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Plagiarism Issues

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Jason Johnson had an interesting article published in the Washington Post in March. He also writes: Plagiarism today is heavily invested with morality surrounding intellectual honesty. That is laudable. But truly distinguishing plagiarism is a matter of intent. Did I mean to copy, was it accidental (a trick of memory), was it polygenesis. Up until now, intent has largely been determined at a functional level (how many lines show up in another source) and the burden of proof weighs heavily against a student. Now lets add, Google, Amazon, Wikipedia, and TurnItIn.com into the equation. Lets go a few years down the road and assume Google has finished scanning the Harvard library, Amazon has expanded there available chapter views, and both Wikipedia and TurnItIn have tripled in size (say 7 years). How many students, writing term papers on old chestnuts like Jane Eyre are going to be able to write a full paper without having several sentences with an 80-100% match with some other source. So, if schools continue to use papers as primary assessment tools; (I had college classes where papers were 100% of my grade, and 60% or so in high school) and you can fail a paper or be expelled for plagiarism of as little as 2-3 lines; there is a visible point where this system will break down. Schools need to develop more comprehensive systems that include the paper, oral reporting, in class writing, and more in proper ratios. If they do not many innocent students will have their academic careers derailed and schools and teachers will waste millions of dollars on tools (like TurnItIn) that are only assuring they will see an "increase" in plagiarism because there is only one way to write "George Washington was the first President of the United States". Finally, schools view this so narrowly as a morality issue, that most do not help students to develop the "plagiarizing" skills I use at work on a daily basis. Worse students frequently leave schools thinking that the rules of plagiarism are law, when the real laws are copyright and far more nuanced. It would be nice to see schools develop more models where they synthesize (through a combination of copying and original thought) multiple documents into a complete, single-voiced whole.

DMO writes: Clipping and combining from multiple sources is an important skill of synthesis. Synthesizing many sources of info is exactly the skill we teach in paper or research report writing.

Without school-wide agreement on policies, knowledge of how to teach the synthesis process, and a culture which rewards constructivist assessment, we will continue to police rather than teach students.

Copyright of Student WorkEdit

Greg writes: Here's an interesting story about copyrights and student papers. Do any of you have a policy about who holds the copyrights to student work? While at one time this would have not been much of an issue with the growth of commercial services such as turnitin.com who can profit from the work of your students I can see the day when who owns student work will become a very real issue.

Jason responds: Kathy Schrock has long been an advocate of getting students permission to use their work and has developed some nice resources. Public schools have different rules and state regulations to contend with. As to the bigger question, TurnItIn.com claims that they only keep a "fingerprint" of the work and therefore are not subject to copyright issues. This has yet to be tested in court so you can expect an answer in 2-3 years after appeals and such. While I am on record as finding these services counter-productive , I would recommend independent schools using them to include language in the student contract that allow the school certain (limited) rights over the work of students to clarify the issue before it gets to court. Regardless schools should consider ownership policies as TurnItIn is not the only area where this gets murky. Consider the use of student artwork in publications or student writing samples in a teacher's published book. Colleges and Universities have a number of good models and language to work from. In most cases Kathy's model makes a lot of sense for them and is a valuable avenue for opening the conversation on copyright with students.

Turn It InEdit

  • TurnItIn.com is a website that analyzes student papers against a massive database of other papers. While you have probably heard about this already, a group of students started a lawsuit against TurnItIn. It's a pretty interesting case -- I first saw it in eSchoolNews (or maybe EdTech Insider) last fall, and again in the Washington Post this spring. This post gives a pretty good overview.
  • I've seen it catch clear plagiarism, but I've also seen it miss plagiarized materials (I've gone to Google and found things that Turnitin has missed, and anything in print that a student retyped will be missed). It all depends on whether or not their database has the original; it's not - contrary to the mythology - as good as it says it is. There are also a lot of "false positives", when it will find (and not distinguish) properly cited quotes. Teachers being vigilant and doing their own investigation is still very much needed.
  • There are other software programs to detect plagiarism without requiring the student's work to be uploaded to a database, which Turnitin requires. Posting work in this way may constitute publication, which complicates copyright for students who may later want to use the work. For this reason, I never use it. Comparisons of detection programs are available at <http://www.fdeweb.unimaas.nl/eleum/plagiarism/plagiarism.htm>. The best method of preventing plagiarism remains well-constructed assignments.

There are a couple of fundamental questions to raise about Turnitin.com. First we have the issue of a company whose business plan is dependent on using the property of others without either permission or composition. I discovered Turnitin spidering software taking everything from my site even after I had entered it into my robots.txt file. As I have samples of my professional work on my site I have to engage the services of a lawyer to get them to stop and to remove my property from their databases. What are we teaching our students when we use a service who uses the property of others without their permission? Particularly when that service proclaims itself to teach academic integrity.

The second issue is one that few schools have dealt with at this point. That is, who owns the papers that students write? In the past this was not an issue as student papers had little value to anyone other than to the student. But as Turnitin shows in today's internet age even routine student papers have commercial value. Turnitin could not exist without access to them.

Current copyright law says that the author has a copyright at the time of creation. That would be the student. I know of no schools that have established policies granting the school the copyright to student works. The student granting a teacher the right to read and review the paper does not transfer the copyright any more than a books author transferring the copyright of a book to the reader.

On the whole I think that Turnitin teaches a very poor lessons.


As to the above point, the writer certainly has the option of keeping people off of his servers. However, since his material is "out on the web" to begin with, any claim of privacy is ridiculous. As I stated way back the first time this was discussed. Turnitin offers its clients the same service they could do on the web FOR FREE if they chose to spend the time. That is, they can search the Internet for documents matching one their holding in their hand. All documents posted on the web are fair game. Using Google to do this would not surprise many people nor probably offend him. By simply receiving the document from a client and performing that same search, he appears to have a problem. Moreover, with Google cache holding pages, Greg should be threatening so sue Google for cataloging his pages at all. Is he? I don't know, but I doubt it.

The next point above is specious. It is true that when a teacher or student submits a paper to be checked, Turnitin.com keeps a copy of it for future reference. Just as there are exceptions to copyright law for fair use, schools have a slightly different context. Example: can a teacher hold a copy of a student's paper (after grading it), to make sure that student doesn't sell it to other students for future years (if the same assignment is given)? Is it OK for the teacher to keep a copy to show as a good example (or bad example) for later students? What about test essay questions? If a student fills out an essay on my test, is his essay copyrighted? Am I allowed to keep his essay for future reference? Can the student say "no" and legally force me to get rid of all copies of their written work?

The teacher in these situations doesn't "own" the paper or essay, but most would agree its OK to keep a copy as part of the record and materials for the class. Students understand (either implicitly or explicitly) that their work will not remain completely under their control. (If the school sold the work for money, that would be different.) Well, if its OK in the singular, then its OK in the aggregate, which is what Turnitin.com does. Providing this service for multiple teachers and mulitple schools does not make it illegal. Keep in mind that the TEACHERS are requiring the use turnitin.com's here. Turnitin.com is doing the work that they could/would do themselves and is aggregating their data FOR THE TEACHERS. If the teachers don't want to use it, then don't have to.

Searching for papers on the web is not USING them for commercial purpose. Offering to do that for money for someone else who could do it for free if they had the time does not make it illegal.



My opinion is... Google is FREE and Turnitin is not. Google is a search engine designed to help you find information. Turitin is designed to make money from copyrighted works of others. Period. Think about it, you WANT the search engines to find you, but they don'tmake money by selling your data to someone else. Only links to your data.

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