Last April, I posted an entry about Turnitin.com, the private for-profit company whose plagiarism detection service is founded on the illegal expropriation of student work product. At the time, I intended to follow up with further entries, but I never did.
In my own community, however, the Turnitin issue has come to the fore again. Late last year, the company attempted to induce high school students--minors, mostly--to assent to a new and draconian user agreement by clicking through a document that appeared when one logged in to Turnitin. Turnitin attempted to induce students to agree to its terms without even notifying the school district or the parents of children in the school. This step caused the school to temporarily suspend the service.
Now, however, the school has sent home a form for parents to sign authorizing their children to click through and assent to the Turnitin contract. Unfortunately, the school did not tell parents anything about the content of the agreement they were supposed to authorize their children to assent to.
Earlier in my discussions with the school, I prepared an annotated bibliography of materials related to Turnitin. Because I believe these materials should be made public, I am reproducing it here on Framed so that it can serve as a public resource to people seeking to educate themselves about Turnitin's questionable practices. I will add in hyperlinks later.
Annotated Bibliography of Materials Relating to Turnitin.com
By James F. Trumm
Anderson, Zack. “Turnitin.com Infringes Upon Student’s Rights.” Contentmart. 20 Jan.
This is a brief article written by a Beverly Hills High School student. It makes the legally significant (though morally dubious) argument that Turnitin does, in fact, limit the marketability of papers submitted to it, since such papers could not then be as readily sold to other students. Since one of the factors to consider when determining fair use is whether the use impairs and market value of the work in question, this argument is highly relevant to any fair use analysis.
Bruton, Michael. “Turnitin’s Response to Recent Posts Discussing Proper Pedagogy.” Kairosnews: A Weblog for Discussing Rhetoric, Technology and Pedagogy. 15 Sept. 2006. <http://kairosnews.org/turnitins-response-to-recent-posts-discu>.
This blog entry begins with an essay written in response to the Grand Valley State University position paper by a Turnitin.com employee. It presents the company’s position on how Turnitin can be a valuable tool for teachers. What follows, however, are a number of reader comments taking Bruton to task for, among other things, failing to address copyright and other legal and moral issues.
Carbone, Nick. “A Rebuttal of Turnitin.com.” Bedford/St. Martin’s TechNotes 1 Feb. 2002. <http://www.bedfordstmartins.com/technotes/hccworkshop/ missedplagiarism.htm>.
This post to a teaching discussion list is an account of a test of Turnitin’s performance. Carbone concludes that “in these tests, the service failed at its fundamental promise, which is to find exact or similar matches to documents in its database.”
“CCCC-IP Caucus Recommendations Regarding Academic Integrity and the Use of Plagiarism Detection Tools.” The Intellectual Property Caucus of the Conference on College Composition and Communication. 19 Sept. 2006. <ccccip.org/files/CCCC-IPpositionstatementDraft%209%2016%2006.pdf>.
This caucus, which represents some 6,000 higher education instructors, is critical of plagiarism detection services such as Turnitin on pedagogic grounds. Its conclusions are as follows:
1. The use of PDSs [plagiarism detection services] shifts an instructor’s role from supporting students and coaching them when they make mistakes, to policing writing and enacting punishments which may exceed the individual instructors’ best judgment. This shift compromises the relationship between teachers and students.
2. PDSs foster an artificial view of originality and the role of imitation and borrowing in writing. Instructors need to respond to the changing values and definitions of writing that the Internet generation brings to the classroom.
3. PDSs enforce a narrow construction of writing as property and do not help students understand the more complex relationships among authorship, ownership, sources, and property and the ways in which they vary according to factors such as context, audience expectations, genre, and purpose. Distinctions between original and reproduced texts are always made within specific contexts.
Copyright Advisory Network, American Library Association. Bulletin board postings. 13 Aug. 2004 et seq. <http://www.librarycopyright.net/wordpress/punbb/ viewtopic.php?pid=746>.
This is a bulletin board discussion of Turnitin and contains good analysis of Turnitin’s fair use argument.
Denhart, Andy. “The Web’s Plagiarism Police.” Salon 14 June 1999.
This is one of the earliest articles to raise concerns about Turnitin. It points out that the service “fails to properly differentiate between quoted materials and original writing.” Denhart is concerned that the inclusion of correctly attributed quotations can cause a student paper to be labeled as plagiarized. In addition, Turnitin’s competitors are discussed and evaluated.
Foster, Andrea L. “Plagiarism-Detection Tool Creates Legal Quandry.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 17 May 2002. <http://chronicle.com/free/v48/i36/ 36a03701.htm>.
This is an excellent, if dated, overview of the legal issues under copyright and FERPA that are raised by Turnitin’s retention of student papers. Foster discusses UC Berkeley’s decision not to use Turnitin because of copyright concerns:
Under copyright law, the fair-use exception is easier to justify if freely distributed copies of a document are not expected to threaten its commercial value. Dan L. Burk, who is a professor at the University of Minnesota Law School who specializes in intellectual property, says of [Turnitin’s] fair-use defense: “That’s baloney.” As many as three factors undermine the argument, the professor says: The students’ papers are completely copied. They are often creative works, as opposed to compilations of scientific facts. And they are being submitted to a commercial enterprise, not an educational institution. “To run a database, you’ve got to make a copy, and if the student hasn’t authorized that, then that’s potentially an infringing copy,” says Mr. Burk.
Concerning FERPA, Foster quotes
. . . LeRoy S. Hooker, director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Family Policy Compliance Office, [who] says that there is no exception to the act that would permit colleges to turn over student papers to an outside vendor without students’ written permission. “You can hire a vendor to check for plagiarism,” he says. “But once they do that, they can’t then keep that personally identifiable document and use it for any other purpose.”
Foster also mentions two other plagiarism-detection services, Copycatch and Eve2, which do not illegally retain copies of student papers.
Glod, Maria. “Students Rebel Against Database Designed to Thwart Plagiarists.” Washington Post 22 Sept. 2006. <www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/09/21/AR2006092101800.html>.
This article reports that a student rights committee at McLean High School has objected to Turnitin. It then proceeds to survey the Turnitin controversy, citing three professors from Grand Valley State University in Michigan who claim that “Turnitin makes questionable use of student intellectual property.” Glod also notes that
the intellectual property caucus of the Conference on College Composition and Communication, an organization of 6,000 college-level educators, is debating whether such services “undermined students’ authority over the uses of their own writing” and make them feel “guilty until proven innocent,” according to a draft position statement.
Lowe, Charlie, Ellen Schendel and Julie White. “Issues Raised by Use of Turnitin Plagiarism Detection Software.” Cyberdash, 7 Sept. 2006. <http://cyberdash.com/plagiarism-detection-software-issues-gvsu>.
This is an open letter that was circulated on the campus of Grand Valley State University in Michigan by three writing instructors there. It makes three arguments against Turnitin: “Turnitin discourages good pedagogical practices concerning writing”; “Turnitin can be ineffective for detecting plagiarism”; and “Turnitin makes questionable use of student intellectual property.”
Maines, Sophia. “Anti-Plagiarism Tool Pulled from Professors’ Arsenal.” LJWorld.com. 20 Sept. 2006. <http://www2.ljworld.com/news/2006/sep/20/antiplagiarism_tool_pulled_professors_arsenal/?city_local>.
This brief article from the internet version of the Lawrence (Kansas) Journal-World reports on Kansas University’s decision to no longer subscribe to Turnitin because of copyright and cost concerns.
Maruca, Lisa. “Plagiarism and Copyright: Connections in the Turnitin Culture.” Sweetland Writing Center Newsletter. Winter, 2006 <http://184.108.40.206/UofM/Content/swc/document/SWC_W06.pdf>.
The author argues that recent concerns about plagiarism are overblown and are, in fact, exacerbated by Turnitin. She objects to seeing student work “commodified” and commercialized. She points out that the widespread use of Turnitin may erode the fair use doctrine, presumably because writers will be ever more reluctant to use portions of other writers’ works for fear of being flagged by Turnitin—even though such use may be perfectly legal.
Maruca, Lisa. “The Plagiarism Panic: Digital Policing in the New Intellectual Property Regime.” Presented at the ARHB Copyright Research Network, 2004 Conference on new Directions in Copyright. 30 June 2004. <www.copyright.bbk.ac.uk/contents/publications/conferences/2004/lmaruca.pdf>.
The author argues that popular alarm over plagiarism is not warranted by the facts and, in fact, amounts to a “moral panic.” “The sense of threat engendered by the purported ‘plagiarism plague’ has reached a point . . . that teachers and administrators are desperate for a cure. There is a certain ironic aptness in the fact that, as anxious for a ‘quick fix’ as they accuse their students of being, they are turning to a technological solution.” Citing 17 U.S.C. §§ 102, 401 and 405, she also points out that “[a]ny work created in the USA after 1 Mar 1989 is automatically protected by copyright, even if there is no copyright notice attached to the work.”
Turnitin claims they are legally within fair use exemptions. . . .
Nevertheless, the irony is obvious: a service dedicated to ferreting out intellectual property violations in the “ethical” realm of plagiarism, takes what is at least a liberal interpretation, if not actual and questionable liberties, when it comes to the legal realm of copyright. Students, who gain nothing financially (at least directly) from their work, are forced to become more and more vigilant about their usage of source materials—which is often, in terms of copyright, well within fair use—are at the same time coerced into relinquishing their rights to someone who does benefit economically from their completed texts, plagiarized or not. “Coerced” may seem a strong word. After students and some faculty at several universities protested this inequity, Turnitin did begin encouraging instructors to get students’ permission to submit their work. The extent to which such “permissions” can [be] said to be freely given within the inherent power inequities of the classroom is questionable, however.
Maruca also mentions concerns about FERPA violations inherent in the Turnitin system. She argues that the policing of students through Turnitin actually “buttress[es] a climate in which all writing is perceived of as marketable information.”
Mingle, James J. Memorandum to Isaac Kramnick, Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education, Cornell University. 18 Dec. 2001. <www.copyright.cornell.edu/policy/Kramnick.pdf>.
This is a memo by Cornell University’s legal counsel advising the college administration in which the author concludes that under copyright law, “it would be problematic for faculty members to copy student papers and submit them to Turnitin.com without student permission.”
Morgan, M.C. “Turnitin One Year After.” Morgan’s Log. 17 Sept. 2006. <biro.bemidjistate.edu/blog/?p=162>.
In this blog entry by an English professor at Bemidji State University, the author concludes that Bemidji “is still sponsoring and supporting turnitin here at BSU, and I’m still embarrassed that they are. It has become clear over the last year that writing teachers, comp/rhet specialists, and those who understand writing in academia and learning, do not use turnitin. That could be a signal to others.”
“Presumption of Guilt?” Chronicle of Higher Education, 9 Mar. 2006.
This is a brief news item about Mount Saint Vincent University has banned the use of Turnitin because it treats students as guilty of plagiarism until proven innocent. Following the article are a number of comments.
“Punditry: Turn This In.” Plagiarism Today: A Site about Plagiarism, Content Theft and Copyright Issues Online. 20 Mar. 2006. <www.plagiarismtoday.com/?p=195>.
This article discusses Turnitin’s practice of caching websites and in light of the Blake Field v. Google decision. The author concludes that Turnitin should offer students and webmasters an opt-out feature.
Rafferty, Heath. “Anti-Anti-Plagiarism.” Killing Mind. 22 July 2004. <heath.hrsforworks.net/archives/000027.html>.
This blog entry, by an Australian graduate student, cites a legal opinion commissioned by Turnitin, which states that “if would be wise to leave students . . . with an ability to withhold their consent [to having their papers submitted to Turnitin], leaving open the question of how the subscriber should deal with the consequences of an individual student refusing to allow his or her paper to be submitted to the service.” Rafferty goes on to cite other objections to Turnitin. He is critical of the fact that students do not have a realistic choice not to turn over their papers to a for-profit American company. He contends that Turnitin fosters a guilty-until-proven-innocent ethos. He points out that there is nothing to stop Turnitin from turning over his paper to any other company or organization. He contends that Turnitin will discourage teachers from coming up with new assignments, which will lead to stale pedagogy. He complains about the inconvenience of using the system. He notes that reusing one’s own work, which is not plagiarism, would still be flagged as plagiarism by Turnitin. He points out that there are many ways one can plagiarize and not be caught by Turnitin, and that the service is therefore ineffective.
Read, Brock. “The Pros and Cons of Turnitin.” Chronicle of Higher Education, 19 Sept. 2006 <chronicle.com.wiredcampus/index/php?id=1578>.
Article reporting on the controversy over the use of Turnitin at Grand Valley State.
Smit, Mike. “Turnitin at Dalhousie—An Open Letter. Mikesmit.com. ND. <http://www.mikesmit.com/page.php?id=20>.
The author, a graduate student at Dalhousie University, writes an open letter to the school administration protesting the school’s use of Turnitin. He points out that given that “[o]ver 200 [computer] security breaches have been reported by organizations more reputable than Tutnitin. . . . What happens when Turnitin is next?” Smit also points out that the Turnitin system is easy to game, and that as people become more attuned to its nuances, they will quickly learn how to defeat it. He proposes that students be allowed to be excused from the requirement of submitting their paper through Turnitin if they so request. He also proposes that teachers submit only those papers about which there is a serious question of plagiarism. He suggests that Dalhousie modify its contract with Turnitin so that papers are archived for only three weeks.
Smit, Mike. “Turnitin.com—Copyright and “Fingerprints.” Mikesmit.com. ND.
This blog entry takes issue with Turnitin’s claim that it does not archive student papers, but only “fingerprints” of papers. Through his use of the Turnitin system, Smits demonstrates that “full-text, exact copies are available on the [Turnitin] system, and these copies are used and displayed long after the student is finished a given course.”
Smit, Mike. Turnitin.com—Removing Content from their Database. Mikesmit.com. 19 Mar. 2006. <http://www.mikesmit.com/show_post.php?id=1142826840>.
This post details Smit’s attempts to get Turnitin to delete his website from their archive. Turnitin claims that materials can be removed from its database upon request, but Smits found that there was no clear process in place to handle such requests, and that Turnitin was slow and unresponsive to such requests.
Smit, Mike. Turnitin.com—Removing Content from their Database. Mikesmit.com. ND. <http://www.mikesmit.com/page.php?id=24>.
This is a continuation of the March 19 post described above.
“Student Plagiarism Checker Banned at University.” Techdirt 8 Mar. 2006.
This article, from a discussion board devoted to discussions of technological issues, briefly notes that Halifax University has banned the use of Turnitin, due to concerns about privacy, copyright and the ethics of requiring students to contribute to a for-profit database. A lively discussion by readers of the article follows.
Terry, Amanda. “Turnitin.com Unreliable in Stopping Plagiarism.” Daily Toreador. 6 April 2006. <http://www.dailytoreador.com/media/storage/paper870/ news/2006/04/04/Opinion/Turnitin.com.Unreliable.In.Stopping.Plagiarism1778454.shtml?norewrite200609271222&sourcedomain=www.dailytoreador.com>.
This editorial, written by a law student and published in the Texas Tech student newspaper, is critical of Turnitin’s claims that it does not violate copyright law because it only retains a “digital footprint” of student papers. “They claim this does not violate copyright law citing 17 USC §102(b). What their legal document will not tell you is that while 102(b) withholds protection from abstract concepts, it does not withhold protection from digital copies of original works in their entirety.” Terry goes on to point out that Turnitin
refuse[s] to take responsibility for any monetary damages resulting from their program (for example, the cost you may incur when you are forced to defend yourself against false plagiarism charges). They also stipulate any dispute regarding copyright infringement must be settled through arbitration in Alameda County, California. Forget suing them for violating your intellectual property rights, use of the service forfeits that option.
“Turnitin.com, a Pedagic Placebo for Plagiarism.” Bedford/St. Martin’s TechNotes. 13 June 2001. <http://www.bedfordstmartins.com/technotes/techtiparchive/ ttip060501.htm>.
This is a good description of Turnitin and the pedagogic and ethical arguments against it. The author claims that Turnitin “is not about teaching, it’s about catching. . . . It assumes the worst about students and the worst about teachers. . . . Much of what Turnin.com proposes to detect can be avoided by careful assignment planning and teaching . . . by paying attention early on to students and the work they do.” Perhaps the most devastating critique of Turnitin is contained in this passage:
I'm troubled by this co-option of student writing on human subject grounds. Most universities have protocols for getting permission to study humans, whether medically, chemically, or socially (i.e. interviewing, surveying, ethnographies and so on). Under these protocols, researchers must submit plans for how they will collect and use student works, and must work out permission to do so. As a teacher and textbook author -- and now as someone who works for a publisher -- I would never use students work in a book, at a conference, or in any professional capacity without students' written permission, which permission must be freely given and not coerced as a condition of the course.
With Turnitin.com, students' work is captured and held without their permission. This goes against the grain of most writing pedagogy, which premises that students are 'authors' and 'authorities' and owners of their own work (coincidentally, the assumption used to establish copyright). It also goes against the grain of one's right to their intellectual property that Turnitin.com, in its pursuit of plagiarists, seeks to uphold. So using Turnitin.com presents students with a double standard.
If one uses Turnitin.com, they say to students something like this:
Plagiarism is wrong because it's the theft of another person's intellectual property. Yet we don't trust you to follow that ethos, so we're going to violate it ourselves to save you from your own perfidity. We're going to take your property--your writing--and check it here, in this place that will keep a copy of your work whether you give permission for this or not. Sorry, it won't be just your property anymore, it will also belong to Turnitin.com's database.
Wachsmuth, David. “Rosenfeld-1, McGill-0: Ad Hoc Panel Rules to Grade Arts Student’s Material Following Turnitin.com Saga.” The McGill Daily, 10 Jan. 2004. <http://www.mcgilldaily.com/view.php?aid=2166>.
Good article about the student from McGill (Canada’s premiere university) who refused to use Turnitin.com and received a zero grade for doing so. The school reversed itself and decided to grade the student’s papers. McGill students are no longer required to submit papers to Turnitin.