Legal concerns force school to drop Turnitin

Mason High School has put the use of Turnitin, a computer program enlisted to check students’ work for plagiarism, temporarily on hold due to legal battles with the company across America. After researching the program for over a year, MHS legal counsel uncovered student copyright disputes with the site and its parent company, iParadigms.

According to Principal Dave Allen, the English department proposed Turnitin two years ago, hoping to end plagiarism as well as to teach students about cheating.

“They recognized there was a lot of plagiarism going on and there was an educational component that rolled out in the beginning of last year,” Allen said. “As part of that they wanted to take a look at that particular software to see if that could help educate students and eliminate some of the plagiarism that was going on.”

The program requires students to submit electronic copies of their work to Turnitin.com. The site compares the student papers to all others in the database, along with internet and print sources, searching for possible copied phrases. Teachers and students receive reports on the checked essays detailing the amount of plagiarized content.

Turnitin receives payment from schools per participant using the program, but does not compensate the students for the work that is essentially being paid for by other members. Multiple users are resisting the software since the papers are stored without paying the authors.

Students from McLean High School in McLean, Virginia and from Desert Vista High School in Phoenix, Arizona are suing the company because they think Turnitin initially presumes that students are guilty of plagiarism and violates copyrights. “Fair Use,” concerning the US Copyright Act, allows portions of authors’ work to be used without compensation, but Turnitin archives full papers without payment to authors.

John M. Barrie, President and CEO of iParadigms, told Education Week that he believes the use of student papers falls under “fair use,” because Turnitin is for educational purposes; does not change the material; and does not hurt the value of the work.

While deciding on the use of Turnitin, MHS took the arguments into consideration, concerned about the rights of students and their papers.

“When we were looking at doing it, we continued to seek information about the program, what it entailed, where exactly the papers would have been archived and who would have access to them,” Allen said. “If [the English department of MHS] can get to a place where we’re comfortable that we’re not putting the identities of our students or their work at risk and we feel safe about where their work is going, we would certainly reconsider [Turnitin].”

MHS is waiting for the verdict of the lawsuit against Turnitin. In the meantime, no other similar programs are being considered to quench plagiarism.

“There’s none out there, that we’re aware of, that we feel comfortable with at this time,”Allen said.

Published in The Chronicle (page 3) on December 14, 2007.

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