Assessment

Online Anti-Plagiarism Service Sets Off Court Fight

May 04, 2007 6 min read

As educators grapple with how best to combat plagiarism in the Internet age, several high school students are suing a company that many districts and schools have hired to help them reduce such cheating.

The lawsuit alleges that the company is violating the high school students’ rights under U.S. copyright law. The students are required by their schools to submit some essays to Turnitin.com, a Web-based service that compares the documents against a massive internal database and other sources to look for signs of plagiarism. It then places the student works in an electronic archive.

Copyright Claims

The site’s parent company, Oakland, Calif.-based iParadigms LLC, submitted a motion April 26 to dismiss the case, which was filed in the U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va.

“Turnitin takes student papers and archives them, and they refuse not to archive them,” said Robert A. Vanderhye, a lawyer from McLean, Va., who is representing the students pro bono. “Our clients have no problem … submitting documents for review. But when it comes to archiving, it raises a number of very serious issues, the first of which is copyright infringement.”

John M. Barrie, the founder and chief executive officer of iParadigms, disagrees.

“The use that we make of the students’ papers comes under the ‘fair use’ clause of the U.S. Copyright Act,” he said. The company also argues that the students, before submitting their papers, clicked “I agree” to contractual terms that release iParadigms from any liability.

Mr. Barrie said Turnitin receives about 100,000 student papers each day, and serves more than 7,000 educational institutions worldwide, including such top-ranked universities as Harvard and Georgetown. More than 4,500 U.S. high schools use Turnitin, he said.

“Our users have validated us with their use,” he said.

The lawsuit was filed by four unnamed students, two from McLean High School in Virginia and two from a high school in Arizona. It was originally filed March 27, and was amended April 9.

The legal action comes amid widespread concern among educators on how to address plagiarism as students can, with minimal effort, access a wealth of information and writing on the Internet and present it as their own work or without proper citation of sources.

“There is a great deal of temptation out there, and there are certain students who give in to that temptation because it’s so easy,” said Mary T. Christel, a veteran communication-arts teacher at Adlai E. Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Ill., who uses the Turnitin service in her classes.

A study released last fall by the Josephson Institute of Ethics found that among more than 36,000 high school students surveyed, 60 percent said they had cheated on a test in the past year. One in three said they had used the Internet to plagiarize an assignment. The Los Angeles-based institute runs the character education program Character Counts.

Donald L. McCabe, a professor at Rutgers University’s Newark, N.J., campus who studies plagiarism, said his own survey data of about 18,000 high schoolers over the past several years has shown troubling results, with about 60 percent of students admitting to some plagiarism.

Most is of the “cut and paste” variety, he said, “a sentence here, a paragraph there, where they’re taking from multiple sources and weaving in their own words.”

Mr. McCabe said schools seem to take the problem of plagiarism seriously, but “a lot of them aren’t sure what to do.” The best approach, he argues, is to promote academic integrity to students.

“I still think there’s a place for Turnitin.com, but I’m opposed to its widespread use,” he said. “To me that says to students, ‘I can’t trust any one of you.’ ”

How It Works

The starting point for the Turnitin “plagiarism prevention” program is an assignment’s submission to the Web site by a student or teacher.

Within 24 hours, the company sends the teacher an “originality report,” based on what the company says is a search of billions of pages from current and archived items on the Internet, millions of student papers submitted to Turnitin, and commercial databases of journal articles and periodicals.

A Check on Cheating?

In both the legal and educational arenas, experts disagree over whether a service that screens student papers for plagiarism and stores them in a computerized database is academically advisable and legally acceptable.

LEGAL ARGUMENTS:

“When it comes to archiving, it raises a number of very serious issues, the first of which is copyright infringement.”
Robert A. Vanderhye, a lawyer from McLean, Va., representing the students pro bono.

“Only the student and their teacher will ever see this. The papers remain in the database.”
John M. Barrie, the founder and chief executive officer of iParadigms LLC, the parent company of Turnitin.com.

ACADEMIC CONSIDERATIONS:

“Turnitin is setting up faculty and students as enemies. Students are having to prove that they’re innocent, and that’s a terrible classroom environment to be establishing.”
Rebecca Moore Howard, an associate professor of writing and rhetoric at Syracuse University.

“Prior to Turnitin.com, it took a fairly large chunk of my time Prior to Turnitin.com, it took a fairly large chunk of my time with some student papers when I suspected there was some kind of citation issue. It allows me to focus on other issues than playing detective.”
Mary T. Christel, a teacher at Adlai E. Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Ill., who uses the Turnitin service in her classes.

The report shows the submitted paper along with matching sources. It includes percentage ratings for how similar it is to matching items and links to sources, but not to other archived student papers.

Each of the four students involved in the lawsuit obtained copyrights for academic papers they submitted to the Turnitin site, according to court papers, and the suit argues that the company’s conduct infringes those protections. The plaintiffs seek $900,000 in damages from iParadigms.

Beyond objecting to the practice of archiving, the complaint says the company “may send a full and complete copy of a student’s unpublished manuscript to an iParadigms client anywhere in the world upon request of the client, and without the student’s permission.”

But Mr. Barrie insists that student work is protected. “Only the student and their teacher will ever see this,” he said of the student work. “The papers remain in the database.”

In its motion to dismiss the case, the defense focuses its argument on the fact that the students who are suing iParadigms agreed to release the company from liability.

“Instead of pursuing this school matter through the proper channels, plaintiffs have instead concocted a purported copyright claim,” the motion says. A hearing on the motion was scheduled for May 11.

Fred von Lohmann, a staff lawyer at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco nonprofit organization that works to protect individuals’ “digital rights,” called the dispute interesting.

“There are going to be many cases involving copying for the purposes of indexing,” he predicted. A spokeswoman for the 164,000-student Fairfax County district in Virginia, which includes McLean High School, declined to comment on the suit, but said the district uses Turnitin both to help educate students about proper documentation of sources and to avoid plagiarism. The district first contracted with Turnitin in 2003; McLean High School began using the service last fall.

Rebecca Moore Howard, an associate professor of writing and rhetoric at Syracuse University, said she worries Turnitin may deter good pedagogy and create an unhealthy classroom dynamic.

“Turnitin is setting up faculty and students as enemies,” she said. “Students are having to prove that they’re innocent, and that’s a terrible classroom environment to be establishing.”

But Turnitin appears popular with educators in many schools, based on the large subscriber base. Mr. Barrie says that the renewal rate is above 95 percent, and that the client base is growing quickly.

A Platform

Keith D. Klein, an English teacher at Washington Lee High School in Arlington, Va., says he tries to find teachable moments in his occasional use of the service with students.

“I let them know what the Web site does, what it is,” he said. “That in itself is a platform for me to talk about plagiarism, and a pretty good disincentive [for the practice].”

Mr. Klein has been using Turnitin for several years, but his use has evolved. Turnitin offers several services beyond the anti-plagiarism feature, including one that allows a peer review of student work by their classmates.

“I don’t use it anymore as a ‘gotcha’ mechanism, but more as a deterrent,” Mr. Klein said. “I also like to use it because it’s got a pretty good peer-review aspect to it. I use it in that way.”

Ms. Christel, the Illinois teacher, said she doesn’t use Turnitin for all assignments, but routinely uses it when students submit major papers.

“Prior to Turnitin.com, it took a fairly large chunk of my time with some student papers when I suspected there was some kind of citation issue,” she said. “It allows me to focus on other issues than playing detective.”

Ms. Christel stressed that Turnitin isn’t the only tool she uses to reduce plagiarism, and that overall, teachers need to work hard to ensure students understand what plagiarism is and how to avoid it.

“It’s got to get started very early on,” she said. “It needs to be something we do on a consistent basis, and that we’re constantly reinforcing.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 09, 2007 edition of Education Week as Online Anti-Plagiarism Service Sets Off Court Fight

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