Plagiarism prevention site Turnitin.com on its way to UAA

Citing a rise in academic dishonesty cases, the University of Alaska Anchorage is seeking to establish an account with Turnitin.com.

Advertised as ‘plagiarism prevention,’ the site searches for instances of possible plagiarism by using a database comprised of previously submitted papers, published sources and works available from online essay distributors called “paper mills.”

‘I have been working with one of their marketing individuals to get a special deal as a pilot program,’ said Bruce Schultz, the associate dean of students.

With Turnitin, students submit a copy of each assignment to an electronic dropbox. The service then compares it to resources in the database, searching for matching word combinations. The professor receives the assignment, along with a report, which highlights suspicious word strings and provides links to the plagiarized sources.

‘The pilot program is a two-month program and we would like to have a large number of faculty available from a certain discipline willing to participate in a trial-run,’ Schultz said.

He said the need for such a service is obvious.

‘The number of cases that I am dealing with through Student Judicial Services has gone up.’

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Schultz estimates 75-80 percent of the academic dishonesty cases his office deals with are instances of a student plagiarizing from another source, usually the Internet.
The account Schultz is seeking costs $500 per year in annual licensing as well as 60 cents per student. The money will most likely come from grants. He hopes to have the program underway as early as the spring 2005 semester.

‘It”s is a wonderful service for faculty members because it saves them a lot of time,’ Schultz said. ‘And it makes it easier for students to submit their paper online electronically to their instructor.’

Graduate student Kari Wiederkehr finds the need for Turnitin.com astonishing.

‘I have to wonder what the attitude toward post-secondary education is now if plagiarism is so rampant as to warrant this Web site. If you don”t want to work and learn, then get out of school,’ Wiederkehr said.

Senior Jessica Keil said she”s never cheated, but when other people do, it doesn”t bother her because cheaters only hurt themselves.

‘The thought of a few dishonest people cribbing papers doesn”t bother me too much, I mean, it”s not admirable at all, but I don”t see it as threatening to my college career.’
Turnitin.com ‘protects over five million students in over fifty countries,’ according to the company”s advertisements. There are no available statistics indicating the accuracy rate of the service, which ‘receives and processes tens of thousands of student submissions per day.’

The service has critics too.

‘If you have all of your students turn their papers in through Turnitin.com, then every essay that every student does is being checked for plagiarism, even if you don”t necessarily suspect the student,’ said Jeff White, assistant professor of English. ‘That seems sort of like a police state…You”re assuming that everybody”s potentially a cheater.’

John Petraitis, associate professor of psychology prefers his students assume he checks everyone for plagiarism.

‘I want students to be careful when they take my class,’ Petraitis said. ‘So it is a good assumption for students that I submit everything.’

Keil doesn”t like the idea of her professors using Turnitin.com.

‘I think it would cultivate an atmosphere of mistrust and paranoia,’ Keil said. ‘It”s like a university version of Homeland Security. Are we going to have to show our ID”s every time we enter one of the university buildings?’

Concerns similar to these prompted McGill University student Jesse Rosenfeld to refuse to use Turnitin.com. In January, CNN.com reported that Rosenfeld, a sophomore at the Montreal university, refused to make submissions to the site. When he received failing grades on the assignments, he filed an appeal with the university and won the right to turn in assignments in the traditional method.

According to CNN.com, Rosenfeld told media that he had ‘an ethical and political problem’ with submitting his papers to Turnitin.com. ‘I was having to prove I didn”t plagiarize even before my paper was looked at by my professor,’ he said.

Under the blanket term ‘academic dishonesty,’ the two forms of plagiarism addressed in the current UAA student catalog, are a lack of ‘proper acknowledgement of sources’ and a student ‘knowingly permitting their works to be submitted by another person.’
The question of whether a student intentionally plagiarized, or just did sloppy work, failing to cite sources correctly, can be a slippery one.

‘I learned over the years that I should not play the role of judge, jury and executioner,’ Petraitis said. ‘If I think something doesn”t smell right, I send it to the Dean of Students (Office) and say, “Here”s the evidence I have, you decide if this is fishy” and I take myself out of it.’

Currently, faculty members investigate most suspicious work on their own. Schultz said he usually has to do very little or no investigation on plagiarism cases, since most faculty send their evidence to the Dean of Students Office when they submit a complaint.

Turnitin.com digitally encodes the documents accessed through their database, but the Rosenfeld appeal raised concerns about allowing a Web site to collect students” work.

‘They are using your essay to check everything else,’ White said. ‘There are some questions ethically about the student”s intellectual property. Do we want to build databases of all students” writing?’

White said programs, which search online resources but do not compile databases, are a better alternative.

‘There are other programs, which just do all the searching of many different search engines,’ White said. ‘It doesn”t build a database out of student (papers). I think if anything, that”s more realistic.’

White does not use plagiarism search programs.

Services like Turnitin.com reflect a technological solution to 20th century problems, White said. As media evolves, images, audio and ideas becomes more accessible to greater amounts of people. White believes the 21st century concern will be one of intellectual property.

‘It seems like plagiarism is the shallow end of the pool and intellectual property is the deeper end of the pool,’ White said. ‘The software looks at word-to-word ownership, not idea ownership. That”s a much tougher thing to check.’

Petratis does use programs of this sort but said he prefers not to divulge which ones.
Wiederkehr thinks professors should be able to spot plagiarism without the use of services like Turnitin.com.

‘Teachers and students should have a close enough academic relationship that a teacher can tell whether or not a paper they are reading is really the work of the student,’ Wiederkehr said.

In upper-division classes, professors are more familiar with student”s work, Petratis said. But in General Education Requirement courses, where class sizes are larger, plagiarism becomes more difficult to spot.

Students who admit to plagiarism almost always claim they ran out of time, Schultz said.
‘If you are not able to make a deadline…many faculty will go out of their way to try and help,’ Schultz said. ‘There”s nothing that makes faculty more excited than to know that their students are learning the subject that they love and have a passion for.’