The cheat checker
The use of Turnitin.com to combat plagiarism is raising passions on Canada's campuses
"It was bound to happen. At some point somebody was going to say, 'I'm going to cause a stink'."
That is how John Barrie, creator of the Internet-based plagiarism detector Turnitin.com, succinctly sums up the recent controversy at McGill University over the use of his company's service. Dr. Barrie is president of iParadigms, which has been offering Turnitin to educational institutions since 1998 and today has clients in 50 countries. Yet the McGill incident was the first of its kind in the California company's history.
The "incident" was the refusal last fall by Jesse Rosenfeld, a second-year international development student at McGill, to submit his assignments for an economics class to the Turnitin.com Web site. The course instructor had made it a class requirement that students have their papers vetted by the plagiarism detector before she would grade them. Any student who refused got a zero.
In the end, the instructor apparently relented - the university says it cannot discuss the matter - and graded Mr. Rosenfeld's assignments. But, by that point, the student's stand had become a cause célèbre, garnering significant media attention and much sympathy from students' groups.
Mr. Rosenfeld says he refused to use Turnitin partly because it reverses the onus of innocent until proven guilty. He also objected to how his work was being used. All papers submitted to the service are entered into a database where they are compared to all others already in the system. He says this infringes his copyright. "I'm indirectly helping a private company make a profit off my paper," he told a reporter.
According to iParadigms, there are 25 Canadian universities that subscribe to Turnitin, most having signed on in the last year or two. Among them are some of Canada's largest universities, including University of Toronto, York University and University of British Columbia. Two of Canada's French-speaking universities also use the service, although the company would not divulge their names, and the Turnitin Web site is being translated into French and Spanish. No Canadian university forces faculty members to use the service, and the number of instructors at an institution who do choose to use it varies from a handful to several hundred.
Ken Bartlett, a history professor and director of the Office of Teaching Advancement at U of T, is a big fan of Turnitin. His office coordinates the university's use of the service, which has been available to faculty since last fall. Already about 200 instructors are using it in more than 300 courses. He says the service saves faculty from having to spend a huge amount of time and effort looking for plagiarism and checking sources, freeing them up to do more substantive marking.
Dr. Bartlett says that, until recently, the anti-plagiarism service had met with very little negative response. He made its use a requirement for his 550 students in a history course and received no objection. However, since the McGill controversy hit the student press, he says, "we in fact have had a number of calls from students who have picked up the same rhetoric" opposing its use.
The University of Western Ontario has the longest experience in Canada with Turnitin, since the fall of 2001. Debra Dawson, director of the university's Teaching Support Centre, says students remain supportive of its use. She points to a recent editorial in the student newspaper, The Gazette, which called Mr. Rosenfeld's actions "a victory for plagiarism." The paper noted that "for students who don't plagiarize . . . there's nothing to worry about."
Faculty members also support its use and most feel it is has been an effective deterrent against cheating, adds Dr. Dawson. What's more, it stops faculty "from having to be the police. They can get back to teaching," she says. "It simplifies the whole thing."
But the controversy has given some academics pause. Shelley Rinehart, dean of business at the University of New Brunswick's Saint John campus, says her faculty recently gave Turnitin a try and was pleased with the results, but is now reconsidering its use "in light of events." The faculty has asked the university solicitor for a legal opinion, and UNB deans are meeting to discuss whether there should be an institution-wide policy governing its use.
Many of Turnitin's supporters appear baffled by the criticism against it. Dr. Bartlett at U of T calls the presumed-guilty argument "spurious." He likens the use of the service to the metal detectors one has to pass through at an airport. Nobody, he says, opposes that. "Why would [students] want to militate against a system that ensures the integrity of their degree?" he asks.
Turnitin's Dr. Barrie says the service is no different than employing invigilators at exam time. "Our technology is used to make sure that everybody is playing by the same set of rules," he says. "Nothing hurts the relationship between faculty and students more than a bunch of cheaters."
The climate created by Turnitin depends a lot on how the service is presented, he continues. The company counsels users not to fail students who get caught, but to have them redo the assignment. "We highly recommend that you use each of those incidents as an educational moment, to give the student the benefit of the doubt that maybe they didn't know how to write a paper or cite a source," he says.
As for the copyright argument, Dr. Barrie says the service actually protects students from the theft of their intellectual property by others. The company recently posted a legal opinion by law firm Miller Thompson which argues that Turnitin's use of students' work complies with Canadian copyright and privacy law. What's more, papers submitted to the Web site are not actually copied as text, but are converted to a mathematical code. This is how the company is able to compare the work to millions of other sources. "It isn't being stored as an essay that you would actually be able to access," explains Dr. Dawson at Western.
Robert Myles, director of the humanistic studies program in McGill's faculty of arts, has another take on the legal issue: "Given the litigious nature of the States, and it's so widely used in the States, it would be difficult to believe that Turnitin.com doesn't have all the bases covered as far as the correct usage of this database."
Dr. Myles took part in McGill's trial use of the service and loved it. Students in his survey course on Western humanistic tradition must produce four 6,000-word journal submissions over two semesters, and he has always been concerned that students may pass these on to others in subsequent years. Turnitin eliminates this "after-market" use and may also mean Dr. Myles doesn't have to substantially revise his course pack each year.
Michael Geist, a law professor at the University of Ottawa and an expert on Internet law, agrees that there's likely no copyright issue with Turnitin, because the consent of students is implied when they submit their papers to the service. However, what Dr. Geist takes issue with in the McGill case is that the student had no alternative and was forced to surrender his rights to a commercial company. "The whole point is that the student ought to have the right to do with the work as they see fit, and by making it mandatory they don't have that right," he says. "It's the sort of thing we'd never expect of faculty members and it comes as a surprise to me we might expect it of students."
It is generally left to the discretion of individual professors how they wish to use Turnitin in their classes. Some take a blanket approach and make all students hand in their work to the service, while others will submit only those papers that they suspect have been plagiarized. Instructors are also usually given wide latitude in how they wish to interpret the "originality report" that Turnitin generates. The one constant seems to be that students must be notified in the course outline at the beginning of the term that Turnitin may be used, so that if they object they can simply drop the course. But that might be little solace if the course is required for the student's degree.
At some universities, such as Western, University of Victoria and Dalhousie University, professors can make the use of Turnitin mandatory. At U of T, exemptions can be granted if there are "extenuating circumstances," but these are defined so broadly that effectively its use is not mandatory. If a U of T student does refuse to use Turnitin, he or she must be given a "reasonable" alternative to prove the paper's originality, such as handing in with the assignment all rough work or an annotated bibliography.
Either way, some universities and faculty remain wary of the service. Gordon Barnhart, university secretary at the University of Saskatchewan, says his institution "wrestled with this issue" of anti-plagiarism software a couple of years ago. In the end, he says, "we very consciously decided not to go that route" because of the reverse onus it places on students.
Carolyn Guertin, a coordinator in the academic technologies for learning department in the University of Alberta's faculty of extension, says services like Turnitin create an antagonistic atmosphere and do nothing to solve the underlying problem (U of A does not use Turnitin). As well, the technology may not be a panacea - research shows that plagiarism detection software is only about 56-percent effective, says Dr. Guertin. "I think the assumption tends to be, if we've got software to do this, that's better," but it's far more complicated than that, she says. Some Internet sites, for example, offer "translation" engines that will alter plagiarized texts slightly so that they're less likely to be caught by plagiarism detectors.
The real solution, says Dr. Guertin, is to educate students properly. "Documentation is difficult. We need to take students in hand and acknowledge that fact and work with them to figure out how to document correctly. I think that real plagiarists are fairly rare and probably there's nothing we can do to stop them. They'll cheat no matter what."
Toronto's Dr. Bartlett says he doesn't think students are getting any more dishonest, but suspects they may feel pressed to cut corners due to enormous pressures on their time. The other issue, he says, is that students "come from a generation now where downloading music from the Internet is not considered a crime. . . . They think that if something is on the Internet and is free and available to all, then it is somehow part of a collective unconscious that they can tap into it and make it their own."
One thing that everyone seems to agree on is that no university should rely on Turnitin as the sole strategy for combating plagiarism. "You need a variety of strategies, and fundamentally this doesn't take away from us the responsibility to do as much as we can to educate students, literally class by class, term by term," says Sam Scully, vice-president, academic, at Dalhousie University.
Julia Christensen Hughes, a professor of management and director of teaching support services at the University of Guelph, says her university did a pilot project with Turnitin, but decided against its use, at least until other measures were tried. She says many universities include academic integrity sessions as part of student orientation events, "but I think they get lost in the shuffle." She is impressed by the approach used at the University of Manitoba, which devotes an entire week to academic integrity after classes have begun. The university uses posters, group discussions, guest speakers and other events designed "to get the whole community engaged in discussions of integrity," she says. At least two other universities - the University of Saskatchewan and Concordia University - have picked up on the idea.
Cheating is a subject very familiar to Dr. Christensen Hughes. Over the past few years she has helped to coordinate a series of surveys on student and faculty attitudes towards academic integrity with Don McCabe of Rutgers University. Dr. McCabe, a professor of management and global business at Rutgers, has been conducting the surveys for more than 10 years and is considered the leading expert on student cheating in North America.
According to their most recent surveys of Canadian and U.S. universities and colleges, 35 percent of Canadian students and 38 percent of American students admitted to using "cut and paste" plagiarism. As well, the surveys typically find that at least three-quarters of students admit to at least one incident of academic misconduct, says Dr. McCabe.
Despite these findings, Dr. McCabe isn't a big supporter of the blanket use of Turnitin. "It's my belief that if we're ever going to resolve effectively the problem of student cheating and student plagiarism, we need to get students to understand that it's something that they're doing wrong and to get them to exercise more responsibility for their own actions," he says. One way to do that is to build trust with students, but checking all papers "destroys that bond of trust." However, Dr. McCabe says he has no problem using the service for checking the occasional paper he considers suspect.
Back at McGill, the university senate is currently considering if and under what conditions the university will use Turnitin. Despite the controversy, Morton Mendelson, associate dean of science and a member of the university's academic integrity subcommittee, says the trial was a success. "It raised discussion about plagiarism on campus. Students became involved. They wrote briefs. They made other suggestions. So in that sense I think it was a total success," he says.
The subcommittee, which reports to the committee on student affairs, has recommended that McGill adopt Turnitin, but that students have the choice to opt out and demonstrate the originality of their work in other ways. However, the subcommittee also recommends that professors reserve the right to use Turnitin on papers they suspect of having been plagiarized.
This latter condition concerns Vivian Choy, vice-president, university affairs, at the Students' Society of McGill University. "If a student doesn't want that paper submitted, that wish should be respected," she says. The Senate is expected to make a decision before the end of the winter term. Many in academia will be watching for the result with keen interest.
A bit of history (related article)
Turnitin got its start in 1996 when John Barrie, then a researcher at University of California Berkeley, created a series of computer programs with some colleagues to monitor the recycling of research papers in their large undergraduate classes. "I saw so many people cheating their way to a degree and nobody was doing anything about it," says Dr. Barrie, who earned a PhD in neurobiology at Berkeley.
Encouraged by the level of interest in their work from their peers, the researchers teamed with a group of teachers, mathematicians and computer scientists to form Plagiarism.org, the world's first Internet-based plagiarism detection service. Months later, they renamed it Turnitin, while maintaining Plagiarism.org as an information site.
Although other plagiarism detection services exist, iParadigms, the company which commercialized Turnitin, says its service is by far the most widely used. Turnitin searches for plagiarized text from all pages of the publicly accessible Internet, with more than 20 million pages updated daily; from millions of other published works available electronically; and from every student paper ever submitted to Turnitin. The company says 20,000 papers a day are submitted at peak periods and that 3,500 educational institutions worldwide are licensed to use Turnitin, including every university in the United Kingdom.