“On average—across millions of papers analyzed—12 percent to 14 percent of the papers received by institutions from students contain [at least] 50 percent … unoriginal material when institutions start using Turnitin,” said Katie Povejsil, vice president of marketing for iParadigms, the company that produces Turnitin. “After several years of using Turnitin, 5 percent to 6 percent of the papers are turned in with [at least] 50 percent … unoriginal material.”
Povejsil noted that unoriginal material is not necessarily plagiarized, but a paper in which at least 50 percent of its content is unoriginal material is likely to be problematic in some way.
“The instructor viewing the originality report is the one who has to determine if the matches are due to lack of skills or an intent to deceive,” she said.
Many school districts that use Turnitin ask students to submit papers directly to Turnitin.com, where their papers are analyzed and stored in the database.
In 2008, a federal district court judge threw out a lawsuit against the online plagiarism detection service, ruling the web site does not violate copyright laws.
U.S. District Court Judge Claude M. Hilton ruled that unauthorized use of copyrighted work for news reporting, comment, and teaching did not constitute copyright infringement. In his opinion, Hilton said that although Turnitin profits from compiling a database of student works, the web site “provides a substantial public benefit through the network of educational institutions.”
But some continue to question the use of technological means as a way to combat plagiarism.
“I don’t approve of minors being forced by their schools to use for-profit services that necessarily strip the children of their intellectual property rights,” said intellectual property lawyer Stephen Sharon. “There is no question that plagiarism exists and that sites like Turnitin can help reduce its popularity, but the immeasurable cost in doing so is too high in my opinion.”
Sharon said instead of placing the burden on the students, teachers should improve the way they go about instruction.
“Teachers aren’t promoting creativity as much as they used to,” he said.
Teachers need to encourage more drafts and outlines and follow the development of the paper as it happens, Sharon said.
Turnitin gives school districts the option to avoid having students’ papers added to the database, though he said very few schools choose to do so.
“But I do think that the originality report can be a teaching tool for students who are unaware they are plagiarizing,” he said.
This is something Mervin Bitikofer said he has seen in his math and science classes at Flint Hills Christian School in Kansas. Flint Hills has used OpenDNS’s Academic Fraud Filtering option for the past four months.
“While I’m not an English teacher here, I still give writing assignments in my classes, and students have become so comfortable in the copy-and-paste world of the web that I have personally observed students unintentionally plagiarizing or making poor judgments, just from being uninformed about it or thinking that it is … the ‘norm’ for how people use each other’s work,” he said.
He said OpenDNS’s filter provides an initial barrier and gives students a warning that teachers “do not want unscrupulous parties cheating our students out of the growth that comes from crafting one’s own words skillfully and ethically, not to mention developing an honest work ethic that is increasingly rare.”
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