Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Turnitin and plagiarism.

According to this, a handful of high school students in the US are suing Turnitin for keeping digital copies of their submitted work. The article is confused; so, let me extract the key issues. First is the question of originality of work submitted to an instructor for credit. Second is the question of copyright on submitted work. Third is the question of coercing students to submit to Turnitin or a similar service.

With regard to the first, I don't think it's as significant a problem as many seem to think. Maybe other universities differ; maybe high schools differ. But, in my experience, I've only run into one -- maybe two -- plagiarized papers in six years of marking papers. That's a pretty good percentage, methinks. (For what it's worth, Turnitin did catch the one I'm sure was plagiarized.) But, with that said, digital methods have their limitations. They're only going to catch pretty exact matches -- if a student switches enough words for synonyms (or simply misspells enough), then the algorithm will be fooled. So, yes, something like Turnitin is another tool, and it might catch a plagiarized paper here or there. But, on the whole, the value is questionable.

With regard to the second, I'm honestly surprised at the number of students who believe they have copyright on work submitted for credit. AFAIK, they don't. It's equivalent to work for hire. Universities make this explicit for grad students: they own the dissertation, not the student. (In practice, no university worth the name would be dickish enough to prevent a student from using his or her own research in other venues; but, in principle, they do own it.) Maybe this should be made explicit to undergrads and high school students as well, but I would think the principle is basically the same. The work is not original, creative work; it is an assigned exercise, directly analogous to completing a report (or some other document) for an employer.

With regard to the third, it really relates back to the first, in that if plagiarism is a serious problem, then students should be forced to comply with any measure the instructor wishes to use in order to ensure that the work is original. If there is no serious problem, then coercive measures don't seem to be justified. The problem I see is that some students believe they should never be coerced to do anything to prove that their work is original, which is (perhaps unsurprisingly) a fairly juvenile attitude. If honesty is generally suspect at a given institution, then everyone must prove that they are honest; dishonesty is the presumption. However, if honesty is generally not suspect at the institution, then outrage at being coerced to comply with some sort of anti-plagiarism measure seems to me quite reasonable.


undergroundman said...

So what if you write a book privately and then present a summary of its thesis as a dissertation?

You own the intellectual property of the original idea, but not the copyright, I suppose?

I don't think plagiarism is a major problem and I don't like this policy, but whatever. If people really care that much they will stop going to these schools and go to schools which don't copyright their works - or, perhaps, pursue another type of degree.

ADHR said...

Well, this gets into an intricacy of copyright law, I believe. AFAIK, you can only copyright particular combinations of ideas and words. So, for example, J. K. Rowling has a copyright on stories about boy wizards with red-headed best friends whose parents were killed by evil wizards and who go to wizarding schools. She doesn't have a copyright on stories about adult wizards with red-headed best friends who used to go to wizarding schools and whose parents are very much alive.

So, if you write a book, and then present a truncated copy as a dissertation, you'd own the copyright on the original form of the idea, but the university would own the copyright on the dissertation form.

(It's generally accepted practice in the academy to err on the side of caution, though, and go well beyond crediting what you have to credit as a source. So, academics will frequently ask for permission to reproduce ideas, although not text, from articles they have previously published.)

I think plagiarism is a problem in some schools, but very few. Cheating (on tests or exams) is a far worse problem, because it's actually a lot easier to do.