A group of students have finally lost their case against plagiarism detection service Turnitin with the judgement that Turnitin does not breach students’ copyright by retaining copies of submitted essays. In particular, The Chronicle reports that
the district-court judge said Turnitin’s actions fell under fair use, ruling that the company ‘makes no use of any work’s particular expressive or creative content beyond the limited use of comparison with other works.’ He also said the new use ‘provides a substantial public benefit.’
While the reasoning is clear, I have always felt a bit uncomfortable about the tension between the undoubted benefits to be gained from Turnitin and the fact that, as a commercial company, Turnitin’s parent company iParadigms is undeniably profiting, albeit indirectly, from other people’s intellectual property. However, institutions frequently claim IPR rights to their students’ work, and understandably see considerable benefits from requiring the submission of essays to Turnitin.
Plagiarism is undoubtedly a serious issue facing HE, but I think my biggest issue with this is the way in which so many institutions choose to use Turnitin exclusively as a tool to detect and evidence plagiarism. There is an assumpation inherent in this approach that all students may attempt to cheat. Retaining papers once they’ve been checked for plagiarism for adding to the database also suggests an assumption that students cannot be trusted not to pass their work on to others.
Other institutions take a more collaborative approach, allowing students to submit their work multiple times to Turnitin and using it as a teaching aid to help students avoid indirect plagiarism and learn how to better develop their essay writing and argumentation skills and understand their relationship to their research sources. In this approach, all students receive a direct benefit from the software, profiting significantly as learners and writers, and those who may be tempted to intentionally plagiarise may look for other ways to cheat instead.