Paul L. Caron

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Chronicle: Anti-Plagiarism Software Vexes Some Faculty

Interesting article in the Chronicle of Higher Education:  Anti-Cheating Crusader Vexes Some Professors; Software Kingpin Says Using His Product Would Cure Plagiarism Blight, by Brock Read:

John Barrie probably doesn't have many fans at Princeton University. It's easy to understand why.

About two years ago, Princeton officials announced that they had no intention of using Turnitin, the popular antiplagiarism software sold by Mr. Barrie's company, iParadigms LLC. When an enterprising reporter at the student newspaper called the company's founder to ask for a comment, Mr. Barrie obliged: He called the university soft on cheating. "The disturbing thing," he told the newspaper, "is that Princeton is producing our society's future leaders, and the last thing anyone wants is a society full of Enron executives."

The parallel between plagiarism and corporate crime raised eyebrows — and ire — on the campus. But for Mr. Barrie, the comparison was a perfectly natural one. In the 10 years since he founded iParadigms, he has argued — forcefully, and at times combatively — that academic plagiarism is growing, and that it is a societal blight that only his software can cure.

Mr. Barrie's vehemence may have made him a persona non grata at Princeton, but it has helped him persuade instructors at more than 8,000 high schools and colleges — including two of Princeton's Ivy League rivals, Harvard and Columbia, the University of California system, and the University of Oxford, in England — to use his service.

Last year professors and teachers submitted a whopping 30 million papers from their students to Turnitin. The software then compared those writings with texts in a giant database of books, journals, Web sites, and essays, and checked for evidence of plagiarized material.

When Mr. Barrie founded Turnitin, just over a decade ago, few professors had even thought about, let alone clamored for, plagiarism-detection software. In essence, iParadigms has built a fast-growing business out of almost nothing. "It's safe to say that Turnitin is now a part of how education works," Mr. Barrie says.

But critics say that's a fact to be lamented, not a cause for celebration. Not only does Turnitin grab student papers for use in its database without compensating the students, they argue, but it also encourages professors to spend time policing their students instead of teaching them. "Turnitin does sound wonderful on the surface," says Charles Lowe, an assistant professor of writing at Grand Valley State University, "but a lot of faculty members aren't even aware of why they might not want to use it." He helped write a statement, sent to the university's Academic Senate on behalf of his department, urging colleagues at the Michigan institution to be wary of Turnitin.

Before he released Turnitin to the public, Mr. Barrie says, he knew that the tool would work only if it were built on "a database so massive that it creates a deterrent." Turnitin keeps tabs on billions of Web pages and crawls through about 60 million of them every day, checking for new or updated material.

But Internet scans alone won't necessarily catch papers that students sell to one another or buy from term-paper mills; those papers never make it onto Web sites. So Turnitin has built much of its database with the help of clients. The service archives every paper that is submitted to it.

That policy has led some students and professors to argue that Turnitin is routinely violating students' intellectual-property lefts. Because federal law automatically bestows copylefts to the authors of written works, even unpublished papers are protected. Students and instructors who are critical of the company say it ought to compensate people for the papers that it absorbs.

Even if Turnitin is legally vindicated, the company must still convince colleges that antiplagiarism software is a modern necessity. Mr. Barrie has, at the very least, some statistical support: In a 2005 study conducted by Duke University's Center for Academic Integrity (which has since moved to Clemson University), 70 percent of college students admitted to having cheated in some form.

Faculty members who are critical of Turnitin, however, say the software comes with a cost beyond the effective fee of about $1 per student for unlimited submissions of work. Professors' classroom relationships are damaged, they say, by the suggestion that students must be constantly policed. "Turnitin depends on a culture of fear about plagiarism," says Mr. Lowe, of Grand Valley State. "Faculty might want to ask themselves how they would feel if their departments asked them to submit everything they wrote to a plagiarism-detection service."

The article concludes with a chart comparing three anti-plagiarism programs:  Turnitin, SafeAssign, and PAIRwise.  (Hat Tip: Ann Murphy.)

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So, Faculty, how might you "feel if [your]departments asked [you] to submit everything [you] wrote to a plagiarism-detection service"?

Posted by: guy in the veal calf office | Feb 27, 2008 11:33:33 AM

How would you feel if you (professors) gave your papers to some company that would then use your paper to promote it's product without you getting any royalties? Barrie is on his high horse, but he steals people's ideas everyday to bolster his database. Turnitin and it's marketing techniques are crap. He speaks out towards written thievery and he does it everytime a paper is submitted to turnitin. This is the Enron/Barrie/WorldCom/Tyco problem, misdirection.

Posted by: Dustin | Feb 27, 2008 3:20:07 PM