For the entire school year, Krissy Arbuckle and Chantal Brushett have been on a mission to pull the plug on turnitin.com.
Arbuckle and Brushett, two student union leaders at Mount Saint Vincent University, got on the website’s case in September after a student told them it was on a professor’s syllabus. On March 6, they successfully rallied the University’s senate to ban use of the site from campus until at least 2009. “This issue consumed our lives,” says Arbuckle, vice-president of academic affairs for Mount Saint Vincent’s student union. “At some points, we even dreamt about it. It took so much of our time.”
Turnitin.com is a subscription-only website available to universities that are willing to pay. It’s supposed to give professors a better chance at catching cheaters.
The website maintains a database of 1,000s of essays and online sources. A professor can run a student’s assignment through the database and turnitin.com will flag the assignment if it appears to be copied. The controversial website has been fodder for discussion in newspapers, internet chat rooms and campus hallways for the past month, since the Mount decided to ban it. Arbuckle and Brushett were especially worried about intellectual property, because turnitin.com stores students’ work on a commercial database.
Arbuckle says she doesn’t think it’s fair for a website to profit off a student’s work, without any compensation. Turnitin.com makes money by keeping a database of students’ essays, she says. “So indirectly, the company is actually profiting off your paper,” Arbuckle says.
The website charges some university departments as much as $1,200 per year, depending on the school’s enrolment.
Many also felt the website created a poisonous learning environment, where students were automatically assumed to be guilty each time they passed in an assignment. The fallout from the Mount’s banning of turnitin.com has many at the university working damage control. Aside from the dozens of congratulatory emails from students at the Mount and across the country, Arbuckle says several negative letters and newspaper columns have hurt the university’s image. Some have suggested the Mount was trying to protect cheaters—getting soft on plagiarism. Others said a Mount degree would be worth less now that the university has banned turnitin.com.
“Those comments are just ridiculous,” Arbuckle responds.
Robyn MacIsaac, a spokesperson for the Mount, says only three professors had turnitin.com on their syllabus—and she’s not sure if the database was ever used. Nancy Chessworth, one of the professors who wanted to use the software, wasn’t overly upset with the ban. “I have caught students cheating before without using turnitin.com,” she says. The old-fashioned methods of maintaining a good rapport with students, paying attention to patterns in their writing and checking sources all help to weed out cheaters, Chessworth says.
So does Google. The popular search engine is quickly becoming one of the best ways to check if an assignment has been copied from the internet, Arbuckle says. “The whole fracas about turnitin.com is silly,” Chessworth says. “The decision was made in consultation with .” For their part, Arbuckle and Brushett are saving every bit of information related to turnitin.com.
“For us to accomplish something that no other students’ union in the country could do,” Arbuckle says, “it’s definitely rewarding.” Arbuckle hopes the scrapbook she’s compiling will be a helpful tool for student leaders at other universities looking for ways to fight back against turnitin.com.
Dalhousie’s student union wants the university to allow students to opt out of submitting their work to turnitin.com. A subcommittee of Dalhousie’s senate is looking into the situation and is expected to make a recommendation in May.
Saint Mary’s is also reviewing its policy on the website. But Paul Dixon, SMU’s registrar, says he doesn’t expect anything reactionary just because the Mount came out against turnitin.com. There hasn’t been a big discussion about the issue on campus, he says.