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July 13, 2010 11:25 AM Some Schools Resist Anti-Cheating Software

By Paul Craft

Last week Trip Gabriel wrote in the New York Times about the increasingly high-tech methods employed by universities to catch cheating students. Fifty-five percent of Universities use anti-plagiarism websites, according a study cited by the article.

But some universities have resisted the rising popularity—from around 6,000 client institutions in 2006 to over 9,000 in 2010—of anti-cheating software like Turnitin.com , the most popular anti-plagiarism service.

With Turnitin students submit their papers to the website, which then checks the paper against a database of billions of web pages and millions of papers for plagiarism. But in the eyes of some universities, forcing all students to use Turnitin runs counter to their trust and expectation of high-quality work.

Princeton University, for example, has consciously avoided using anti-cheating software and instead stressed the importance of its Honor Code, a pledge of honesty signed by Princeton students after every paper and exam. Emily Aronson, Princeton University spokesperson, wrote in an email to the College Guide that,

The University at several points in the past years has explored electronic programs that would detect plagiarism, most recently in the winter of 2006, and our position to not adopt this kind of software remains the same. We have at every point maintained that centrally adopting this kind of software sends a message to our students that is not one that we want to send. We don’t want to presume that they aren’t approaching their work honestly. We want to presume that they’re behaving with integrity.

She added that the turnitin.com is “not fool proof” and, anyway, Princeton is “Uncomfortable asking our students to take their own intellectual property and submit it over to a private company.”

Cornell University shares this concern. . Back in 2001, Cornell’s legal team, at the urging of then Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Isaac Kramnick, decided that the University could not force students to submit their original - and therefore copyrighted - academic material to the website. Alternately, individual professors could employ the anti-cheating website for their class, as long as they told students at the beginning of the course. Cornell continues to abide by this policy.

Cornell’s position mirrors a copyright-infringement lawsuit from several years ago, A.V. et al v. iParadigms, filed by a number of high school students who claimed that Turnitin violated their copyright material. In 2009, the 4th Circuit of Appeals rejected the students’ copyright infringement claims, concluding that Turnitin met the four bench marks to qualify for the “fair use” of copyrighted materials.

In contrast to Princeton and Cornell, Harvard College centrally adopted the online tool several years ago. For years, Harvard sounded like Cornell or Princeton, telling Bloomberg News in 2006 that the website was both unnecessary given campus culture and in violation of students copyright. But that same year, Harvard College quietly signed a contract with Turnitin and began adopting it on a department-by-department basis.

Harvard’s decision to use Turnitin speaks to a larger trend: today’s universities are struggling to keep pace with tech-savvy cheaters by renting tech savviness from private companies. In a world of nearly limitless potential to plagiarize, Turnitin’s growing popularity makes sense.

But this new way approach to catching cheaters comes at a price, as Princeton’s spokesperson pointed out: schools now assume students are guilty until proven innocent.

Paul Craft is an intern at the Washington Monthly.

Comments

  • Nexdec on July 18, 2010 4:14 PM:

    Kudos to schools like Princeton University. Aside from the obvious copyright issue and negative messaging, there is an additional, and apparently overlooked, "glitch" with "anti-cheating" services such as the one mentioned in this article.

    Hundreds, if not thousands, of public high schools in the US have now contracted with anti-plagiarism companies (at an annual cost of thousands of dollars to taxpayers). But, in order for a student to register to use the service, they must sign a statement, on the anti-plagiarism website, that says they are 18 years of age, or have received parental consent. Remember, most high school students don't turn 18 until late in their senior year, or freshman year in college; a fact that should be quite obvious to a company that is trying to stop cheating and promote good moral behavior.

    So the 15 year old sophomore walks into class the first day of school and the teacher hands him/her a form (along with many others they receive those first few days) with instructions how to register for this anti-cheating program, and threatening penalties if registration is not complete. Now, if we give the teachers and the students the benefit of the doubt, the only way the teacher would know that his students are not eligible to use the service in the first place, would be if an administrator or one of their colleagues told them, or they delved deeply into the online "fine print", something that kids certainly don't do, and probably not teachers. And worse yet, parents are not made aware of the program's usage by the school district, or the rules governing their consent requirement, nor do parents need to sign the form that the teacher sends home.

    The student goes home, fills out the online registration, clicks the box and hits "send", and everybody is happy. The registration is complete and the school district gets to use the service they paid for, even though their students are not eligible according to the company's own rules.

    So the issue for me is an ethical one. Here we are talking about companies whose sole purpose for existence is to catch cheaters. Yet they seem to have little if any moral conscience selling their service to school districts whose population largely consists of underage students who don't meet the terms of their own contract. So who is cheating who (or whom)?

    Any thoughts? What am I missing?

  • John Biles on July 20, 2010 2:42 AM:

    Given that I had to bust 10% of my students for plagiarism during this summer session and typically bust about 5% for plagiarism during the regular semester, I find turnitin.com to be invaluable.

    Honor codes, in my experience, won't stop a single person from cheating who would have cheated without it.