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Turnitin raises questions of privacy, copyrights

By Caleb Slinkard
On May 5, 2011


In the battle against plagiarism, is a valuable resource for universities across the United States. But the website, which uses a computer algorithm to determine if a student has plagiarized his or her work, has come under fire recently from opponents who claim it violates students' copyrights.

"I, along with many teachers of college writing across the country, have concerns about the ethics of," Dr. Tabetha Adkins, assistant professor and director of writing in the department of literature and languages, said. "Turnitin uses a database of student papers, and the program compares the essays instructors submit to essays that exist in the database."

Turnitin does not pay the students to use the papers in their database.

"The essays in the database are composed by students who are not compensated for their work," Adkins said. "Since Turnitin charges institutions thousands of dollars for access to this database, my concern is that Turnitin makes their money through a kind of intellectual robbery. " is part of iParadigms, LLC, a company that was started in 1996 by UC Berkeley researchers. The website compares a student's work against a large database to determine the amount of material plagiarized by the individual. When a student or professor submits a paper to, the paper becomes part of the website's extensive database. Opponents argue that violates the student's copyright laws, since they retain the student's original work without compensating the student. Others say that Turnitin may violate the U.S. Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).

But when four high school students filed a suit against iParadigms, a judge granted iParadigms summary judgment because the students initially agreed to Turnitin's terms of use, or ‘clickthrough' agreement. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit (which has jurisdiction over North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia and Maryland) upheld the judge's decision.

A quick search of syllabuses of spring 2011 A&M-Commerce courses reveals that dozens of instructors use in their classes to varying extents. Many of the courses require students to submit their papers to Turnitin in order for the students to receive a grade on the paper, while instructors of other courses simply upload the students' papers themselves. A&M-Commerce pays $8,978.75 a year for a license with Turnitin and has been doing so since August of 2006, according to the office of business and administration.

A&M-Commerce students enjoy how easy Turnitin is to use.

"I think it's easy," senior Rachel Evans said. "I like that they have attached it to eCollege in some of my classes. I just submit the paper in the dropbox, and it sends it to for me."

Other students appreciate the site's ability to enforce anti-plagiarism rules.

"I had to use it for my macro-economics class," junior Michael Clair said. "It was somewhat of a hassle but, honestly, I like the fact that it forces students to do their own work. Seeing the student next to me make an 'A' with a copied and modified wiki-article, while I work my [butt] off for the same grade, is depressing."

Associate Professor in the Department of Literature and Languages Dr. Bill Bolin has a similarly harsh opinion of plagiarism, but questions whether Turnitin is really the best way to combat the problem.

"I think plagiarism is considered to be such a serious offense because many people look at it as both cheating and stealing- two offenses in one," he said. "Also, many classes have a research paper as their one major project, so plagiarizing on that seems to magnify the offense when compared to, say, cheating on one of several quizzes."

According to Bolin, a quick Google search was more useful than Turnitin.

"I haven't found Turnitin to be very effective in my few attempts to use it," he said. "I once discovered an instance of plagiarism in an online class by entering a sentence from a student paper into Google and finding that the entire paper was copied and pasted from a book review on Just to see what would happen, I uploaded that same student paper into Turnitin, which reported that about 70 percent of the paper came from another student paper in their files that I could not access. Turnitin somehow missed the review."

Both Bolin and Adkins support an approach that focuses more on preventing plagiarism than catching students in the act.

"The real problem isn't plagiarism detection:  a good Google search will usually reveal the source of plagiarized work," Adkins said. "I focus instead on plagiarism prevention by talking to students openly and honestly about plagiarism and why it's such a serious offense to academics.  I tell them that the origin of the word ‘plagiarism' is related to the word ‘kidnapping' so they'll know how seriously academics take this issue."

 Sometimes simply instructing students on how to properly conduct academic research can eliminate plagiarism.

"I teach my students how to avoid ‘accidental' plagiarism by taking good research notes and citing sources correctly," Adkins said. "And for those cases of not-so-accidental plagiarism, I tell all of my students: ‘if you start to panic and feel tempted to swipe something off the Internet, ask me for an extension.  I will always try to say yes.'

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