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Students Rebel Against Database Designed to Thwart Plagiarists

At McLean High School, members of the Committee for Students' Rights collected more than 1,100 signatures against mandatory use of a California plagiarism monitor. Among the committee members are Leo Brett and Ben Donovan, front, and Jonathan Gayer, left rear, Nicolas Kaylor, Jon Ende, Daniel Freudberg and Brooks Powell.
At McLean High School, members of the Committee for Students' Rights collected more than 1,100 signatures against mandatory use of a California plagiarism monitor. Among the committee members are Leo Brett and Ben Donovan, front, and Jonathan Gayer, left rear, Nicolas Kaylor, Jon Ende, Daniel Freudberg and Brooks Powell. (By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)

Turnitin charges about 80 cents per student per year, according to a company official. Fairfax County paid between $24,000 and $30,000 in the last school year for the service, school system officials said.

Founder John M. Barrie said Turnitin evolved out of a Web site he created to facilitate peer review when he was a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley. When fellow students complained about cheating classmates, Barrie helped develop a system to catch them. Turnitin's parent company, iParadigms LLC, of Oakland, Calif., was launched 10 years ago.

The service has grown dramatically, Barrie said, and is now used by more than 6,000 academic institutions in 90 countries. Barrie, who is president and chief executive of iParadigms, said 60,000 student assignments are added to the database daily. He said no student has ever launched a legal challenge.

Barrie said Turnitin helps protect the interests of honest students. The database is used only to compare papers, he said. "None of our clients want to catch cheaters," he said. "They all want to deter cheaters. Just like a proctor in an SAT exam or like a referee on a football field."

Dan Kent, a Loudoun County social studies teacher, called Turnitin necessary in a "cut-and-paste world." When Kent became department chair at Ashburn's Broad Run High School in 1999, he said, many teachers were reluctant to assign complex research papers because of the difficulty they encountered in checking for plagiarism.

These days, many Loudoun students submit rough drafts to Turnitin. They receive an "originality report" that identifies similarities to other sources and alerts the student and teacher. Teachers then eyeball the paper and decide if the material is properly cited.

Broad Run uncovered three instances of serious plagiarism in the first year it used Turnitin, Kent said, and other cases of poor paraphrasing that students failed to recognize as inappropriate. Since 2002, he said, the service has rooted out only three additional plagiarism cases at the school.

Carney said McLean High will use a similar approach. Students will be allowed to submit unlimited numbers of drafts to the service to catch intentional or accidental overlaps. Only the final version will be graded. Students who refuse to use Turnitin will be given a zero on the assignment.

Carney predicted that McLean students would embrace the system eventually. "They'll see it's not a 'gotcha,' " she said.

But members of the Committee for Students' Rights want the school to allow students to opt out. In an interview at a Starbucks near the campus, they said that they can learn about plagiarism directly from teachers and that there are other ways to catch cheaters. They also said fees paid to Turnitin would be better spent on other educational matters.

"McLean is a great school," said Nicholas Kaylor, 17, a senior. "They should have a little bit of trust in us."


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