Intrusive and exploitative

I am generally of the opinion that students, and youth in general, have a tendency to complain simply to hear their own voice or for a lack of anything better to do. Every once in a while, however, I feel the need to join in the chorus.

This is one of those times.

Jesse Rosenfeld, a 19-year-old student at McGill University, has successfully appealed McGill’s policy regarding the use of the website turnitin.com. The website, which offers plagiarism detection among its various services, uses a three-pronged approach to weed out academic misconduct.

Once a research or position paper is submitted, it goes through three thorough searches to determine whether or not it contains plagiarised material.

The first is a sweep of publicly available web pages, the second a search through a plethora of academic journals available online and the third is a comparison with turnitin.com’s extensive catalogue of student papers acquired from participating institutions.

A report is then produced outlining the various instances where sequences of words in the paper being tested appear to be plagiarized, with a colour-coded scale indicating the "level" of plagiarism.

At McGill, it is mandatory to not only submit a paper to your prof, but also to send a copy to turnitin.com so the web site can establish whether you are cheating or not.

The fact it is a mandatory procedure raises numerous issues.

First and foremost is the fact intellectual property is being obtained and used without the creators’ input.

How would it make you feel to know a paper you spent months researching and composing was obtained without compensation by a party other than your academic institution?

How would it make you feel to know that third party is making a profit off your time and effort?

Furthermore, how would it make you feel to know your institute of higher learning has so little faith in your integrity that they make every student submit to this?

The operators of turnitin.com suggest students uncomfortable with an institution’s affiliation with the site can get their degree elsewhere.

Callous and flippant as that line of reasoning may be, it makes perfect sense.

Why would you want to attend a school where professors don’t need to teach students the minutiae of plagiarism? It is very easy to inadvertently plagiarise a piece if you are unaware what needs attribution.

Why would you give your money to a school using potentially less knowledgeable and less informed professors who can rely on a computer database to catch academic nuances they aren’t qualified to notice? At the University of Calgary, if you get dinged for plagiarism, there’s usually a good reason: a good, well-read prof.

Any school using turnitin.com to guard against plagiarism has severely damaged its credibility. It amounts to employing a "guilty until proven innocent" attitude when assessing the students they purport to be proud of.

Is that to say plagiarism isn’t a problem? No, I’m not that naïve. However, insulting the intelligence of every student to catch the minority too lazy or stupid to do their own thinking is not the way to go.

For all the slings and arrows the U of C suffers on a near-daily basis, at least they are smart enough to see the folly of turnitin.com.

Let’s hope they continue to.

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