Who’s your friend?

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One of the consequences of the death of Queen Elizabeth II last month is that over 800 individuals and companies who at the time of her death held a Royal Warrant for providing goods or services to senior members of the Royal Household need to re-apply for the warrant.  Many may lose their warrant if King Charles III (and any other member of the royal family whom he appoints as a grantor) does not share the Queen’s tastes or needs. In addition, the warrant is not granted for the lifetime of the royal who grants the honour, every warrant holder needs to re-apply every five years to ensure that the Royal Household still uses the product or service.

When a royal warrant is cancelled or expires, the ex-warrant holder must remove the royal insignia from their labels, letter-heads and anywhere else they display the arms and the message “By appointment to Her Majesty the Queen” or “By appointment to His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales” – declarations which must now be updated.  (For more information on this, see the Royal Warrants page of the Royal Family website or the FAQs page on the Royal Warrant Holders Association website.)

The Royal Warrant is, of course, highly prized and not easily obtained. As well as being a proven supplier of named goods and services to the named Royal over at least 5 years, warrant holders must hold to high standards – and not just directly in the products or services they supply.   It is possible to lose the Royal Warrant: in recent years, the Rigby and Peller lingerie company lost its warrant after the Queen’s bra-fitter breached confidence and discussed her work for the Queen in her autobiography (The Royal Bra-Maker Has Been Stripped of a Royal Warrant Over New Book); more recently, it seemed that the Davidstow cheese company was about to lose their royal warrant after polluting the River Inny near its factory in Cornwall, England over many years (Queen could revoke Davidstow cheddar royal warrant over river pollution) – and perhaps only the Queen’s death might change the reason for its loss. Among the FAQs on the RWHA site is the note that  between 20 and 40 royal warrants are cancelled every year (and a similar of new warrants granted).

The Royal Warrant maintains its integrity. It has to be earned or deserved, it cannot be bought. It is withdrawn if standards are not maintained.

It is worth repeating this, it is a vital aspect of the warrant’s cachet, a major assurance of standards : the Royal Warrant maintains its integrity. It has to be earned or deserved, it cannot be bought. It is withdrawn if standards are not maintained.

My mind turns to thoughts of The OWL at Purdue and its association with Chegg.  The OWL (Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab)  is a much-respected guide to academic writing and its citation and reference guidance is highly regarded for its accuracy and helpfulness.  Chegg is a not-well-respected “homework helper” whose practices have at times drawn criticism, blurring the lines between acceptable and unacceptable help for students  (see, for instance, my posts Nothing but… and Not such a wise OWL).

The OWL’s association with Chegg is evidenced most directly on its style guides’ citation and referencing pages where there is an auto-reference generator, Citation Machine, part of the Chegg stable.  An auto-reference generator invites users to insert a URL, an ISBN, a title or other identifying feature of a work to be cited or referenced, and comes up with suggested citations and references. The example here is from the OWL’s MLA Style Introduction.

I am not fond of auto-reference generators, and Citation Machine is perhaps more inadequate and faulty than most.  Since I last looked at Citation Machine, I see that as well as a reference which might or might not be accurate, the free version might also bring up a non-skippable 30-second advertisement for Chegg services, and when the reference is finally revealed, it also invites one to submit one’s work to check for “plagiarism errors”.  Dangerous stuff, especially if you do not first read Chegg’s Terms and Conditions.  I detailed some of the issues with Chegg’s T&Cs in Nothing but… – and nothing has changed. In this post, discussing Chegg’s User Content and Activities section on the T&C page, I said:

In this 8 paragraph section, you agree that with practically anything and everything you do on or with any Chegg site (including uploading or posting your own material, submitting questions or model answers, submitting text to their “plagiarism check” services,  using their citation/ reference generators and so on), you give Chegg a non-exclusive right to that material; Chegg can reuse it, pass it on or sell it on in any way they wish, without reference to you and without any form of payment for any further use of your material.

You also agree to let them use your personal details including your name, profile and photo for advertising and similar purposes.  You agree to let them use your material in any way they wish, even if you do not like the way they are using that material or any changes they have made to it.

It is worth noting that, in addition to critical articles cited in that blog post, more articles expressing reservations about the Purdue OWL-Chegg partnership have been published, including Emily Hamilton Haynes’s Thoughts on the OWL/Chegg partnership, Allison Hosier’s The Ballad of Purdue OWL, an unsigned article in the Spring 2020 SFCC Library Newsletter Academic Integrity in a Digital Age and Claire Warner’s Students cheat with online learning service, professors hope to identify users), I see that at least two university library online research guides include recommendations for the Purdue OWL as go-to guides for citation and referencing but warn explicitly against using the Chegg/Citation Machine auto-reference generator.  There is, for instance, the graphic advice on the Wartburg College Vogel Library Citation Guide

CAUTION: In early 2019, Purdue OWL began a partnership with Chegg, which introduced a Citation Machine widget to their otherwise wonderful content. Do not be tempted by these citation generators. Scroll past them to the documentation below, while you will have to do the critical thinking to model after the examples, you are more likely to create a correct and complete citation this way.

and the perhaps even more explicit advice in the Research Guide for English & American Literature : 19th Century at the University of Vermont

MLA Style (OWL at Purdue)

(2020) Please Note: The written material on this university website is still a good resource, but please ignore the citation generator advertised on (seemingly) every page. In 2019, Purdue Writing Lab partnered with Chegg, a for-profit student services company. Chegg has licensed OWL’s writing tips and placed advertising on its website, helping OWL to monetize its free content.

[I have not explored; there may well be many other pages and guides for other styles on these sites which include similar warnings, as may other research guides in other libraries and education institutions around the world.]

So, the contrast: the Royal Warrant can be withdrawn if standards and integrity are not maintained; controversial as it often is, the royal family cares about its brand and is careful about those it associates with.  The Purdue OWL’s reputation is tarnished by its association with Chegg (but unfortunately the OWL seems less concerned about its brand and reputation).

And then there is Turnitin.

Regular readers will know that I do not have a lot of love for Turnitin. Over the years, the company has made misleading and even false claims about its efficacy, the rate of growth of its database, the sources that it indexes and the number of pages indexed, it has made false claims and drawn false conclusions from its research and from its own frequently flawed originality reports (often finding false positives and false negatives even in the sample originality reports and other advertising matter produced where you might expect the company might make special effort to get it right), and more, much more. Turnitin made little or no attempt to clarify misconceptions and misreporting, even of and in interviews with Turnitin executives.  From its earliest years, it claimed to be an educational tool rather than a “plagiarism checker” but its reputation is founded on its (very fallible) ability to “catch” plagiarists and uncover possible plagiarism.

In recent years and under new management and ownership, Turnitin has become ever more invested in other aspects of education, including assessment and feedback, course management, authenticity checks and even academic writing.  It makes ever more effort to downplay its use as a text-matching (“plagiarism checking”) tool and tries to emphasise  its use in other aspects of education. My continuing lack of love for Turnitin is now based more on its technological solutionism approach to education, dehumanising classroom practice and assessment, teaching by algorithm.

Like it or not, Turnitin is a leader in the field and has expanded, perhaps aggressively.  It seems fair to say that those who like Turnitin generally hold it in high regard, any criticism they have tends to be more about the pricing than about the services provided.

One of the services which Turnitin provides is a partnership scheme.  Institutions and companies can apply to become Turnitin Partners, and apparently more than 200 have.  There are three partnership schemes. Technical Integration partners such as Blackboard and CollPoll have integrated Turnitin into their learning management systems, while Content partners are typically major academic publishers such as SpringerNature, Wiley, Elsevier and CrossRef, who have great interest in minimizing opportunities for plagiarism to appear in their publications.

The third group are Commercial partners who use Turnitin as part of the services they supply, and this is where the partnership scheme might become more problematic.  Some Commercial partners work with institutions to provide platforms and management systems into which Turnitin is integrated, companies such as Kira Talent and DreamApply (used in higher education to manage their applications processes), or Eummena, Edunao and Ellucian (also educational platforms and management systems).

Some other Commercial partners supply services not to institutions but instead to individuals, and these may be more problematic.  Enago and Editage are established companies which offer proof-reading and editing services, translation and assistance in getting papers published in quality journals.  Scribbr also offers proof-reading and editing services but would seem to be aimed at a lower academic level than Enago and Editage, undergraduates (and possibly secondary school students as well) rather than professional or advanced academic researchers.  I think it fair to say this because on the Scribbr site there is much emphasis on plagiarism checking and on citation assistance, the site offers a plagiarism checker and a citation generator.  On the home-page is the claim “Everything you need to write an A-grade paper“.  Professional researchers are looking for publication and knowledge sharing, not grades.  Scribbr is about grade enhancement.  Does that make it more problematic?

The issue of proof-reading is sometimes fraught and open to misunderstanding. In real life, it is a good idea to have someone else look over your work and point out possible errors.  Other people have distance, they see mistakes that you just cannot see for looking, you are too close to the piece.  Peer review is common classroom practice – sometimes going further than pure proof-reading, correcting spelling and grammar errors, making suggestions in terms of structure and content, perhaps suggesting content which might be added or omitted or placed elsewhere, perhaps even suggesting new or different lines of research or development.  Academic peer reviewers for reputable journals are experts in their fields,  helping the journals maintain their standards and their reputations.  In publishing, general as well as academic, proof-reading, peer review and editing are accepted techniques and often requirements.

The lines between proof-reading and correcting and critiquing and editing and rewriting can be grey, can become blurred.  Ethical issues may arise if the extent and the expectations of any review are not clear, and the temptation to make suggestions outside what is permitted may be strong.  Especially in academic assessment, where instructors, parents and fellow-students want the writers of work they are reviewing to do well, improve, gain high grades.

As instance, at the secondary education level, the International Baccalaureate makes its expectations very clear, especially with regard to the extended essay. nobody may proof-read the essay apart from the student writing it.  The page Proofreading comprises the page heading and one short paragraph:


The whole essay needs to be proofread carefully by the student (computer spelling and grammar checkers are useful but will not do everything). They must not ask someone else to proofread their work as this is an important part of the learning experience.

While we might have reservations about the reason given for this requirement, the requirement itself is clear: “(students) must not ask someone else to proofread their work”.  This avoids the dilemmas and possible misunderstandings as to how much advice the student can receive from other people for this aspect of the writing: none. The extended essay is expected to be the work of the student, working with a supervisor, and any help received from others acknowledged in the course of the essay.

Integrity is integral

Who will know if a student receives outside help, whether simple proof-reading and pointing to possible errors through to critiquing and editing and rewriting services?  The danger is that students might be tempted to cross lines, seek more assistance, from peers, from tutors, from parents and friends, from online services, than is permitted.  And because it is unlikely that anyone will find out, students may be tempted.

It comes down to awareness of the rules in the first place and then it is a matter of integrity, following the rules even if it seems unlikely that you will be caught if you break them.

I am not saying that Scribbr is unethical. There is a place for proof-reading and editing services.  I am not sure that secondary school or undergraduate education are among those places, though as noted, it may be acceptable if the boundaries are clearly stated and observed by all parties.

Which brings us back to Turnitin’s partnership with Scribbr – or rather, Scribbr’s partnership with Turnitin.  Scribbr claims, very loudly, to be an “authorised partner” of Turnitin:

Many Turnitin partners say on their websites that they are Turnitin partners. Scribbr is the only partner I can find which uses the term “authorised partner” (and I wonder if the European spelling of “authorised” is significant?).  It suggests that Scribbr has Turnitin’s blessing and approval for its services, services which may go beyond what is permitted by educational institutions, whether generally or for individual assignments and assessments – but because Scribbr might seem to be authorised by Turnitin to provide those services, perhaps (in the mind of the student) there can be nothing wrong in using them?  The temptation to make wrong choices becomes stronger.

Does Turnitin vet its commercial partners, or can they simply buy their way in to Turnitin partnership? Turnitin’s technical partners must have their integration certified by Turnitin:

but content partners and commercial partners seem not to need certification.  Back to thoughts of the Royal Warrant and the statement I made earlier:

The Royal Warrant maintains its integrity. It has to be earned or deserved, it cannot be bought. It can be withdrawn if standards are not maintained.

Like the OWL at Purdue’s partnership with Chegg, the Turnitin-Scribbr partnership does not reflect well, there is an air of taint.

Footnote and afterthought

I have not run a test on Scribbr’s “plagiarism checker,” which I assume to be as accurate or inaccurate as Turnitin itself (since they are using Turnitin itself to run the checks).  I have not tried Scribbr’s editing and proofreading services, which if TrustPilot is to be believed has a 94% 5-star approval rating, sharp contrast with most of the reviews in Redditt.

But I have conducted a limited test of their Citation Generator and was not impressed.

Those who use APA 7th edition will spot the use of Sentence case in the first entry, and Title Case in the second and third entries (APA uses Sentence case consistently), will know that APA does not use (01 ed.) for first editions, and uses (2nd ed.), (3rd ed).etc (but not (03 ed.) for later editions, that month and day are not used in the dates in references for books nor are dates of access required for URLs unless the page is likely to change over time (which these are  not); regular readers of this blog will also know that the two web pages referenced here do include dates of publication, do have named authors, missed by Scribbr’s algorithm, and there are other errors too.

If Scribbr’s Citation Generator is typical of its other services, then perhaps it is a service best avoided.

Once again, is Turnitin aware of Scribbr’s extra services? Does it approve? Does it authorise them? Does it warrant them?

As so often, gentle reader: be aware, beware!

3 thoughts on “Who’s your friend?

  1. Thank you, John, for your insights. Always so helpful. I’ve already added a note to my OWL page as a warning to our students. I fear that our cohort of students could literally not care less, but at least I’ve said something that makes me feel better.

    • I have yet to find a good “plagiarism checker”, Liz.

      Some are better than others, but any match that they flag needs to be checked (it might be properly cited, it might be an inconsequential coincidence or a common expression and so on) and they miss so much that anything not flagged may well be plagiarised after all. And then there are made-up quotations and quotations attributed to the wrong person, text which may have been translated from another language (many of our students are bi- and tri-lingual), text which may be original but written by someone other than the student, for love or for money, etc etc.

      You have to know your students and, ideally, have imbued a sense of integrity and good writing practice so they have no wish to plagiarise, they are in the habit of citing their sources as they write etc etc.

      It is a better situation for citation generators, and I strongly recommend Noodletools for school use, elementary through to high. I detail some of the reasons in the Not such a wise OWL post <https://www.read2live.com/2019/03/30/not-such-a-wise-owl/>. Citation/Reference generators which require users to complete a form and which then generate the reference teach students to recognise the elements needed in a reference and they get to understand how each element contributes to a reader’s understanding of the source being referenced. [Avoid auto-reference generators completely: they often miss needed elements, they may get them wrong, students need to know what is right to know when these generators get the output wrong…] One reason which I did not include in the blog-post is that Noodletools is not expensive, neither the school subscription nor the rate for individual non-institutional users.

      Noodletools may be enough for under- and post-graduate work as well, though professional researchers and writers may prefer reference management tools such as Zotero, Mendeley, EndNote and others. (There is a good list of Comparison of reference management software in Wikipedia, but these may well be too complicated and/or expensive for school use.)


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