Turnitin – issues, news, and training

You are likely familiar with Turnitin, the plagiarism detection and prevention tool that has been used at SNHU for the past six years or so. It is widely used by instructors to identify plagiarism but also to educate students on appropriate writing and citation. If you are not familiar with Turnitin, check out the Turnitin website or Instructional Support’s User Guide.

Between September 1, 2008 and April 21, 2009 546 instructors have used Turnitin to review 10,640 papers submitted by 4755 students. That’s a significant amount of usage! You can view more usage stats here.

The reason that I am writing about Turnitin today is threefold. First, as the Turnitin administrator for SNHU I have received a few questions in recent weeks that have bubbled up from a disgruntled instructor and a couple of unhappy students. These individuals, who I did not speak with directly or know by name, are unhappy with SNHU’s use of Turnitin. It appears to me that their complaints stem from a lack of understanding about what Turnitin actually does and how it is used at SNHU. I hope to clarify a few points.

Second, a federal appeals court recently affirmed that Turnitin does not violate the copyright of students (one of the complaints from topic #1).

Third, I want to make you aware of several training opportunities for Turnitin.

So here we go…

Topic #1: How is Turnitin used at SNHU?

Complaints about Turnitin are few and far between at SNHU but it seems that every couple of years we get one or two complaints about the use of this tool.

When an instructor has students submit their papers to Turnitin these papers are kept in a database so that they may be used for future comparisons. This is useful in preventing students from swapping/selling/reusing papers in violation of the academic honesty policy. Some individuals have a philosophical problem with this. They feel that Turnitin is profiting from students’ work and that is not appropriate. In one way Turnitin IS profiting from student work. The more papers cataloged in the database, the more comprehensive the plagiarism detection is. The more comprehensive the detection is, the more Turnitin is worth. While Turnitin may benefit financially, they are not doing so at the expense of the students. Turnitin is not using student work in any way that violates their copyright or prevents students from using their own work. Instructors that have a philosophical objection to Turnitin do not have to use the tool. The use of Turnitin is not required – it is a tool made available by SNHU to use at the instructor’s discretion.

If instructors do want to use Turnitin, I recommend making this known in the syllabus. I usually add the following two paragraphs to my Academic Honesty section. You will notice that the second paragraph provides an opt-out for students objecting to Turnitin. Just as instructors are not required to use Turnitin, we can’t mandate that students use it. For those that object, the alternate assignment is provided. In my six years using Turnitin I have not had a single student opt out and do the alternate assignment.

Turnitin.com will be used to review all papers submitted in this course.

Students agree that by taking this course all required papers are subject to submission for textual similarity review to Turnitin.com for the detection of plagiarism.  All submitted papers will be included as source documents in the Turnitin.com reference database solely for the purpose of detecting plagiarism of such papers.  Use of the Turnitin.com service is subject to the terms of use agreement posted on the Turnitin.com site.

Any student objecting to their work being submitted to Turnitin.com and being retained in the reference database must notify the instructor of their objections at least two weeks prior to the assignment due date. In lieu of submission to Turnitin.com for review the student must submit the following material along with the regular assignment, 1) a draft bibliography 1 week prior to submission of the assigned paper; and 2) the cover page and first cited page of each reference source with the final paper. These may be faxed or scanned and submitted via Blackboard. 3) for web-based resources: students must submit the URL and retrieval date of each page.

Turnitin has a fairly comprehensive usage policy and privacy pledge as well as a very detailed Student User Agreement that students accept prior to using Turnitin for the first time. All of this looks fairly straight-forward and not much different than other user agreements that we blindly accept every day. My conversations with Turnitin indicate that they value the privacy of student data and they only catalog papers in their database for the detection of plagiarism. I will note that a section of the Student User Agreement titled “License to Use Communications and Papers Submitted” stood out to me. This section seems a bit “strong” in its language but conversations with Turnitin staff have allayed my concerns. I have been told that Turnitin does not take any intellectual property rights from the student. While the papers are put into a database, the only two individuals that can access that paper are the student and the instructor of the class for which it was submitted. In no way does Turnitin claim any property rights to the paper content. I tend to believe that it is typical legal wording to cover all bases and is not intended to be detrimental to student’s rights.

I believe that Turnitin is a valuable tool and I will continue to use it in my classes. It provides excellent detection of plagiarism and is a great learning tool for students who can review their originality report to see where citations are needed. Turnitin also out-performs its nearest competitor in my side-by-side comparisons.

Topic #2: U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit upholds ruling in Turnitin’s favor

Without going into a lot of detail, a group of students sued Turnitin in 2007 arguing that Turnitin took their papers against their will, profited from using them, and violated their copyright. A lower court found in favor of Turnitin and this was affirmed by the Appellate Court. Use of Turnitin falls under the “Fair Use” provision of copyright law. You can read more about this decision at The Chronicle of Higher Educations Wired Campus site, the E-Commerce and Tech Law Blog, and if you want all the details – the Appellate Court Opinion.

Topic #3: Turnitin Training Opportunities

There are a number of training opportunities for Turnitin.

You can contact Instructional Support for individualized training sessions specific to your needs. One of the Instructional Support staff will meet with you and go over the creation of Turnitin assignments, review of Originality Reports, and more. Contact us to set up an appointment.

You can also watch Instructional Support’s short training videos.

Lastly, you can attend one of Turnitin’s online training sessions which are offered twice per day. Click here to view the schedule. Additionally, you can watch self-guided videos created by Turnitin.

Posted April 22, 2009 by Aaron Flint


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