He didn’t turn it in

Via Interesting People, here’s a story about a Canadian student who won the right not to have his essay submitted to a plagiarism detection site called TurnItIn.com. The site compares a new essay to a huge data bank of old essays. McGill sophomore Jesse Rosenfeld refused to hand in essays through the site.

“I was having to prove I didn’t plagiarize even before my paper was looked at by my professor,” Rosenfeld said, according to the Globe and Mail.

Students’ essays are saved as “digital fingerprints.” They’re never read by a human. Critics think Canadian universities would hire more instructors to read and analyze papers if profs didn’t rely on TurnItIn to spot plagiarism.

I have a hard time believing students have privacy rights to papers they write for classes. And I can’t see a copyright violation here either.

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  1. An instructor who uses this check as part of his process, instead of only for suspicious papers, is admitting to not knowing anything about the student’s abilities and attitude. Not good.

  2. Doug Purdie says:

    I agree J.C. It’s kind of like a search without reasonable cause. It’s degrading.

  3. Given the ease of cut and paste these days (not to mention buy a paper sites), sites like Turnitin.com make it a lot easier to deal with plagarism. Plus, and perhaps mostly, they act as a DETERENT to students who might be tempted to cheat. Good plagarism isn’t always easy to spot – it’s not like the kids of old who “paraphrased” from the world book. Turnitin.com gives you an originality score and lets you look at source materials to judge for yourself what is acceptable and what isn’t. When you have 60 or 70 students in a class (and given budget cuts, that’s not unusual), it is difficult if not impossible to assess every student’s work for originality!

  4. That’s an interesting view: It does seem to violate “probable cause.” (unreasonable search and seizure.)
    However, it is actually no more intrusive than giving your signiture/mother’s maiden name/PIN number/SSAN when verifing your identity.
    The pivotal point may be the level of confidentiality of the database….

  5. Of course, the above discussion was relative to the US Constitution…..In Canada: Who knows?

  6. I don’t think “search and seizure” and “probable cause” applies.
    This is more like a spell-check. Except instead of spelling, it checks for prior art and how it’s applied.
    I’d see it as potentially useful if the database had source documents (published books, encyclopedias, etc.) loaded into it. Often, as a student, I wondered how far I had to change something to make it “mine.” This would provide some guidance.

  7. …and by the way, in Canada, section 8 of the Charter of Rights protects against unreasonable Search and Seizure, and there seem to be similar precedents to the US regarding probable cause…not that it matters in this case.

  8. I find it perfectly reasonable.

    It’s the equivalent of having a student sign an honor code declaration and attach it to the front of his essay.

  9. …or is it intellectual property? If so, the level of confidentiality is still the pivotal issue. BTW, it is much more sophisticated than a ‘spell-checker’. The key though, is the entire work in stored in the database.

  10. I don’t see anything degrading about it, personally. It is, after all, in that case (where all papers are checked first-thing), precisely not a reflection on the individual student or anyone’s opinion of him, no?

    With cheating so amazingly prevalent, what is expected? And what is right? To not check, out of fear that somehow an automated check process applied without discrimination will make students feel unhappy?

    I can’t imagine why it would. But maybe I’m just strange, and not oversensitive enough. I simply don’t see how anyone could be upset at a personal level or feel “degraded” by having all papers checked against a database. Upset that the overworked Prof doesn’t have such a firm grasp of the writing style of every one of his students at all times that he can pick-and-choose who to doublecheck? Please.

  11. PJ/Maryland says:

    Do I understand that this professor had students submit their papers directly to Turnitin.com? I was wondering how you could use the site if your students turned in papers in paper form (which I expect is still the norm).

    If the professor submitted the papers to Turnitin himself, I think it would get around the student’s complaint.

  12. Mark Odell says:

    I concur with PJ/Maryland. If I turn in my paper to the professor and he then submits it to Turnitin.com, fine; he bears the burden of checking, not I.

  13. Caffeinated Curmudgeon says:

    I agree with Joanne Jacobs that there doesn’t seem to be an actual copyright violation implicit in the TurnItIn database.

    However, I can understand how the faulty argument can be made.

    According to the new report linked, TurnItIn does maintain a database derived from submitted papers. The database apparently consists of hashes of various passages from each submitted work. This database is used to detect plagiarism in newly submitted works.

    For the non-technorati, a hash in this context appears to mean an (not always unique) identifier usually built from mathematical transformations of the text strings in the submitted work.

    So, if a hash derived from a newly submitted work matches a hash found in the database, plagiarism from the work in the database is possible or even likely.

    Applying some handwaving pettifoggery with copyright law, it seems possible to construct a plausible (but not necessarily winning) argument that requiring the student to submit the work to TurnItIn is tantamount to requiring the student to grant TurnItIn a license to publish a derivative work made from the student’s copyrighted work.

    Should a court agree with such argument, then the step of concluding that TurnItIn was profiting from the student’s work without recompensing the student would follow logically.

    Just my $.02, worth every penny you paid for it.

  14. First, in order to use Turnitin.com, you must provide a statement in your syllabus to this effect (typical disclaimer/warning). Then, papers must be submitted electronically. They can either be submitted directly by the students, or by the professor, who has the students send in an electronic copy via email or on disk.

  15. As a college student, I know that there are cases of plagiarism out there. I would have no problem submitting my paper to such a site. I think it would act as a good deterrent. Additionally, it evens the playing field. It’s frustrating knowing someone probably plagiarized, but they end up with the same grade as you or better in a class.
    It’s hard for professors to get to know every student individually, especially if you have a paper due within the first few weeks of class.
    Because it’s a paper that you are going to turn in to your professor, it’s not private. Search and seizure has nothing to do with it.

  16. Roy W. Wright says:

    I’ve used TurnItIn.com several times at my university. I think it’s mandatory school-wide. It’s a great system, I think. Never felt the need to protest, although my first professor who required us to use the site said that when the university first contracted with TurnItIn.com, she wanted to organize a sit-in with her students to protest. Silly academic types.

  17. I’d like to know more about Turnitin. Is the assignment actually turned in through the system? Then there is a potential privacy problem if a student’s name is with a paper. Student records have US federal laws affecting their release, so this company better have some good computer security (and yes, such a service will be an obvious target for hackers, who would love to make copies originals for a small service fee).

    As for copyright, does the company keep the paper in its files for any financial purpose? Yes, if it didn’t the service would be worthless. So does the company use students’ original literary creations for the purpose of making money? Yes. Even school assignments are the work of the student, so that student should have some control of the use, distribution, and reproduction of the work in any format (copyright).

    If the school is saying that all student work is owned (to any degree) by an outside corporation, then there are copyright, privacy, and ethical situations here.

  18. Richard Brandshaft says:

    This is analogous to normal police policy: treat everyone like a criminal, and then say only a criminal would object. Some people find this inherently objectionable; some don’t.


  1. http://lizditz.typepad.com/i_speak_of_dreams/2004/01/joanne_and_dave.html

    Joanne and Dave pointed me to Turnitin and its detractors. In case you are not a high school or college student, let’s begin with an overview. http://www.plagiarism.org/ Since 1996, Turnitin has been helping millions of faculty and students in 51