Students Rebel Against Database Designed to Thwart Plagiarists
Friday, September 22, 2006
When McLean High School students write this year about Othello or immigration policy, their teachers won't be the only ones examining the papers. So will a California company that specializes in catching cheaters.
The for-profit service known as Turnitin checks student work against a database of more than 22 million papers written by students around the world, as well as online sources and electronic archives of journals. School administrators said the service, which they will start using next week, is meant to deter plagiarism at a time when the Internet makes it easy to copy someone else's words.
But some McLean High students are rebelling. Members of the new Committee for Students' Rights said they do not cheat or condone cheating. But they object to Turnitin's automatically adding their essays to the massive database, calling it an infringement of intellectual property rights. And they contend that the school's action will tar students at one of Fairfax County's academic powerhouses.
"It irked a lot of people because there's an implication of assumed guilt," said Ben Donovan, 18, a senior who helped collect 1,190 student signatures on a petition against mandatory use of the service. "It's like if you searched every car in the parking lot or drug-tested every student."
Questions about the legality and effectiveness of plagiarism detection services such as Turnitin are swirling beyond McLean High, another sign of the challenge educators face as they navigate benefits and problems the Internet has brought.
Fairfax school and Turnitin officials said lawyers for the company and various universities have concluded that the paper-checking system does not violate student rights. Many educators agree. Turnitin, a leader in the field, lists Georgetown University and the University of Maryland's University College among its clients. Others include some public schools in Montgomery, Prince George's, Loudoun and Arlington counties.
But three professors at Grand Valley State University in Michigan this month posted a letter online arguing that Turnitin "makes questionable use of student intellectual property." The University of Kansas last week decided to let its contract with Turnitin expire because of cost and intellectual property concerns. And the intellectual property caucus of the Conference on College Composition and Communication, an organization of 6,000 college-level educators, is debating whether such services "undermine students' authority over the uses of their own writing" and make them feel "guilty until proven innocent," according to a draft position statement.
"There's a lot of debate out there," said Rebecca Ingalls, a University of Tampa English professor who has analyzed Turnitin. "These students are giving their work to a company that's making money and they are getting no compensation."
Kimberly Carney, an assistant principal at McLean High, said there have been isolated cases of plagiarism at the 1,770-student school. The main reason administrators will use Turnitin is to teach students how to give proper credit to sources, Carney said.
"There wasn't a landmark thing that happened that we said we need to adopt this," Carney said. "Plagiarism is a problem at every high school nationwide."
The Fairfax County system began using Turnitin in 2003. More than three-fourths of the county's high schools now use the service.
The Center for Academic Integrity, affiliated with Duke University's Kenan Institute for Ethics, surveyed 18,000 public and private high school students over four years and found that more than 60 percent admitted to some form of plagiarism, according to a 2005 report.