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Virginia High School Students Rebel Against Mandatory Use of Turnitin.com

Wendy Warren Austin, Ph.D., Edinboro University of Pennsylvania

OVERVIEW

In 1996, John M. Barrie founded iParadigms, LLC, and began marketing Turnitin.com, a plagiarism detection service (PDS) that has since become the most widely adopted PDS at many universities and high schools. In 2003 and again in 2005, two Canadian college students refused to submit their student work to the Turnitin database through their McGill University classes that mandated using the service. In both cases, the McGill University Senate decided in favor of each student’s right to have their papers graded without running them through the Turnitin database. Until September 2006, no students in U.S. schools and universities had publicly objected to having their papers submitted to the database on a mandatory basis. However, that changed when a number of students at McLean High School in Fairfax County, Virginia, circulated a petition objecting to having their student papers uploaded to the school’s newly adopted Turnitin.com.  Seven students formed the Committee for Students’ Rights, rounding up 1,190 student signatures.  Their petition simply requested that the school remove the mandate to submit their papers and allow an opt-out option.

The students contacted a reporter at The Washington Post who wrote a front-page article called “Students Rebel Against Database Designed to Thwart Plagiarists,” (Glod, 2006) which was subsequently circulated via the Washington Post newswire to many papers, such as the Seattle Times. Immediately, bloggers also began writing about and discussing this situation on such blogs as The Wired Campus from Chronicle for Higher Education (Read, 2006), PBS.org (Carvin, 2006) and Ed-Tech Insider (Hoffman, 2006). Also, one of the students who helped organize the Committee for Students’ Rights, Ben Donovan, appeared on the Today Show.

After students presented their petition to school officials, McLean High School decided to change its policy to exclude juniors and seniors from the mandate, with plans to reinstate it after those two cohorts graduated. While the students’ list of reasons against Turnitin.com did include the school’s mandatory application of it for all student papers, this was certainly not the only one. Their primary issues with Turnitin.com, include:

  1. The presumption of guilt—The idea of “guilty until proven innocent” prevails in this model of plagiarism detection, especially when the submission of papers is deemed as mandatory, not voluntary.
  2. The violation of a students’ privacy—Even though the school district claims the submissions are anonymous, by virtue of the password authentication process through an off-site server, students still have to input their email addresses and names.
  3. The violation of intellectual property laws—Mandatory submission of student papers helps build Turnitin.com’s database without any monetary compensation. Although licensing fees are paid for professional articles that are contained within the database, students’ papers are obtained with no compensation even though they add considerably to the products’ profitability. Furthermore, although these high school students digitally sign a “consent” form as they have their papers submitted, they are in fact “signing” these consents under duress, i.e., under penalty of getting a zero, and by virtue of their status as minors, lack capacity to enter into a binding contract.
DEVELOPMENTS

On October 16, John Barrie attended a McLean High School Parent Teacher Student Association (PTSA) meeting to address the Turnitin.com concerns, although from student and parent reports, he did not do so satisfactorily, instead saying things like “[I]f Harvard, Yale, and other Ivy League schools use it, it certainly can’t be bad,” and denying that there were any intellectual property issues involved with the use of his product. In fact, at that time, most (or all) of the Ivy League Schools had not adopted Turnitin because they felt it created a culture of mistrust. Soon after this date, however, Harvard became the first Ivy League school to announce that they were going to adopt Turnitin, albeit on a pilot basis. None of the other schools has yet adopted the service.

A local attorney, Robert Vanderhye, offered to represent the McLean Committee for Student Rights and subsequently sent a detailed letter dated November 15, 2006, to John Barrie requesting that if/when students submitted any of their papers to Turnitin.com, Barrie would agree to remove those student papers from its database within a week of the paper’s submittal. If they would not, Vanderhye’s clients would sue iParadigms. The attorney received a phone call from iParadigms in response to the letter, indicating they were not going to respond to the request. Vanderhye’s clients then filed suit in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia, for copyright infringement. Barrie’s company promptly followed up the request with a countersuit against the high school student committee, but when a reporter from the Washington Post called Barrie to seek information about this countersuit, he replied, “What suit?” (Donovan, 2007). It was found that the countersuit was actually dismissed on December 20.

Back in McLean High School, the PTSA Executive Board asked the principal for an update on the Turnitin situation. In a letter dated December 21, 2006, Principal Paul Wardinski reported to them that:

Mr. Vanderhye sent several letters threatening to bring a lawsuit for damages and injunctive relief against Turnitin if the company did not acquiesce in Mr. Vanderhye’s legal interpretation, and if it did not withdraw the students’ papers from the Turnitin database.

From the correspondence we have seen, it appears that Turnitin engaged in settlement discussions with Mr. Vanderhye and the Committee and proposed a technical solution to the school’s primary concern. . .

The letter, which is posted on a site called DontTurnItIn.com that contains most of the pertinent data related to this situation, goes into more depth (Wardinski, 2006), but, according to a letter written in response to Wardinski’s, (Donovan, Bouchard, Gayer, and Kaylor, 2007) much of the information contained in it was misleading or inaccurate. At another McLean High School PTSA meeting in early 2007, another representative from the school district came to address more questions the two letters had raised, scolding the parents for harping on the issue, and dismissing their concerns by saying that they shouldn’t get upset at the principal’s letter because he didn’t even write it himself. Many of the parents were shocked at this statement because “the whole debate is about academic integrity and here he is saying the writer of the first letter didn’t even write it himself and he’s telling us we shouldn’t worry about the whole issue” (personal communication, Rose Donovan, March 17, 2007).

A major help to anyone wanting to find out more details about this situation is a very nicely done web site that one or more of the parents of the students involved with the Committee on Students’ Rights helped establish called dontturnitin.com. In addition to the “Welcome” page as a home page showing an overview of the situation, the site features pages that contain “Links and Other Information,” “What is turnitin.com?,” “Primary Issues,” and “How You Can Help.” The “Links” page is especially useful for its breakdown into documents and links marked “From the Students’ Perspective,” “From the McLean High School Administration and PTSA,” “From the Press,” “From Parents and Counsel,” From turnitin.com,” and “Additional Links about turnitin.com.”

RELATED EVENTS and DISCUSSIONS

About the same time that all this was going on, starting in mid-September, a small number of members from the CCCC-IP Caucus was finalizing its statement regarding recommendations about academic integrity and the use of plagiarism detection services, a statement that had been presented to the Caucus earlier that year in draft form at the 2006 CCCC. The statement is posted online at http://ccccip.org/files/CCCC-IP-PDS-Statement-final.pdf as a link connected to the CCCC-IP blog.

At Grand Valley State University, Charlie Lowe, and two other writing professors developed a statement for their faculty, outlining concerns they had with the adoption of turnitin technology at GVSU. Brock Read’s article of  Sept. 19 in Chronicle of Higher Education and in The Wired Campus blog, “The Pros and Cons of Turnitin” mentions their statement, as well as a lengthy blog entry and comments with responses section, starting with a post by Michael Bruton, who works for iParadigms helping schools install and implement Turnitin.com. This thread was one of the most open discussion forums to date between compositionists and PDSs advocates. The School Library Journal reported (Oleck, 2006) that the University of Kansas at Lawrence was not renewing their subscription to Turnitin because of faculty’s negative reactions and IP concerns.

At George Mason University, the journal Inventio: Creative Thinking about Learning and Teaching published a feature webtext article in their Fall 2006 issue called “(Mis)Trusting Technology that Polices Integrity: A Critical Assessment of Turnitin.com” (Donnelly, et. al, 2006).  The authors explore many of the same issues about consent and intellectual property that concern the students and parents at McLean High School.

A few more dubious contributions to the McLean High School situation and issues surrounding it include an unsigned article on a site called EssayFraud.org dated October 20, 2006 called “Guilty Until Proven Innocent: The Well-Known Secret about Turnitin.com.” At almost all the blog sites that mentioned these issues about this time or a little after, someone named Dan pointed out this article and its link to others. It may or may not be a coincidence that Dan is the name of one of the students on the Committee for Students’ Rights, but the lack of attribution on the EssayFraud.org page anywhere makes it difficult to include within a serious bibliography on the subject. Nevertheless, the article is pretty well researched.

This spring, in the online version of BusinessWeek, Doug MacMillan’s article (2007) mentioned a backlash against Turnitin.com from McLean High School students, citing privacy and intellectual property concerns. The CCCC-IP and our statement addressing plagiarism detection services were mentioned in the article, along with a (mis)quote from Michael Day, which prompted him to write a public apology on the CCCC-IP blog.  If journalists can eventually translate our viewpoints translated clearly and correctly in the mainstream press, we might be better able to maintain momentum and visibility. Even so, it’s possible that “the only bad publicity is no publicity.”

IMPLICATIONS FOR COMPOSITIONISTS AND RESEARCHERS

Being able to articulate our positions in sound-bite or quote-tidbit formats might be useful in the future when or if we are asked by the press to comment on current events such as these. We must be ready to anticipate journalists’ needs and their impossibly speeded-up timetables, or else they will seek out someone else who may offer a different viewpoint than ours.

Other more direct and easy-to-control avenues for our opinions are in blog discussions and  statements we author at our schools. As noted in the citations below, all three of the blogs cited above in the second paragraph posted entries the same morning the Washington Post article came out, and time was of the essence in posting blog entries and comments as all these events were taking place. Charlie Lowe, Karen Lunsford, and others urged members of the CCCC-IP listserv to jump in to the discussions with both feet. “Now would be a great time to join these conversations, post on your own blogs, send in materials to discussion lists, etc. The PDS issue is particularly important for the Caucus, as we have a document regarding PDSs currently posted for your final review…” urged Karen Lunsford in an email message on Sept. 21, 2006. So, we have to be poised to respond quickly and well to speak to these issues on any and all venues, both globally and locally. Charlie Lowe suggested we could be reaching “critical mass” as we make these voices heard. Journalists read these blogs and comments as well as scour the Internet for pertinent materials we could post, so we should take advantage of these writing situations.

Rose Donovan, mother of one of the most vocal members of the Committee for Students’ Rights at McLean High School, asked beseechingly one of the most important questions that might help bolster our claims: is there any research out there on plagiarism or plagiarists or use of plagiarism detection services vs. teaching to prevent plagiarism (i.e. instead of deterring with technology)? James Purdy’s (2005) article in Pedagogy, “Calling Off the Hounds: Technology and Visibility of Plagiarism”  is one such example of research involving PDSs, but more research needs to be done. The CCCC-IP Statement urges compositionists to:

[C]onduct empirical studies to explore the effects of available
strategies—including PDSs, pedagogy, and honor codes—on students’ ethical writing from sources. Such studies need to explore whether or how PDSs, pedagogy, and honor codes produce results such as these:

  • Students’ proficiency and confidence as writers;
  • Students’ understanding of what they can gain from completing their writing assignments;
  • Students’ sense of investment in and commitment to doing their own writing;
  • Students’ understanding of what constitutes plagiarism and ethical writing in a variety of contexts;
  • Students’ commitment to establishing a community of integrity and mutual trust;
  • Reduced incidence of cheating and fraud.

These research imperatives need to be explored more urgently than ever. Meanwhile, we need to stay alert to what is happening around us and ready to act. This has been an exciting year; 2007 may hold even more opportunities.

RELEVANT SOURCES

Bruton, Michael (2006, Sept. 15). Turnitin’s response to recent posts concerning proper pedagogy. Kairos News. Retrieved October 16, 2006 from http://kairosnews.org.

CCCC-IP Caucus recommendations regarding academic integrity and the use of plagiarism detection services (2007, March). Caucus on Intellectual Property and Composition/Communication Studies. Retrieved March 17, 2007 from http://ccccip.org/files/CCCC-IP-PDS-Statement-final.pdf

Carvin, Andy. (2006, Sept. 22). The politics of plagiarism detection services. Learning.now. PBS Teachers. Retrieved March 17, 2007 from http://www.pbs.org/teachers/learning.now/.

Donnelly, Michael, et al. (2006, Fall). (Mis)trusting technology that polices integrity: A critical assessment of Turnitin.com. Inventio, 8(1). Retrieved February 11, 2007 from http://www.doit.gmu.edu/inventio/issues/Fall_2006/Donnelly_1.html.

dontturnitin.com. (2007). A forum for McLean High School parents & students. Retrieved February 25, 2007 from http://www.dontturnitin.com/

Glod, Maria. (2006, Sept. 22). Students rebel against database designed to thwart plagiarists. [Electronic version]. Washington Post, p. A01.

Hoffman, Tom. (2006, Sept. 22). Turnitin vs. student intellectual property rights. Ed-Tech Insider. Retrieved March 17, 2007 from http://www.eschoolnews.com/eti/index.php.

MacMillan, Douglas. (2007, March 13). Looking over Turnitin’s shoulder. BusinessWeek.com Retrieved March 13, 2007 from http://www.businessweek.com/print/technology/content/mar2007/tc20070313.htm

Oleck, Joan. (2006, Oct. 4). Students claim Turnitin violates intellectual property rights. School Library Journal. Retrieved March 17, 2007 from http://www.schoollibraryjournal.com/article/CA6377874.html.

Purdy, James. (2005). Calling off the hounds: Technology and the visibility of plagiarism. Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture,5 (2), 275-295.

Read, Brock. (2006, Sept. 22). Taking a hard line on Turnitin. The Wired Campus. Retrieved March 17, 2007 from http://chronicle.com/wiredcampus/.

The well-known secret about Turnitin.com. (2006, Oct. 20). EssayFraud.org. Retrieved March 17, 2007 from http://www.essayfraud.org/turnitin_john_barrie.html

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