Turn what in?

A plagiarism detective service, Turnitin, is under fire from Virginia high school students who claim their intellectual property rights in their school assignments are being violated.

The for-profit service known as Turnitin checks student work against a database of more than 22 million papers written by students around the world, as well as online sources and electronic archives of journals.

. . . But some McLean High students are rebelling. Members of the new Committee for Students’ Rights said they do not cheat or condone cheating. But they object to Turnitin’s automatically adding their essays to the massive database, calling it an infringement of intellectual property rights.

Students also objected to the presumption of guilt.

Thousands of colleges and high schools submit papers to Turnitin, which adds 60,000 student assignments to the database daily. At some schools, students can submit their drafts to the service to get an “originality report.”

Turnitin is an effective deterrent for Betsy’s high school history students.

I wonder what lawyers would say about students’ rights to keep their writing from being added to a data base. It seems thin to me — and nobody’s sued yet — but this is a new area.

Update: Here’s more on tech-aided cheating from the San Jose Mercury News.

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  1. Actually, didn’t a student in Canada successfully sue over turnitin a couple of years ago?

  2. If these students don’t condone cheating, I’d think they’d want their work included in the database.

    If their motivation here is purely libertarian, and no reason is given that it might be anything but, then I like their argument. No company should be allowed to keep their original work.

  3. Wayne Martin says:

    > Actually, didn’t a student in Canada
    > successfully sue over turnitin a couple
    > of years ago?

    There are a number of links to articles about this service, including one about a Canadian student who sue his school over the requirement to have the paper “validated” by this service prior to its being turned in:


    Seems that there are some very interesting copyright issues here. Assuming that the students can claim a “copyright” for work that is required by a state government, then forcing them to give this work to the validation company would seem to be a violation of their rights to ownership.

    The validation company also would seem to have ownership rights, unless they have agreed to never sell this material in the future. Since the students would unlikely be a part of this contract, their rights might well be easily ignored if/when such a sale were to occur.

    Wish I had the time to research this fully.

  4. I feel two ways about this. One–this program helps catch cheaters who would otherwise get away with it (of course, a lot of cheaters still *do* get away with it because they’re not quite as stupid). And I like that part. I also would not object to having my own paper “validated” before being accepted. I think students are being incredibly egocentric if they’re insulted by this…sure, I know that I’m not a cheater, but it would be unreasonable to expect a teacher (who doesn’t know me all that well) to just take me at my word. Students, stop looking at it from your own POV and try looking at it from the teachers’! Then again, I was just accused the other day of caring too much about what other people think (because I was waffling on whether or not to pay for a meal with rolled coins because of the inconvenience it could cause the cashier) by my friend, so maybe my own position is unreasonable.

    However, point 2 — this is a for-profit company. I don’t want Turnitin being able to profit off my own work and the works of other students they do not compensate. You want to add my paper to your database, you pay me. You don’t just do it without asking. I buy the whole intellectual property rights argument; this company is violating *something.*

  5. Anybody considering submitting a paper for use by a validation service should probably obtain a copyright waiver from the student/creator. Here’s a link to a form of waiver used by M.I.T.


  6. Mike in Texas says:

    If the company is making money off of the service it provides then I feel it is stealing from students.

    As bad as cheating is, by making money off the intellectual property of others without compensating them, the company is stealing also.

    Schools should give students the chance to opt out of having their essays used in this way.

  7. What is specious about the copyright argument is that university faculty have no such rights over their own work; the university claims all copyright over faculty work.

    And a form that gives up copyright is useless unless a student can be given a zero for the paper if he will not sign it.

  8. And a form that gives up copyright is useless unless a student can be given a zero for the paper if he will not sign it.

    Why? Maybe I’m not understanding the student’s objections precisely, but it sounds like if Turnitin didn’t automatically add papers to their database, but could still be used to check the paper against other papers in the database, the service still provides some benefit to teachers. For example, I would have been perfectly willing to waive copyright even without any particular benefit to me. You seem to be saying that teachers should give students zeroes for not wishing to give up copyright–why? The analogy to university faculty most certainly does not hold, since students are required to attend school, but adults are not required to become professors–surely a “right wing prof” understands the difference between actions taken voluntarily and those taken because of government force.

  9. Cardinal Fang says:

    It’s an odd kind of intellectual property. The company is only profiting by the work of the cheaters, not the honest students.

    Look at it this way: If I’m an honest student, I hand in my paper, it’s checked against the database and doesn’t match, it’s added to the database, and if no cheating student gets hold of it, it might as well not be in the database because it will never match any other paper.

    On the other hand, if I’m a cheater, I hand in my paper and it matches some other paper. But I can’t complain about intellectual property rights– I never had intellectual property rights to the paper, since I stole it in the first place.

    I suppose that the paper mills might have a legitimate grievance, if they maintain that the papers they repeatedly sell to cheaters are copyrighted. But that’s a peculiar argument. I’d be reluctant to shut down Turnitin to protect paper mills.

  10. In turnitin, the originality report lets you automatically see only internet-based sources and papers that your own previous students submitted. If there is significant overlap with another paper in the database, you have to send a request to the teacher whose student originally wrote it in order to get a copy. So, it’s not like the papers are just floating around out there.

    And anyway, I haven’t seen many (if any) papers written by high school or college students that would make that copyright have any discernable value!

  11. Wayne Martin says:

    > And anyway, I haven’t seen many (if any)
    > papers written by high school or college
    > students that would make that copyright
    > have any discernable value!

    I was thinking the same thing, and wondering how much value there was to spending time/money comparing high school papers to other high schools around the country.

    What hasn’t kicked out in this discussion is whether or not high school students are actually being caught by this system. Anybody know what happens when plagiarism is detected in a paper submitted to a validation service?

  12. I don’t know what happens with turnitin because my university is too cheap – ahem – “budget strapped” to afford it.

    But I do “google” suspicious phrases out of student papers. It’s the poor-professor’s-version of turnitin. (I realize this does not catch the “paper mill” papers, but I can’t do everything and I refuse to buy my own turnitin license with my own money)

    I’ve caught more than a few plagiarized or partly plagiarized papers that way. My m.o. is to print the website from which the offending paper was copied and hand both back to the student, with a big fat 0 on the top of their paper and a note to come see me if they have any questions. (So far, all I’ve got have been apologies and “I didn’t think you would actually check.” well, you guessed wrong, Skippy.)

    As for the students upset over “their” copyrights being “violated” when the papers are submitted, I have two responses:

    1. save your ire for the students who plagiarize, and thus, who make this kind of policing necessary. Believe me, I’d rather not have to go through papers with a fine-tooth comb and check all the resources. But cheating’s common enough that I have to.

    2. try being a prof writing a research paper. Not only do we give up copyright to the journal we send it to (if it even gets published), but if we want to include the published paper in a coursepack for one of our courses, we (or rather, our university) has to pay a copyright fee to the journal. And in many cases, we have to pay page charges to ‘defray’ the costs of having our work published. And if we want a subscription to the journal, it’s anywhere from a hundred to several thousand dollars a year. (And I really don’t think it’s worth it for my sorry little research that no one probably reads. But I must play the game if I want promotion and tenure).

  13. Independent George says:

    Hypothetical question: What happens if you plagiarize yourself?

    Suppose that a paper I had previously written years ago makes its way into the database, with neither my knowledge nor consent. Eventually, I go back to school, and a paper I write shows up with a 98% match to that earlier paper. I’m accused of cheating, and since I’ve long since discarded my old papers, I have no way of proving authorship. Does this mean I’m screwed?