The Ethics of Plagiarism Prevention, Assumption of Guilt, or Copyright Violation?

Is, the anti-plagiarism service that compares submitted student papers with existing papers and other works in its database, a force for good or a thief?

According to the Washington Post, four high school students have sued TurnItIn in US District Court this week. They allege that TurnItIn has violated their intellectual property rights by including their papers in its database, after they specifically instructed the company not to do so when checking their papers.

TurnItIn has an enormous database of papers, both professional and student-generated. Instructors upload the work they collect from students, and TurnItIn compares the submitted work with papers already in its database. If a suspicious match is found, the instructor is notified, and may request to see the original paper to compare it with the new paper.

In the process, every paper an instructor uploads is added to TurnItIn’s database. This is the service’s chief advantage over simply using Google (apart from being more automated); without this massive cache of student papers, the service would be far less useful.

TurnItIn’s revenues are in the tens of millions of dollars per year. However, students assert that they are the ones doing the work that makes TurnItIn profitable. The students who are suing have previously complained about the company’s policy of using submitted papers for comparison against later papers. By law, students retain copyright for writing assignments they complete as part of academic coursework.

A second ethical problem with TurnItIn – one which has long sparked student opposition – is that all papers are checked, not just those suspected by instructors of being plagiarized. This assumption of “guilty until proven innocent” has students on the defensive. According to the earlier WaPo article, students at McLean High School circulated a petition in opposition to the school’s use of TurnItIn. The petition received 1100 signatures.

What is best for students – to expect and teach academic honesty, or to actually enforce it? Are these methods incompatible? Are we placing less trust in students when we check on them?

For its part, TurnItIn’s data indicates that 29% of papers submitted show evidence of significant plagiarism, while 1% of papers are copied in their entirety. The remaining 70% are found to be original, and these original papers are added to the database. It’s unclear whether instructors are uploading all of the papers they receive, or only those they suspect of plagiarism; if many instructors are uploading only papers they suspect of cheating, this would overstate the percentage of students who are cheating – and thus, overstate the need for a service like TurnItIn.

The copyright lawsuit will likely hinge on how TurnItIn stores student papers and what it does with them. Mike Smit, a Canadian Computer Science doctoral candidate who has investigated TurnItIn in some depth, and notes that TurnItIn claims not to store or distribute entire papers, but clearly does both. He also points out that hash algorithms could be used to detect copied sentences or phrases without actually storing student papers.

However, in order to prove cheating, an instructor will generally want to show the offending student the paper from which he or she allegedly copied. TurnItIn does allow for this, though it requires the permission of the instructor – not the student – who submitted the original paper. Mike’s experiments with this feature are very informative.

This lawsuit could mark the end of TurnItIn’s business model, which relies so heavily on stored student papers. However, the anti-plagiarism industry is not necessarily doomed if TurnItIn loses in court; a variety of technical means, such as calculating an MD5 hash for each sentence, could be used to detect plagiarism.

Share:Email this to someoneTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on FacebookShare on LinkedIn
About Justin Baeder

Justin Baeder helps school administrators increase their productivity through the High-Performance Instructional Leadership Network. Learn More »


  1. lukeduncan says:

    We used TurnItIn here for a trial year, but I don’t think it helps. I got a LOT of false positives (after a LOT of extra work on my part), even though I was scanning only the papers I suspected. Really it’s just the threat of TurnItIn that keeps students on track, but that’s not a great way to teach trust and accountability.

    Ideally, we should be able to write topics that are nearly plagiarism-proof. This may involve reading some non-obvious texts (in the humanities, ones that haven’t been repeatedly interrogated to within an inch of their lives) and asking real thinking questions. It’s harder to write those questions, but we gotta go it.

  2. The idea is good.Their ethics are bad. At academic program lying isnt creating a role model. The terms of use said we grant then an irrovocible licence to do whatever they want with my stuff. Now my stuff is junk, but the prinipal. They have a potential. If a terrorist has the material to make a bomb but hasnt made it, he would still get prosocuted for their potential. Now if they are lacking money, they could sell all of the work. Now if they had it where they fingerpinted your senteces for things like sentence stutucture(words per sentece and the like+ a hash sum) i could care less. Most of the time, cheaters just “borrow” a freinds copy via email. Most change nothing. As for the internet stuff, I bet google would be more efective. When I write my papers, I will take a patch of it and past into word, seing how close the matches are. I make sure i didnt remember a qoate from somewhere. I bet the way they do it now is because they dont have the skill to make hash algirithms. Hash for the sentence may not work because change 1 word and the hash will come out way different. Sentece stuctrue, while hard to do will make less likely to get sued.

    And the original student should be able to choose wheather to reveal or not. Cheaters wont reveal, but when something shows up ad 99% of anothers, you know that student either gave it to them, or asked for help on the internet or something

Speak Your Mind