When TurnItIn is wrong about plagiarism

I have a lot of issues with TurnItIn and its researcher version Ithenticate. (There is also a moral argument, which is very valid! but I’m just talking here about the fact that, as tools, they don’t really work).

First of all, both work by defining plagiarism as, effectively, ‘too much text matching’–even though there are many places where text matching or high textual similarity is valid, for example in close textual analysis, in paraphrases for lit reviews, or for technical sections like methods where the words will come out looking very similar because there is only one accurate way to describe things.

Secondly, they only text match stuff that is available via certain online platforms, and not published in books. I research in book disciplines, so these tools are nearly useless for catching where I have misquoted another author, or am too closely repeating myself from a previous book.

And finally, this whole text matching thing, and the whole punitive ‘plagiarism is theft’ narrative is nasty and not accurate.

We are building our knowledge as part of a scholarly conversation. I want to hear what others have said in relationship to what you have said, and that might happen through quotation or citation, but it also might happen through echoes, allusions and other textual gestures. I don’t want to be written out of the conversation, but I also don’t want a little bar code on every little phrase I write.

With all of that said, it’s not surprising that TurnItIn is wrong about plagiarism’s past too.

Anyway, with all of that said, it’s not surprising that TurnItIn is wrong about plagiarism’s past too.

Plagiarism has almost certainly been with us since the dawn of language and art. For as long as there have been words to repeat and art to copy, it stands to reason someone was doing so.

Jonathan Bailey, 5 Historical Moments that Shaped Plagiarism, 29 January 2019

Okay, this is so wrong I have stars in front of my eyes.

For most of human history, art and words were not commodities to be owned by the artist and traded. There is no such thing as a person who ‘owns’ folk tales or oral histories or tribal chants. The point of these texts is that they are shared by a community, handed down, repeated verbatim, are authored by nobody, everybody or a divine being. The longest existing continuous culture in the world, Aboriginal people in what is now called Australia, still have these songs, stories and images–there may be limits on who should know or use the words but that ownership is of a lineage or people or group, and if person Y sings the same song that person X sang, that is great. (We’re talking here 40–60,000 years of culture here at least.)

Even as texts started to be written down a few thousand years ago, the idea of a single author that other people shouldn’t copy just didn’t exist. In Prolegomena ad Homerum, Friedrich August Wolf put forward the theory, which we now generally accept for many early epics and even for scripture, that ‘Homer’ stands for a whole series of poets and performers and editors who together created a composite work that now is something like The Odyssey, ot the Bible, or the Mahabharata. Authorship was assigned to a sage like Homer or Moses or Vyāsa, and maybe they wrote it and maybe they started it and maybe it was just politeness. (Wolf, by the way, was writing in the late eighteenth century, this is not some radical new way of thinking about authorship. )

The blog post situates the first case of plagiarism in 80AD, so less than two thousand years ago (hardly the start of history!), in a poem by the poet Martial. (The references for this were awful, feel free to jump through the links, but I’m using other resources.) Certainly, Martial did write a number of poems about another poet passing off work as his own, repurposing the Latin word for kidnapping to mean literary theft. In the Roman Empire, poets were paid for their work, they became famous for good poems, and might be banished if their poems fell foul of political opponents (something that happened to Ovid, for example): so there was a concept of ownership of art, and a marketplace for art, and losing ‘authorship’ might sting, though it was hardly cut and dried. It is a stretch to call this the first case of plagiarism, but it does seem to be fair to call it the first time the word that would become ‘plagiarism’ was repurposed for this situation.

Apparently between the Romans and the 17th century, there wasn’t any plagiarism at all, according to the blog. This is again egregiously blurring the history of authorship. First of all, there was a period (about 300CE onwards) in which authors used pseudepigrapha as obvious pen-names to align themselves with famous philosophers or figures in history–one of the best known is now called Pseudo-Dionysius. Writing in a way that mimicked another’s could be seen as bestowing respect on the original author, or as a way of aspiring to such heights for your own work. I could write more about anonymous authorship in the Medieval period, but just trust me, it’s still fascinating and complicated.

The blog goes on to be pretty confused about Shakespeare. The blog notes that English starts to use the word plagiarism by 1600, and indeed the OED has extensive lists English writers using versions of plagiarism from the 1590s onwards: so it was clearly a thing people were talking about, using our current word for it. Yet Shakespeare (c.1564–1616) is included in ‘the era without plagiarism’. Shakespeare was deeply and actively concerned about the theft of his plays. The scripts were not originally published by Shakespeare, but rather in pirated ‘bad quartos’, the scripts were previously kept seperate to reduce the chances of the play being stolen by other theatre groups. As the blog notes, Shakespeare didn’t make up his own stories, but more importantly he worked closely with other playwrights, who in turn adapted Shakespeare’s work (see for example this discussion on Middleton, or the entirety of the Riverside Shakespeare which is what I was told to use for my English degree at Cambridge). In this case, the name attached to the play is more like the name of the director of a film–‘a film by Martin Scorsese’ is of course ‘by’ hundreds of other people too, but that is relegated to the credits not splashed over the poster. So ‘authorship’ is still complex, flexible, negotiated, relative.

The blog gets onto more historically solid footing with the Statute of Anne (1710) which establishes the modern concept of copyright, and the invention of copy and paste in the 1970s. But, these two examples show us how radically the blog (and most plagiarism stuff generally) misses the mark so badly.

These two examples show us how radically the blog (and most plagiarism stuff generally) misses the mark so badly.

Copyright infringement is a thing that we should avoid. Copyright is both a moral right and accrues value to the author in a competitive writing system. Copyright infringement may overlap with a case of plagiarism, but not necessarily. For example, if I submitted no-attribution Creative Commons content, verbatim, for a university assessment it would be plagiarism but not copyright infringement; on the other hand I might write a fan-fiction work that clearly acknowledges its original content, which would not be plagiarism but might infringe copyright if it was too similar.

I’ve already complained about the issues of conflating copy and paste, or text matching, with plagiarism at the top of this post.

The other thing (not covered by the blog) that often gets conflated with plagiarism is sloppy citation practices. But accurate citation (while essential for making sure your reader can follow your evidence for themselves and to make sure you are representing that evidence accurately), is again something that may overlap with plagiarism, but isn’t the same thing. Different citation styles require different amounts of information to be included (for example, a science paper will just list the article, another discipline might require the exact line or page). Some misplaced quote marks or the wrong page number is not the same as plagiarism.

Moreover, the norms of what is plagiarism or not has changed radically over the last few decades. There was a time when it was expected that an author would summarise their previous book, using essentially the same words as was perhaps in the older introduction, as a courtesy to the reader. “You remember what I said before, but so you don’t have to look it up again, here it is.” It wasn’t self-plagiarism to save yourself the effort of writing more words, it was about saving the reader effort instead (especially in the days when you had to actually physically go to a library to check out the other book!)

In fact, this assumption of familiarity on the part of the reader might mean that other forms of reference were acceptable, where we might use someone else’s technical term without quotation marks or even naming the author, because it was obvious. “To be or not to be a plagiarist? is a question no student is asking” (for example)… yes, I do know that is from Hamlet (3.1), and so do you. Or rather, you used to know, if you had a traditional Western, English-speaking secondary school education.

One reason we should cite more clearly is because, as more diverse researchers enter the scholarly conversation, we don’t always share the same background knowledge. International scholars, interdisciplinary scholars, scholars with a non-traditional class or language background will all miss allusions, and so they should be formatted as citations or quotations instead.

And this is the big thing about plagiarism. It’s not the same as technical text matching or citations or copyright. It’s about our generosity to our reader, or the opposite. It’s about being mean or nice. And I would like us to read in more generous ways and write in more generous ways.

Writing generously means giving the reader as much value and ease as possible as they engage with your difficult, technical new knowledge. Writing generously means expansively including the many voices and thinkers who have contributed to your ideas, including students, non-scholars, grey literature, and non-writers. Writing generously means taking seriously the slow and boring task of helping a reader follow your evidence trail.

Reading generously means making space for the other author to have good intentions and imperfect delivery. It means marking in a way that is developmental not punitive. It means stepping away from (extremely flawed and faulty) citation tracking, h-indexes and impact metrics as judgements of authorial value. Reading generously will make us effective editors–getting the text to say what the author wanted to say more clearly. Reading generously will give us gaps where the author doesn’t quite make it as spaces to think with, to write with, to jog alongside the text.

Plagiarism is the opposite of generosity. Plagiarism is when the author is lazy, when the author is greedy, when the author is stingy. If we can’t be bothered to acknowledge others, or try to get double points for only doing the work once, or to keep too much credit for ourselves and deny credit to others… that’s when plagiarism is an issue and why it’s an issue.

And.. let’s be clear, here, no computer yet has the emotional maturity to tell the difference between generosity and greed. Computers are amazing at text matching and saving documents and sharing files and making journals easy to find and editing texts. But academic honesty and good academic citizenship are more than a ” or ibid. in the right place, it’s about a disposition towards other people and towards our shared attempt to, as a community, find out more about the world and share what we discover.

In other words, TurnItIn is not just wrong about plagiarism in history, it’s wrong about plagiarism, and one of the worst tools we have to help stamp it out.


I came to this blog post through a rather long chain of articles about an essay on plagiarism that was probably plagiarised. I suspect the poor original author will have had enough of a pile on, so this is going to the source, TurnItIn, who I think is a better focus for criticism.

This post is what my colleague Dr Tseen Khoo calls ‘a career limiting move’, but right now I’m not under any contracts that require me to promote these products, and people are being wrong on the internet.

I’d also like to thank Dr Jamie Burford, who is one of the most generous readers I know, and who is the reason I’m currently getting my head around some more of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, especially her work on ‘reparative reading’

Photo by Mike Walter on Unsplash


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