Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Guilty Until Proven Innocent

I had already planned to write a post about turnitin.com when I first came up with this assignment, so it was helpful that we discussed the issue of the site in class yesterday. A lot of my fellow classmates had the same thoughts as me, and we were able to discuss why we don’t like the service, and why it shouldn’t be used in schools.
Most university and college students are aware of the website turnitin.com and that it’s used for catching those students who take their essays directly from sources on the Internet. I’m assuming that most students first encountered Turnitin in first year, when most of us had no idea what was really going on and we were just going with the flow trying to survive this wild and crazy thing called university. I know that when I was asked to submit my first essay to Turnitin I didn’t think anything of it. It wasn’t until about second or third year that I realized that it is a ridiculous and almost insulting thing to ask students.
When we’re in first year, and sometimes still even in high school, the fear of plagiarism is instilled in us. We could fail the assignment, fail the class, get kicked out of the class, and even get thrown out of school. No one wants that, and most students are so scared that they don’t dare try plagiarising anything (which is really what we should all be doing anyways, but that’s beside the point). Once I realized that so many essays and assignments were submitted through turnitin.com I got to thinking about how many essays have been written on the same thing and if there are really that many different ways to say the same thing. I thought that most students would be given the benefit of the doubt, but as I learned in class yesterday, one of my classmates did receive a zero on an assignment because hers was similar to another student’s.
I’d like to know when the students became the bad guys. As one article that we read in class said, “They treat all students as through they are presumed guilty until they’re proven innocent.” By asking students to submit their essays to turnitin.com, professors are assuming that some, if not most, of us are going to cheat in some way. How ridiculous is that? We are, for the most part, good students, and good people, but Turnitin is making us out to be criminals. Just think about what the actual name of the company is – Turn It In, like turning in a felon. Great. Just the confidence boost we students need when we’re working our butts off on assignments and essays. I sometimes actually get offended when I’m asked to use the site, especially now that I’m in fourth year. I had a third year class last semester and we were required to submit our essays. I was actually surprised that we were being asked to do this in an upper year class because I figured by now we should have gained the trust of our professors – after all, we are all still in school.
Another factor that some people may not think about, I know I didn’t until class yesterday, is that we are giving up our rights on those submitted papers. By doing so, turnitin.com is basically saying, “Oh don’t worry, you don’t need to worry about copyright issues because you’re never going to get published.” Again, thanks for the confidence. Glad to know you’re looking out for our best interests.
On Turnitin’s legal site, the first question asked is whether or not using this software is infringing upon student’s copyrights. This is their response:

“Determining whether a copyright exists in a particular work or is infringed by a particular use of the work is difficult. The analysis is so fact-specific that relatively minor variations between the facts of superficially similar cases often lead to diametrically different conclusions.
As such, casual analysis of these issues will not suffice, especially when the use in question is novel, as is the TURNITIN system for plagiarism detection. For that reason, iParadigms, the owner of the Turnitin system, and its sister site, plagiarism.org, sought expert legal advice before launching the TURNITIN system, and have continued to do so during its operation. Based on extensive analysis of all aspects of the TURNITIN system, we have concluded that its use does not pose a significant risk of infringement of any copyright in written works submitted to Turnitin for evaluation.”
Now I don’t know about you guys but I don’t consider that a very good explanation.
The document goes on to explain why the owners of turnitin.com are not the bad guys that the media and lawsuits have made them out to be. At least, it tries to explain. Skimming through the document led me to think that they are just trying to save themselves and prove why they should still be used in schools.
One of the other big things about Turnitin is that it assumes that cheating happens because of the Internet. The site can only check what is either from websites, or books that have been entered into the system. In other words, if it’s not online, Turnitin can’t check it. As my professor pointed out to us yesterday, this is making a social and cultural problem and turning into a technological one. We may be very technologically savvy students now, but that doesn’t mean technology has an iron grip on us and we are incapable of using other means to do schoolwork. Turnitin is a real life example of technological determinism. We are letting this technology decide how our society is run, and that is not a good thing, especially not in this case.
There is always the option of not submitting an assignment to turnitin.com, which my professor mentioned in yesterday’s class, citing a student from McGill, Jesse Rosenfeld, who refused to do so. When that was brought up however, my professor was met with “but he got a zero!” from pretty much everyone in the class. Wikipedia said that Rosenfeld eventually won his case, but will that have even affected turnitin.com? It’s doubtful. This example shows that we may be upset and irritated by the use of Turnitin, but for most of us it’s just not worth it to fight. Perhaps if more students were educated about the issues surrounding copyright and intellectual property then there may be more of a response to discontinuing the use of Turnitin. In the meantime, I hope that more professors realize that they should start out trusting their students and only resort to these sorts of measures if cheating is suspected. After all, we really are good people just paying way too much money to learn :)

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