Turnitin, a plagiarism detection service used by more than 10,000 American colleges to check student cheating, is somewhat controversial. Back in July last year then-intern Paul Craft pointed out here that many schools refused to buy Turnitin services because it violated campus honor codes: “This new… approach to catching cheaters comes at a price: schools now assume students are guilty until proven innocent.”

But something else is going on here. It turns out that there’s a whole cheating market. There’s Turnitin, the program professors use to check for plagiarism, and there’s also WriteCheck, the program that seems to help students avoiding getting caught for plagiarism. These services are owned by the same company.

According to a piece by Elizabeth Murphy at Inside Higher Ed:

The two products are owned by parent company iParadigms LLC, based in Oakland, Calif.

Turnitin, plagiarism software released in 1996 and used by more than 10,000… checks submitted papers against its catalog of millions of archived student papers, journals, periodicals and books, producing a “similarity index” that alerts professors to the percentage of corresponding work found in its database.

A 5,000-word paper will run students $6.95 with WriteCheck, which gives them — in addition to checking for proper paraphrasing, quotations and citations — grammar, spelling, style, mechanics and word usage help. Students can submit revised drafts up to three times to the two-year-old program. The program also provides confidentiality for students, as submitted work is not added the the system’s database and is only accessible by the account owner.

Students can use WriteCheck to alter their papers so that Turnitin can’t detect what they plagiarized. Both services like to present themselves as “education tools” to help students, but this is silly. No one learns anything as a result of Turnitin alarms going off; he just fails.

As Murphy wrote, one professor, Kenyon College’s David Harrington, found the system troublesome:

To have this system where you are selling a security system to colleges and universities that is trying to protect against plagiarism and then at the same time selling a system to the students that allows them to subvert the security system that you just sold to universities makes no sense.

This had to happen eventually. What’s particularly interesting here is that the two services are owned by the same institution. That’s quite a nice scheme iParadigms has developed, isn’t it? As soon as a college signs up for Turnitin iParadigms has a ready-made market of thousands of potential WriteCheck customers.

Harrington is wrong. This is rather like if Big Tobacco were owned by Big Oncology or something. Actually all of this makes a great deal of sense; the system is a perfect way to make money by ensuring a steady stream of customers.

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Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer