Turnitin.com scrunitizes plagiarism

LOS ANGELES – Since its creation in 1996, Turnitin.com, an anti-plagiarism site, has been continually scrutinized by students and teachers questioning its legality and practicality, culminating with a lawsuit that ended in January.

USC began using Turnitin in conjunction with Blackboard in August 2006, paying $30,000 for the program in order to prevent plagiarism, which remains the “most frequently violated academic code,” said Raquel Torres-Retana, the director of the Office of Student Judicial Affairs and Community Standards.

SJACS reported 179 cases of plagiarism in the 2005-2006 academic year and 166 cases from 2006-2007.

“USC’s inclusion of Turnitin came about as a demand from faculty in the writing programs as a way to level the playing field. The crux of it all was that faculty members were receiving complaints about students plagiarizing from other students, who used online services and other students’ papers to plagiarize,” said Otto Khera, the interim director of the Center for Scholarly Technology.

Turnitin primarily detects unoriginal work. After a student submits a paper through Turnitin, their professor receives an originality report showing how much of the student’s work is borrowed from other sources. It also lets students peer review each other’s work and allows professors to give more detailed feedback.

The site’s growing database is its selling point. The more sources it has access to, the better the odds of catching plagiarism. The site partners with 8,500 institutions in 103 countries and receives 125,000 papers a day.

Despite its intentions, however, Turnitin has been a source of controversy among high school and college students who claim Turnitin is profiting off students without fair compensation.

In 2006, two high school students from McLean High School in Virginia and two students from an Arizona high school challenged Turnitin, arguing it violated their intellectual property rights by incorporating their submitted work into its database of billions of sources, including public domain materials, manuscripts and other students’ work.

But the Virginia judge handling the case dismissed it without a jury trial, granting a summary judgment in Turnitin’s favor.

Only months out of the year-long lawsuit, John Barrie, Ph.D the creator of Turnitin, remains convinced his service is “100 percent legal.”

“We got legal opinion 10 years beforehand saying that we are in compliance with the law. We did the research beforehand. The last thing we wanted to do was make a business only to find out it was illegal,” he said.

Daniel M. Klerman, a professor of law and history at the USC Gould School of Law and an expert on intellectual property rights and Internet law, said students are implicitly giving permission to the site to store their work by knowingly and willingly using its services.

Turnitin also follows the fair use doctrine, which allows limited use of copyright material without requiring permission from the rights holder.

“Courts tend to put a lot of favor on the fourth component of fair use, which is the marketability of the copyrighted material,” Klerman said. “In Turnitin’s favor, the market value of student work is usually zero. The site wouldn’t affect the marketability for grad students who want to be published in a scholastic journal.”

Klerman added that students should talk to their professors if they have a problem about submitting their work to Turnitin.

Barrie echoed Klerman’s sentiment, saying that much of the controversy comes from students’ misconception of the program.

“It protects their intellectual property and creates a fair playing field so that their honest work is valued,” Barrie said. “I think most complaints primarily stem from misconceptions about the site. I wouldn’t want to use the site either if I believed them.”

Barrie said the biggest misunderstanding is that other professors can access students’ work. While teachers can access the documents his or her students have borrowed from, student papers are off limits.

“The report will come back saying, for example, ‘These four pages were copied from a student paper from USC written in 2011,'” Barrie said. “But we won’t tell you the name of the instructor or student.”

Barrie said there is a feature professors can use that sends an anonymous e-mail to the other professor requesting to see the paper. At this point, it is up to the other professor as to whether or not to make the student work accessible.

Still, students are uncomfortable with Turnitin’s ability to store their papers and dislike that the distribution of their work is at their professors’ discretion.

“It goes against the teacher honesty code. Unless they ask, it’s not up to them to show your work to an outsider,” said Lindsay Agostinelli, a freshman majoring in biological sciences.

Most students said they appreciate Turnitin’s dedication to upholding academic integrity, but still find its use to be cumbersome.

Danielle Goodrich, a junior majoring in neuroscience, referenced an instance in high school in which the software could not make a distinction between plagiarism and quotes she had clearly cited.

“I talked to my teacher and it got cleared up, but it was still scary that I could be blamed for plagiarizing when I know I didn’t,” Goodrich said. “It creates unnecessary fear.”