After refusing to hand in his assignments through an online service meant to detect plagiarism, a McGill University student's story is raising questions about electronic anti-plagiarism initiatives.
In December, McGill concluded a two-term trial of anti-plagiarism service Turnitin.com which involved 1,400 students. The site is a California-based, for-profit service that collects assignments on behalf of professors via the Internet. Turnitin.com then searches for similar text in its three databases--the Internet, an extensive collection of online journals, and a database of all assignments previously handed in--and issues an originality report to the instructor.
When 19-year-old McGill student Jesse Rosenfeld's economics professor required him to hand in assignments through Turnitin.com last semester, he refused and turned in hard copies instead. His instructor gave him a failing grade, which began a fight with the university and garnered national attention.
"The problem I have is that I'm assumed guilty until proven otherwise," said Rosenfeld.
He also criticized Turnitin.com's mantra, to "help students take more responsibility for learning, and let teachers focus on teaching."
"That statement is basically saying that students, if given the opportunity, will plagiarize, and they're forced to prove they didn't plagiarize before their paper is even looked at," he added.
Rosenfeld appealed his instructor's decision, and eventually took his complaint to the Associate Dean of the Faculty of Science. He was offered a compromise: draft a 10-page paper on research methods and, upon completion, his other assignments would be marked retroactively. Rosenfeld informed the university he would not write the paper, and earlier this month an ad hoc Senate committee ruled his original assignments would be marked.
McGill University officials refused to comment on the use of Turnitin.com. According to an official statement issued Jan. 15, a subcommittee overseeing the trial is now drafting recommendations for the university senate, who will ultimately decide whether to continue using the service or not.
Turnitin.com founder Dr. John Barrie rejected Rosenfeld's claim anyone was assumed guilty, explaining instead his service simply ensures all are "playing by the same rules."
"I think that accusation is actually without merit. There are innumerable examples in our society where there are numerous checks and balances," said Dr. Barrie. "The referees are out on the football field to make sure all of the athletes are playing by the same set of rules, and to call the fouls. It's the same process going on in the classroom."
Rosenfeld was also concerned about students' property rights. He said Turnitin.com infringes on these rights by requiring all work be placed in their database and then profiting from their use.
"By submitting your paper, you're swelling their database, and they use that to turn and sell it to other schools," Rosenfeld said. "In essence, you're actually generating profit for them by submitting your paper to their website and letting them hang on to it."
While Turnitin.com maintains a collection of student papers without each student's permission, Dr. Barrie insists the website operates well within the law.
"I think the argument that we violate anyone's intellectual property rights is without merit," said Dr. Barrie, explaining the database complies with Canadian legislation.
Laws aside, Dr. Barrie also balked at the suggestion students should have a say in what is done with their work.
"If you're going to an academic institution, there is an implicit agreement between you and that institution that they may take your work and do certain things with it to determine [its] merit," said Dr. Barrie. "If you don't want to instructor to determine the originality of your term paper, or to grade your term paper, then don't give it to your instructor."
While use of Turnitin.com is growing in Canada (Ryerson University, Athabasca University and the University of Western Ontario are among subscribing schools), the University of Calgary won't use the service in the foreseeable future.
Both the U of C administration and the Students' Union are opposed to Turnitin.com. Associate Vice-President Student Affairs Dr. Peggy Patterson and SU VP Academic Demetrios Nicolaides both said the issue was discussed in the university's Academic Integrity Committee. The idea was rejected for many of the same reasons brought up by students like Rosenfeld.
"We've never considered implementing it because of the view that students are guilty until proven innocent," said Dr. Patterson, also agreeing with concerns surrounding intellectual property.
Nicolaides said the main concern of the Student Academic Assembly was intellectual property as well and was unanimously against it.
"Students are taking all this time to write an essay and they sweat over it and research it, and for it to be submitted to some place like Turnitin.com for it to be kept in their archives, it's sort of a loss for the student's intellectual property rights," said Nicolaides.
Dr. Patterson also pointed out Turnitin.com can't distinguish between intentional and accidental plagiarism.
"I think it's really hard to determine where it's actual plagiarism--where there's an actual attempt to deceive--and how much of it is lack of information on how to do it properly," she explained.
Instead, Dr. Patterson said education is a more appropriate option to prevent it.
Dr. Barrie agreed the technology can't make such distinctions on its own, insisting Turnitin.com should be used in tandem with student-teacher interaction.
"It'll be a cold day in hell before any computer technology can determine whether a paper was plagiarized, unintentionally plagiarized, or was actually a student's original work," he said. "A technology like ours can't work without the human component."
Regardless of the shortcomings, Dr. Barrie said such a service is an essential tool, pointing to studies that suggest up to 40 per cent of students admit plagiarizing from the Internet. Because of this, he calls attitudes like Dr. Patterson's--that education is the solution--naive.
"I would like the administrator at some institution to look some hard working students in face and tell them, 'look guys, at this institution we've got an honour code, we're going to really teach ethics and don't worry about cheating because we've got it under control,'" Dr. Barrie said. "Anybody who is not going to employ some type of technology to address this digital problem has got their head in the sand."
Although it is difficult to quantify the extent of plagiarism at the U of C, Dr. Patterson said a contributing factor to the problem is students not knowing how to avoid plagiarism, or properly document sources.
"I think you have to begin by assuming what authenticity and appropriate references are, and that they know what the consequences are," she explained. "Once we're assured [students] know what their rights and responsibilities are, and also how to do it properly, it would be the professors who know the discipline well that know when something isn't original."
Rosenfeld agreed education and prevention are better options, and also blamed the need on large classrooms and understaffing.
"They're actually ignoring the fact that their class sizes are too large and they don't have enough faculty to go through and mark papers," he said.
While Turnitin.com likely won't make an appearance at the U of C, the service shows no sign of slowing. As more Canadian post-secondary institutions employ similar services, students like Rosenfeld may soon be left with little choice. If faced with a similar situation in the future, Rosenfeld said he would refuse again. However, he admitted most students may not want to take that risk.