, executive director of the National Council of Teachers of English, of which the composition group is a part, said that the board decided -- after learning of the Turnitin grants -- to ask all speakers receiving financial support from an entity their papers discussed to reveal such support during their presentations. The idea, he said, was to ensure that people in the audience could make appropriate judgments of their own.


The issue of travel payments is particularly sensitive for a group like the composition conference because its members include many at community colleges and many adjuncts -- people who don't tend to have access to travel budgets (even in years that are better financially than this one).

Vecchio, of Widener, said that she was aware of the controversies over Turnitin and intellectual property and other issues, but that her talk about the company's services didn't relate to those issues. She spoke about how she uses Turnitin to teach first-year composition students how to paraphrase. By running their essays through Turnitin, she shows them how they are effectively copying material -- at least at the beginning of the course -- and can show progress toward the end. Turnitin is "a learning tool," she said.


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