If you visit www.turnitin.com, you will be welcomed by the smiling faces of five twenty-somethings basking in the glory of academic honesty. Turnitin is a for-profit company which offers educators an online plagiarism prevention tool. It is used by thousands of schools, and allows instructors to compare students' essays with 15 million papers, 8 billion web pages, and other publications including newspapers, magazines, and journals. Although the faces of the website's paid models are aglow, cracks have begun to show in Turnitin's armour. Mount Saint Vincent University recently became the first Canadian university to ban the use of turnitin.com.
Students and academics have raised concerns that the private company's practices infringe on students' rights.
One professor who has used turinitin.com in the past is Dr. Judy Haiven, Chairperson of Management at Saint Mary’s University. She has turned a sympathetic ear to concerned students at MSVU. “I’m very reluctant to use again”, said Dr. Haiven. Although she deems the software effective at detecting plagiarism, she is worried that by using the software, she is painting all students with the wide brush of dishonesty. At the same time, she admits she would not have caught a student who submitted a paper as her own work which her friend had previously written and submitted to Dalhousie.
She also mentioned that she was not keen that students’ papers “put in a database could potentially be commandeered by the US government.” Under the Patriot Act, the US government can request access to any papers stored in US-based databases such as Turnitin.
Dr. Haiven stressed that plagiarism devalues the degrees granted by our institution, and that meaningful discussion on how to curb plagiarism must be had by the university community.
Turnitin.com claims that it detects plagiarism in one third of the papers submitted. Although this may be cause for celebration as universities attempt to curb academic dishonesty, it is important to note that the program fails to detect many of the basic techniques used by plagiarizers.
74 percent of respondents in a survey funded by British postsecondary institutions believed that plagiarizers were most likely to steal from textbooks and theses, not the internet. The final report warned that tunitin.com could not detect "text converted to a foreign language and then converted back to English, essays converted from a foreign language", and other common techniques of plagiarism.
In some classes, all students are required to submit their papers to www.turnitin.com themselves. In 2003, McGill student Jesse Rosenfeld refused to submit his paper to the site, arguing that the 'guilty until proven innocent' tactics of turnitin.com was not conducive to a positive learning environment.
He added that the use of turnitin.com "violates intellectual property rights by stealing their work and giving it to a company to make profit from." After a lengthy battle with the university, Rosenfeld received a grade for his paper without having to submit it to turnitin.com. He had originally received a grade of 0.
Some critics have called for Turnitin to dole out royalties to students, because of the profits the company makes as a result of its use of their papers. Turnitin has stated that it follows copyright laws and is not infringing on students' rights. The company's indexation of student work has been likened to Google's indexation of copyrighted work on the web. Google is another for-profit company that does not ask permission to make public the original work of others.
Student unions of Halifax universities all oppose the program to some degree.
"This isn't about protecting those guilty of plagiarism, it's about preventing the university from cutting corners on the time students deserve from their instructors," said George Soule, National Chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students in a press release commenting on the MSVU senate decision to ban the tool.
The CFS press release called the use of turnitin.com a "shortcut to teaching", and declared that "the best way to maintain academic integrity is to properly staff universities with full-time instructors."
The MSVU Student Union, a member of CFS, lobbied MSVU to ban the use of turnitin.com . Union president Chantal Brushett echoed CFS' concerns when asked what the major arguments were against the use of turnitin.com. She stated that MSVU’s senate voted overwhelmingly in favour of the ban. She hopes that other Canadian post-secondary institutions will follow her university's lead.
By Olivier Jarda