Policing plagiarism in a digital age

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is the first in a two-part series that examines the treatment of plagiarism at the University. Tuesday’s article focuses on how plagiarism is reported.

When it comes to academic honesty, lifetime health and fitness lecturer Stacy Ingraham has no reservations about labeling herself a drill sergeant.

It’s all laid out in her syllabus. But to make her stance clear, she reiterates it on the first day of class and throughout the semester: No baseball hats during tests (to eliminate the possibility of writing answers on the brim), no headphones (to eliminate the possibility of listening to recorded answers), and no cell phones (to eliminate the possibility of copying answers from a text message).

“Academic integrity is everything here, and there’s a lot at stake,” she said.

But somewhere amid the vast policy section of Ingraham’s syllabus is a clause that some students might find surprising.

“Assignments need to be saved on a computer disk (CD, DVD or flash drive) for possible verification of the independence of producing assignment. Assignments will be subjected to computer analysis for duplication. Each student is required to turn in your disk at the end of the term. … Failure to turn in your disk could result in failure of the course.”

This computer analysis is a Web site called Turnitin.com – a plagiarism detection tool the University has contracted with since 2001.

During the 2006-2007 academic year, Ingraham was one of 317 University instructors registered with Turnitin.

Ingraham said she became a registered user around 2003, after two-and-a-half years of a “nightmare” of plagiarism in her classes. She was exhausted and needed a helping hand.

“You’d rather put all your energy into teaching than to try to police plagiarism,” she said.

Since implementing Turnitin, Ingraham said she’s witnessed a drastic improvement in academic honesty.

“It has cut down on the incidents,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s just the fear.”

Ingraham said she has busted about 20 plagiarizers with Turnitin, and has become such a faithful disciple of the site that she’s trying to push the technology to the rest of the kinesiology department.

Particularly with the increasing ease of plagiarizing brought on by the Internet, Ingraham said precautions like Turnitin are becoming more necessary.

“Students have always cheated and always will cheat,” she said. “What we need is a stronger system to prevent electronic-based cheating.”

However, not everyone is as enthusiastic about Turnitin as Ingraham.

During the past year, iParadigm, Turnitin’s parent company, was sued by four high school students in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, who claimed Turnitin violated their intellectual property rights.

As a result of legal and ethical questions the lawsuit raised, Turnitin is one of the points of focus of a two-week online workshop dealing with academic integrity that the University of Maryland University College began hosting Feb. 25.

University of Minnesota faculty members were invited to participate.

Kimberly Bonner, executive director for the UMUC center for intellectual property, said the department chose to address Turnitin in the workshop because of its prominent influence on the academic integrity of a modern educational system.

“In the digital environment, I think people have more of a desire – or need – for devices or tools that they can utilize to detect academic dishonesty,” she said.

When discussing Turnitin, Bonner said it’s necessary to address the legal issues.

“I don’t think we would be wise if we didn’t,” she said. “People need to be aware of some of the issues that arise with (Turnitin.com’s) use. And we would be, I think, derelict in our duties as teachers not to handle the entire issue.”


Turinitin.com was developed in the late 1990s in Berkeley, Calif., by a team of researchers led by John Barrie.

Barrie, then a doctoral candidate at the University of California-Berkeley, said his initial idea was to combat the rising plagiarism threat posed by the “cut-and-paste” nature of the Internet.

“So here I was at Berkeley thinking, ‘If you’re going to solve this problem, the only way to do it would be to create some kind of deterrent, because I already know that nobody’s interested in catching students cheating,’ ” Barrie said.

In 1998, Turnitin.com (originally called Plagiarism.org) was born – an extensive database of archived work to which professors can submit student papers. The Web site cross-checks a student’s work with work already in the database to scan for unoriginal material.

After an originality report is generated, the student’s work remains in the system to cross-check against future students’ papers.

If the program detects plagiarism, the user can send a request to Turnitin to be relayed to the user who submitted the matching work, asking for a copy of the original.

Barrie said Turnitin’s total archived work exceeds 8 billion Web pages, periodicals and student papers.

Student papers make up more than 50 million of these, as Turnitin is utilized by more than 8,000 institutions in 103 countries, he said.

Barrie said between 125,000 and 150,000 papers are submitted to Turnitin each day, and based on the current growth rate, he expects to see an increase to 500,000 papers daily by 2010.

“I attribute that growth to the realization by more and more institutions that all of their investment in those good classrooms and teachers and books amounts to nothing if they can’t determine whether or not they’re grading student work or somebody else’s work.” Barrie said.

According to iParadigm study results released in 2006, institutions that have used Turnitin for more than five years have seen an average 82 percent decrease in plagiarism.

For this reason, Barrie said Turnitin is the “silver bullet” against the “capital crime in academics.”

“If an institution doesn’t know whether their students are doing their work or cheating their way to a degree, the institution becomes, essentially, a degree-printing company,” Barrie said.


On March 27 of last year, four high school students sued iParadigm for $900,000 on the basis of intellectual property infringement.

Bob Vanderhye, the students’ attorney, alleged that being required to submit their work to Turnitin’s database was a violation of copyright law.

Specifically, Vanderhye said the archival nature of Turnitin maintaining student papers in its database poses serious legal issues.

“When they archive it, then they’re stealing (students’) property,” Vanderhye said. “They’re using the students’ intellectual property without the students’ permission – for a profit. It’s as simple as that.”

Thomas Cotter, a University law professor who specializes in intellectual property law, said Turnitin’s archival component raises legal questions.

“Someone who makes an unauthorized copy of the student paper would be, at least arguably, infringing their copyright by doing that,” he said.

However, Cotter said archiving the work might be protected by fair use laws, in which case it would not be in violation of intellectual property laws.

He said fair use is often difficult to determine, and the case falls into a gray area that could be argued either way.

“It’s a difficult question, to predict exactly what a court would do,” he said.

Vanderhye argues that Turnitin doesn’t meet legal fair use standards.

To illustrate this to the court, Vanderhye said he submitted a Shakespeare quote to Turnitin, and then requested a student paper that showed up as a match.

Soon after, Vanderhye received a copy of an Arizona high school sophomore’s 10-page, double-spaced paper that included a wealth of personal information, he said.

“I have her paper verbatim, which is not transformative in any way,” he said. “It could not possibly be considered to be fair use when I have every single word that she wrote in the same way that she submitted it.”

According to Eastern District of Virginia court records, on Jan. 9 – two weeks before the case was scheduled to go to trial – Judge Claude Hilton ordered it to be stricken from the court’s trial docket, and the case is currently pending an opinion.

Vanderhye said this is an atypical decision, and he is awaiting Hilton’s ruling before taking further legal action.

“He didn’t issue an opinion,” Vanderhye said. “All he did was take it off the trial calendar and say he would be issuing an opinion in the future. We have no idea what’s going on with it.”

Vanderhye said depending upon the opinion issued, he might appeal


Before every academic year, instructors at the University receive an e-mail reminding them that Turnitin is an available resource.

Leslie Zenk, assistant to the vice provost and dean of undergraduate education, is in charge of negotiating the University’s annual contract with Turnitin.

In her second year with this duty, Zenk said she’s heard a range of opinions on the technology from professors, but the University administration remains neutral.

“We neither encourage its use or discourage its use,” she said.

Linda Ellinger, assistant vice provost of undergraduate education, negotiated the original contract with Turnitin in 2001.

She said the University made the decision to offer Turnitin in response to a suspicious local climate in the aftermath of a basketball team cheating scandal, as well as global questions about Internet-related plagiarism.

“If there was any one thing, it was the basketball scandal,” she said. “Beyond that, it was just the times.”

Of the more than 300 University instructors who use Turnitin, Zenk said 100 are “active” users, meaning that their classes submitted four or more papers to it last year.

Zenk said this number has remained consistent since the contract’s adoption, despite a drop to 214 total University users during the 2005-06 academic year.

This year, the contract was negotiated at $15,073.75, Zenk said.

In the six years of contracting with Turnitin, Zenk said she is not aware of how the Web site has impacted academic integrity at the University.

“I don’t really get the sense that plagiarism is any better or worse than it ever has been,” she said.

Ellinger expressed a similar sentiment, suggesting that if the problem of plagiarism at the University is any better now than it was a few years ago, it couldn’t be attributed to Turnitin, just as “you don’t attribute the building of a house to a hammer.”