Turnitin.com – The Students Respond

I picked up a copy of the school newspaper today solely because of the front-page article. I don’t normally do this – the front-page articles of The Daily Wildcat don’t normally interest me, nor does anything else in the newspaper – but today was different. Today’s headline read “Students Turned Off By Turnitin.com”. I’ve never liked Turnitin.com, but I put up with it as sort of a necessary evil. However, this article gave me yet another reason to dislike the online anti-plagiarism service.

I know, you’re wondering if I don’t like it because then I can’t plagiarize my papers when it’s used. Actually, that’s not why I don’t like it. I have never cheated on a paper. I’ve never even thought about cheating on a paper. Why bother? In the papers I’ve written, if I wanted to use someone else’s words to fill up some space (which is a very useful trick, by the way), I quoted and properly cited my source. It just doesn’t take that much extra effort. Maybe I’m just lucky, or gifted with an exceptional ability to write well, but writing the parts in between my quotes was just not that hard. In high school, I was taught that a good research paper would have more research in it than original thoughts, so I didn’t really have to do that much thinking. Just a lot of research. Maybe that’s why it was so easy. Anyway, like I said, I’ve never even thought about plagiarizing a paper.
I don’t like Turnitin.com because I don’t like feeling like I’m guilty until proven innocent. I’ve never cheated on a paper (we’ve been over this already) but I have to submit my paper to this site because I might have? Really? Why don’t you just read my paper and see if it sounds like my writing? When I was in high school, this is exactly what most of my teachers did. Only one used Turnitin.com. The rest just knew me and would have been able to tell if I had taken someone else’s work. Obviously, that strategy doesn’t work so well in college. I’ll get to that later.
As the news article mentions, my most recent reason for disliking Turnitin.com is some legalese in the user agreement that no one reads.   

You grant iParadigms [site creator] a non-exclusive, royalty-free, perpetual, world-wide, irrevocable license to reproduce, transmit, display, disclose, archive, and otherwise use Your Communications on the site or elsewhere for our business purposes. iParadigms is free to use any ideas, concepts, techniques, know-how, or information in Your Communications for any purpose, including, but not limited to, the development and use of products and services based on the Communications. This license does not include any right to use ideas set forth in papers submitted to the site.  

What? So Turnitin.com now owns my work. Seriously. They have rights to use my submitted work however they want. Well, that’s ok, because the only stuff I’ve ever submitted to the site was stuff for my GenEd classes that I highly doubt I’ll ever need again. That’s the only time that would really matter, after all, if I needed to write a related paper later in my student career and wanted to incorporate my previous work into my new work. I wonder if that means the professors of my GenEd classes also feel that the stuff they assign isn’t important enough to keep the rights to. Oh, wait, I hope none of the profs in my major ever require this site. What if I wrote an excellent paper for a class in my major, and then decided to write my thesis on the same thing, once I got to grad school? Does this mean I can’t do it, because no longer retain the rights to my own work?

Does anyone else think that students should be able to use their own work again? I certainly do. The law states that the moment I start writing, my work is automatically copyrighted. In order to sue someone for copyright infringement, however, I have to formally register my work, within three months of the offense. Basically, what Turnitin.com is doing is taking away that right from students.
At the end of the article, a professor here at the University stated that he has 600 students, and assigns them all a 10-page paper. Before you get out your calculator (because I know you forgot how to do math the moment you were allowed to use a calculator all the time) I’ll just tell you – that’s 6,000 pages to read. I get it – that sucks. It seems to me that you have a few options. 1: Use Turnitin.com and see if the Internet tells you your students are cheating, then read the papers anyway because you have to assign a grade. 2: Use Turnitin.com and then assign grades arbitrarily. Think how much time you’d save! 3: Don’t use Turnitin.com, read the papers, and see if any of the papers sound like they’ve been plagiarized. Hint: if the whole paper sounds very professional, but a few random sentences just don’t fit (or vice versa), try plugging some of the good stuff into Google and see if anything comes up. Students make mistakes, and you can tell. Or, 4: Don’t use Turnitin.com, don’t read the papers, and assign all the grades arbitrarily. This seems like the least time-consuming of all my ideas. Personally, I like number three. Ask your TA’s to help you.
However, I’ve come up with a couple of other, possibly more reasonable, ideas. How about shortening the paper? If you only required 5-page papers, that’s only 3,000 pages to read. How about not assigning a paper at all? I bet you’ll get a lot of student support for that one.
If you’re really adamant about this paper, however, why don’t you have your students use a different web site to check for plagiarism? There are a few other options hanging around the good ol’ internet. Options that don’t involve the students signing away their intellectual property rights. Other web sites, such as Copycatch and EVE2 will check your students’ papers, compare them to websites and online materials as well as other papers also being submitted, but don’t keep these papers in their database, as their own property. This may mean that these sites are less extensive than others, and it may be a little more likely that some cheaters could still get through. That’s when the reading part comes in handy. Ultimately, I think a lot of students are going to appreciate this consideration for their rights. I’d like to be able to use my own work in whatever way I want.