Each year, Stuyvesant students write dozens of papers and essays. For everything we write, there is one ironclad rule: don’t plagiarize. Every teacher tells us this. They warn us of the consequences: a call home, suspension, or even a permanent black mark on our academic record. Some teachers make us sign papers pledging that our work is original, trusting that we’ll honor our commitments. Other teachers use Turnitin.com, an online plagiarism-checker that compares submissions with Internet content. Turnitin is popular because it is a seemingly sure-fire way to catch cheaters. However, there’s a price to pay: Turnitin’s legality is highly questionable and it creates an atmosphere of distrust between students and teachers.
Anything you write for school is automatically copyrighted; you do not need to apply for one. When you submit your work to Turnitin, Turnitin saves a copy to its database to compare against future submissions in order to stop students from plagiarizing other students’ work. Since you don’t know that Turnitin is saving a copy of your paper, and it doesn’t ask for or acquire your consent, its a potential violation of your rights.
Saving a copy of your paper is copyright infringement because Turnitin is using your paper for its own economic gain without compensating you. The copyright laws state that portions of original work may be quoted, but only if allowed by the author or for “fair use” (discussions). By making a hefty profit through subscriptions to its expensive service (which can cost thousands of dollars a year), Turnitin uses your work in a way that was not originally intended. What makes Turnitin so “effective”—the reason it is preferred over all other such sites—is that it checks students’ papers against each other. But this means that its profit is coming directly from students’ work.
Turnitin argues that its enterprise is “fair use.” However, it goes no further than to say, “When students claim that Turnitin violates the law or engages in ‘commercial exploitation’ of their copyrights, that claim is simply not based on fact.” This oversimplified response fails to answer the charges against it, and is probably the reason there are already multiple lawsuits filed against Turnitin.
Putting aside the legal issues, when teachers use Turnitin, they send their students the message “We don’t trust you.” While Turnitin claims its so-called “Originality Reports” (the results it gives to the teacher) do not provide a clear-cut “guilty” or “innocent,” having to use Turnitin at all is an accusation. Its verdicts are of questionable reliability, as it does not check offline (printed) books. It also hurts students who incorporate direct quotes into their papers since it has no capacity to recognize citations. At the end of its check, Turnitin returns the results as a percent plagiarized—just a number. If a teacher just looks at the percent and does not examine where it came from (Turnitin marks each section), students who used direct quotes appear to have cheated. Some students might stop using direct quotes, sacrificing quality in their papers. Using Turnitin doesn’t teach students that plagiarism is wrong. It just encourages cheaters to find another way to beat the system.
While there is no perfect solution to the issue of plagiarism, Turnitin is far from perfect. Other sites, such as plagiarismchecker.com, use Google searches, and while not as effective, they are free and don’t save copies of students’ papers. Instead, teachers should impress upon students the importance of honesty and the consequences of plagiarism. One of my teachers always tells her classes: better to fail one test or two tests or even all my tests than risk getting caught cheating once. If you fail, I’ll help you. If you cheat, I’ll throw you out of my class. Instead of trying to catch students after they plagiarize, teachers should stop plagiarism before it starts.
Despite the wide usage of Turnitin.com, Princeton University rejects Turnitin and all other plagiarism checkers. It still abides by an honor code, in which it addresses the copyright issue, “The right to intellectual ownership of original academic work is as important to the life of the university as the right to own personal possessions.” If a respected Ivy League school can trust its students to do what’s right and not plagiarize, we should follow their example and do the same.