Anger, confusion still mark battle over plagiarism service

Turnitin.com sparked controversy when it was implemented at Dalhousie in 2002. Seven years later, a student group is launching a new campaign against it. But Dalhousie is still steadfast in the service’s value.

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A SMAC poster displayed at a coffee shop near Dalhousie campus. Photo: Peter Saltsman.

A SMAC poster displayed at a coffee shop near Dalhousie campus. Photo: Peter Saltsman.

Eli Burnstein walked into the Dalhousie philosophy department looking for a free bagel. What he got was a surprise.

The straight-A student and last year's class valedictorian was told that he was suspected of plagiarism. The university had submitted his final undergraduate paper to a plagiarism detection service it subscribes to called turnitin.com. The automated service flagged some passages as being copied verbatim from another source.

The only thing is that the other source was Dostoyevsky himself. And the passage in question was between quotation marks.

"I was confused," he said. "It seemed like the machine of turnitin, at least at times, fails to consider things like context and, say, the function of two apostrophes placed next to one another."

Ultimately Burnstein's professor realized the mistake. But he's just one of many students at Dalhousie who have had problems with turnitin.com. His paper wouldn't have been considered plagiarism had he not been required by his professor to submit it to the online service.

And that's getting one group of people on campus all riled up.

Laying the SMAC down

Students Moblize for Action on Campus is a student group at Dalhousie that objects to the university's agreements with multinational corporations that affect student life. It wants to see turnitin.com banned from the university and has started a poster campaign throughout Halifax urging students to join its cause.

"While we acknowledge that plagiarism is not acceptable and should be dealt with, presuming the guilt of students is not an acceptable means to monitor academic integrity," says Laura Merdsoy of SMAC.

Merdsoy also takes issue with turnitin.com's intellectual property policies, saying the service retains papers in the United States and effectively owns students' original material.

Turnitin.com is a product of California information-tracking company iParadigm. It sells its service to colleges around the world, which agree to upload student papers and allow iParadigm to keep them in its database. When a paper is submitted, it is scanned against those papers as well as primary sources. If there's a match, it's allegedly plagiarism.

The group wants the Dalhousie Student Union to toughen its stance on turnitin.com, if not ban it altogether. But the union isn't as radical about the issue.

"The Dalhousie Student Union is against the mandatory nature of turnitin.com," says Vice President (Education) Rob LeForte. "Instead of having something like turnitin.com that presumes guilt, we would absolutely love to see the school take more progressive steps on educating students on intellectual honesty issues."

LeForte says he would like to see an opportunity for students to opt-out if they disagree with turnitin.com's policies. But he also says banning turnitin.com won't solve any problems. Students, he says, don't know enough about the service - or academic integrity more generally.

Students need to learn not to plagiarize

LeForte is organizing a panel that will give presentations on academic integrity to students beginning Monday, Nov. 2.

"We've always felt it's been more important to educate rather than punish," says Nowakowski, Academic Information Literacy Coordinator at the library, who will also be on the panel. "So they understand what their responsibilities are and hope that they learn that it's an important part of being part of the academic community to be ethical."

Dalhousie says many students who don't understand plagiarism, don't understand turnitin.com.

Papers aren't stored in the United States anymore, not since the Patriot Act put Canadian data in jeopardy, says Phil O'Hara of Academic Computing Services, who maintains the technical side of turnitin.com at Dal. The Patriot Act allows U.S. investigators to apply to a U.S. court to obtain any information it deems necessary in a terrorist or intelligence investigation.

O'Hara says turnitin.com is safe. The papers are kept under a series of encryptions barring access to them. Nobody sees or uses the papers unless they match another submission. And Dalhousie is leading an initiative to remove names from papers altogether, which should be up and running shortly.

Other colleges have rejected the service

Harvard ,Yale and Princeton have all refused to implement turnitin.com. So has Mount Saint Vincent. But Dalhousie isn't considering the move, says Nowakowski.

Those schools banned turnitin.com because it didn't fit their needs. But in statements released by each of those institutions that banned it, there is a sentiment that Dalhousie shares too.

"Turnitin was just seen as a tool to help faculty," says Nowakowski.

O'Hara says about 10 per cent of Dalhousie faculty use the online service, which is an application in the online Blackboard Learning System used in most university classes.

Turnitin.com was implemented in 2002 to help alleviate the pressures of policing academic integrity issues, says Nowakowski.

The 2001 committee on academic integrity included student representation, not just faculty and administration. And that same committee also asked for academic integrity officers in each faculty. That means professors can deal directly with the students in question, instead of immediately turning cases over to a senate committee.

It also means professors have more time to do what they're hired to do: teach.

"It's just an organized way of doing what you can do with a Google search and copy and paste. It's just a way to streamline it and make it more efficient," says O'Hara.

"The inefficiencies of having to police these things if you don't have tools are taking time away from faculty that should be spending time with the students that will never cheat," says O'Hara.

And while cases such as Burnstein's illustrate flaws in the system, it also illustrates the tone the university wants to set for its academic community.

"(Policing plagiarism is) so counter to what we're about," says O'Hara. "We're about trying to empower people to make a difference in the world...So we need to make sure that the ethics around that is as high as it can possibly be.."

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