Turnitin controversy brings legal discussion

Source: thevarsity.ca

Recently, several students have expressed concern over the use of the common essay submission website, Turnitin.

Teachers have students submit their work on this website because part of the service is to provide a plagiarism check – it compares students’ essays to each other, as well as to popular online sources.  This function has served as a catalyst for controversy.

Some students have expressed concerns about the teachers as well as the site itself; they argue that teachers should not be allowed to penalize students who refuse to turn their work in on Turnitin.

The main concern, however, was that it is a violation of their intellectual property rights because the user code does not give specific guidelines of how their work will be used after it is stored in a repertory to check against other students, nor does it seem to explicitly guarantee that this is the only way the intellectual property will be used.

In the aftermath of this controversy, David Oar, librarian, and Myra Van Vactor, copyright officer and Dean of the Library Media Center, set up a phone conversation so they and interested teachers could voice the concerns of the students and discuss the user code and other issues with Angela Rhee, a legal representative of Turnitin.

Turnitin is a service paid for by Bellevue College itself, and the librarians are charged of managing it for the campus. Two teachers also attended: Judy Woo from the Business program and Scott Bessho from English.

After hearing the situation of intellectual property concerns, Rhee said, “We don’t own, as far as intellectual property goes, any papers.” She went on to explain how Turnitin is a service paid for by the institution, and they save papers in a repertoire for a specific school in order to prevent students from reusing papers in different classes.

“We do know that there are some papers that are being recycled,” said Van Vactor. She explained that it was important to know when students were reusing papers from old classes in order to cheat doing the work in a current one, and Turnitin was the service BC used to perform that check.

Oar went over the user agreement clause-by-clause with Rhee, since that seemed to be the primary concern – “We’re not able to ensure them that it’s not going somewhere beyond the immediate usage,” he explained to her. After hearing explanations for all questionable clauses, he said, “Turnitin’s legal language is appropriate for their service.”

Rhee explained that they had checked the legality of their intellectual property very thoroughly. “But there is a difference between what is legal and what is acceptable to the users,” Rhee had conceded when told about the students.

However, one of the concerns was not one that could be addressed by Turnitin. The website was within its legal rights to store essays in a repertory – in fact, it’s legal even to have a paper go into the database without a direct student agreement, although it can be deleted by instructors.

Despite being asked by Oar, Rhee could offer no official opinion on one of the questions: Should students be allowed to refuse to submit their work to Turnitin? Rhee was clear in saying that the decision as one for the institution itself. “We’re really just working for the institution,” she said. She suggested that students should ask their instructors to delete their essay at the end of the quarter if they were still concerned about Turnitin’s legal ground with storing essays for plagiarism checks.

Van Vactor explained that the plagiarism check, while the most famous use of the site, was not the only one. “The purpose of this is to really help the students,” she said.

The service, in addition to checking plagiarism, also scans grammar and run-on sentences and offers suggestions for how students can improve their paper. Some teachers will even select an option to allow a student to look at these suggestions before submitting a final draft. It serves as a writing tool as well as a plagiarism check.

Although the teachers have observed that not many students take advantage of this function, “I‘ve told students it’s a good tool, but in the 600 students I’ve taught only one has gone back to look at the report,” said Woo.

Oar added, “This is really a service that has value in learning. The reason we’re here is to protect the students.”