The Turnitin Controversy

Sydney Brenner, Staff Writer

Turnitin, an internet based service, founded by iParadigms, LLC in 1997 to detect plagiarism, requires schools and universities to buy licenses to submit student essays to the website. Following submission, Turnitin compares the piece to other works submitted to the site that are saved either in the site’s vast database or accessible texts on the web by searching for a matching string of words. After the site processes the piece, educators and students can view the unoriginal content in the text and the information regarding the “matched” material.

PC Magazine has said, “Turnitin has matured into an unrivaled leader in student learning services.” In spite of this parents and students within Ward Melville have unearthed numerous disadvantages to the website from legal violations to personal infringement. English teacher, Mr. Cereola says, “I can tell you it’s taxing reading off the computer screen for a couple of hours. I think like most everything, it has some advantages, it does have some uses that can be effective but it’s not necessarily the best solution.”

Primarily, critics have expressed that the software encroaches on educational privacy and intellectual property laws. The United States’ Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) bans revealing personal information about students to third parties without the consent of the student or the consent of their families. Submitting papers to Turnitin–some of which contain confidential information–without the permission of students therefore violates this act. Although Turnitin may believe differently, these student assignments are characterized as educational records under FERPA and are covered under this legislation. Furthermore the company is also considered in violation of student copyright as it scans the entire text of an uploaded piece and stores it in its database, which is then sold for profit.

While the commercial enterprise claims that these papers are “up for fair use,” these assignments are typically interpretive and original and as a result they can easily be replicated for the benefit of creative businesses. In addition, the use of the website can lead to a presumption of guilt which breaches scholastic disciplinary codes and local laws. In other words, some students feel that the atmosphere of trust that the school creates is diminished and they are automatically considered guilty before committing the act of plagiarism. Senior Kristen Gonzalez says, “I remember in 10th grade I was accused of plagiarism when I did not plagiarize and that definitely did not feel good. It’s very difficult to make something completely and utterly original, especially a paper on a topic thousands of students have done in the past.

Additionally, critics have argued whether or not the software is effective. Turnitin has been known for being capable of detecting cited works on the internet and those submitted to the site but there are also an extensive amount of instances where it cannot detect plagiarism. To elaborate, it cannot expose plagiarism of papers that have been paraphrased, summarized or translated as well as copy and paste methods that utilize substantial thesaurus work, a paper written by a friend or sibling or even a piece that is reused for the first time from an offline source. Turnitin is also a justification for using general and typical essay topics in that these are the types of themes where students would most likely recycle essays. Moreover, this system can be a disincentive for teachers and a method to avert teaching ethical writing, namely correct citations and responsible of authorship.

At the minimum, Ward Melville can have an “opt-out” clause as an option for students that feel uncomfortable with the website. Also teachers can occasionally use analysis or peer-review options as a method for determining originality reports or having feedback prior to sending in final submissions. Some teachers have even created their own procedures to avoid plagiarism. Mr. Cereola says, “Typically I assign a lot of writing to be done in class to prove that a student is doing their own work. The advantages are that since I’m present as the teacher, I can address any immediate needs or concerns of students.”

Despite these drawbacks, there are several benefits to the software itself. For instance, it allows teachers to inspect every component of a paper, which they may not have had time for in the past, and to establish which students are doing the work correctly and which are not. After an issue with a hacked Moodle account a few years ago, history teacher, Ms. Kane says, “I didn’t want my class and I to be associated with anything like that, so I chose to utilize Turnitin to protect the reputation of myself and my class as well as the reputation of my students.” Overall Ward Melville serves as a preparation for the future and as colleges will have these types of plagiarism prevention systems, whether Turnitin has defects or perks, students continue to gain an experience from using it.