Debate over Turnitin.com and students’ copyright brought to life at City College

Johan Hammerby and Johan Hammerby

Turnitin.com, an Internet plagiarism detection service used by City College, has debunked concerns from students and teachers regarding the company possibly taking over the copyrights of student work.

The debate, spanning many years, was brought to life at City College after a letter to the editor in the April 20 edition of The Channels, caused people to start questioning the rules for Turnitin.com.

But in the license agreement everyone signs when clicking “I Agree” during the creation of an account states “This license does not include any right to use ideas set forth in papers submitted to the site.” The only materials owned by iParadigms, Turnitin’s parent company, are emails and comments submitted to the site, but not anything uploaded for educational purposes.

“We do not want to create problems for students,” Angela Rhee said, director of business affairs for iParadigms. “This is for people who want to be better writers.

“We included a line in that section in the User Agreement explicitly excluding ideas in any papers submitted to the site,” Rhee added. “Students do not surrender any copyright by submitting their papers to Turnitin, and use of Turnitin does not violate copyright either.”

The issue isn’t new. In 2007, two students from McLean High School in Virginia and two from Desert Vista High School in Arizona sued iParadigms for copyright infringement. The judge ruled in favor of iParadigms, because the students had clicked the “I Agree” button, and thereby agreed to everything stated in the agreement license. Also, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled in favor of iParadigms.

Doug Hersh, dean for educational programs, had also heard the rumors of Turnitin.com taking over the students’ copyrights.

“This spring I raised the issue of student concern over Turnitin at the Instructional Technology Committee,” Hersh said. “One instructor noted that he does not use Turnitin because he finds Google more powerful. In essence, he seemed to suggest that whatever he could do though Turnitin, he could do with Google.”

Therefore, before he decided if the school should renew the license, Hersh called iParadigms to clear things up. And he was satisfied with his answers.

“As I understand it, the following aspect of the Usage Policy refers only to ideas not contained in papers, e.g. ideas submitted about how to improve iParadigms’ services. Unless otherwise directed by the campus community, I intend to renew it.”

He said the rumor about iParadigms could be dismissed as just “an urban legend.” However, there is now another concern.

“I am concerned about the cost, and I have discussed with them, ways to reduce the renewal cost of 2011 in view of the current fiscal climate.”

The license previously cost $17,000, but it’s not yet decided what next years license will cost.

Each teacher can decide if they want to use Turnitin. One who doesn’t use it is Instructor Chella Courington teaches English 240, 270 and 111. She has a total of 140 students, and doesn’t like the whole idea of Turnitin in the first place.

“When you ask students to submit it to Turnitin.com, you are sending out the wrong message,” Courington said. “It sends out a message of ‘I don’t trust you,’ which goes against the basic law of innocent till you are proven guilty.

“As a writer, you are giving up the rights to your intellectual property,” Courington added. “They have it in their databases.”

She said there are other ways to look for plagiarism, like carefully reading each assignment manually.

“It’s not a big problem,” Courington said. “It is time consuming, but that’s why I’m here.”

One way of doing so is learning to see the voice students have in their writing.

“You will know if you work closely with the student.”

But there are both teachers and student in favor of Turnitin.

“I think it enforces a good system of acknowledging, borrowing, and building ideas on each other,” said City College student Landon Gail.

Gail has used Turnitin for both his Communication 288, and Political Science 101. He thinks the only students who are plagiarizing in their papers and essays are “the last minute students”.

“Turnitin.com really encourages citation of work,” Gail said. “As students, a lot of the more important thoughts on our subjects aren’t really our own, so we must cite where we got credit for it.”