Court backs plagiarism detector

For the London Free Press - August 31, 2009 Read this on Canoe

TECHNOLOGY: Service cross-references students' work against a database of essays

During recent years, plagiarism has become a serious concern for universities and colleges. The prevalence of websites selling previously written essay papers has made obtaining counterfeit work easier than ever.

In 2002, 29 students at Carlton University received a failing grade after it was discovered they had copied portions of their essays from a website. This was one of several high-profile instances of plagiarism that brought attention to the issue.

In an effort to combat this trend, universities have sought the assistance of Turnitin.com, a plagiarism detection service designed to cross-reference a student's work against a database of essays. The service will detect instances of plagiarism and alert the professor to potential misconduct.

The database consists of scholarly works as well as previously written essays by students and various online sources. The risk of being caught submitting plagiarized work has made Turnitin a powerful deterrent in reducing plagiarism. The knowledge that their work will be screened by the detection service often deters students from considering the submission of work that is not their own.

However, many students have voiced concern that their work is being used to earn a profit for Turnitin.

In 2008, a lawsuit was brought by a group of students in Alexandria, Va., claiming the service violates copyright laws. The complaint stated that by storing the documents in their system after they have been submitted to Turnitin, they are violating the rights of students by obligating them to use the service and then using the submitted work as the basis for their profitable database.

Students contended that while they permitted access to their writings to ensure it was original, they were not consenting to Turnitin storing their work to use in the screening of fellow students' submissions.

The court found in favour of Turnitin, ruling that any use of students' work was limited to a comparison with other works and not for any expressive or creative use. The court found that any potential copyright issues were offset against the substantial public benefit the service provided.

The court further held that by clicking "I agree" to the Turnitin user agreement that students were consenting to having their work stored.

The decision was under appeal by the students until a recent settlement brought the matter to a close. The settlement gave the students protection from counterclaims for legal costs brought by the defendant in exchange for abandoning any further appeals.

However, this may not signal the end of the controversy surrounding turnitin. Legal action is being contemplated by other student groups unhappy with the policies of Turnitin. Some institutions have discussed eliminating the use of the service or letting professors decide if it should be used on a class-by-class basis.

It is not the concept of Turnitin that is being objected to by students, it is the manner in which the service is being operated.