Kudos to McGill student Jesse Rosenfeld for refusing to submit his essay for an electronic plagiarism test (Bulletin, Nov. 2003). In refusing, this second-year student demonstrates more wisdom and common sense than many tenured academics who have signed up for such educational nonsense as the Turnitin service designed to ferret out plagiarists.
This most recent computer innovation will undoubtedly take its place of honour in the pantheon of classical American absurdities such as lie detectors, IQ scores and other Orwellian gimmicks. And like most of them, this program, even in principle, is unable to do the job. What if I rewrote a plagiarized essay in different words? What if I took it from some obscure book or a magazine article? What if I hired someone to write a course essay for me? How could Turnitin ensure the integrity of the text in these cases?
Many original and influential writers in the humanities (and even in the "hard sciences") were accused of plagiarism. In fact, the line between originality and so-called plagiarism is often blurred. Say I heard (or overheard) some good ideas at a conference (or at the airport, or subway, or museum), and what if later I used these ideas in my publications? Is this plagiarism?
Instead of fighting silly plagiarism battles which are both ethically repugnant and legally questionable, university grading systems should be primarily based on direct tests, class colloquiums and face-to-face examinations. In the computer age, essays written specifically for course grades have very low educational value and are generally almost meaningless.
Alexander A. Berezin
Engineering Physics, McMaster University