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South juniors refuse to turn it in

By Denebola
Published: November 2007

By Rebecca Goldstein

Objecting on legal grounds, four South students are refusing to submit English assignments to the online plagiarism detection service Turnitin.com.
The students, juniors Bill Humphrey, Mikhail Lepilov, Aden Forrow, and Georgia Halliday, object to the service because they feel it violates their intellectual property rights.
“Turnitin.com is unethical, not legal, and not constitutional,” Humphrey said.
Turnitin holds a database of online resources and student work. To detect plagiarism, it compares submitted student files to files in its database.
The legal issue that the students have with the service has to do with the method the service scans for plagiarism. Whereas other online plagiarism detection services such as Copycatch simply run a student’s paper through a database of internet sources such as Sparknotes, Turnitin saves a copy of the student’s work. As the value of the database increases whenever information is added, students’ work contributes to Turnitin’s profits.
A legal document written by law firm Foley & Lardner and posted on Turnitin’s privacy policy page argues that student submissions to Turnitin constitute “fair use” under US copyright law, meaning that even though Turnitin.com keeps a full copy of student work, the archiving is a “fair use” of student work.
But according to Dan L. Burk, an Oppenheimer, Wolff & Donnelly professor at the University of Minnesota Law School and an expert in intellectual property rights, fair use is a hard case to make for the service.
“Fair use is determined under four factors: how much of the work is taken, what kind of work it is, what was the purpose of taking it, and what effect does it have on the market for the work,” he said. “Since Turnitin’s practice has been to take all of the student’s paper for its own commercial use, it seems unlikely that the use is fair.”
English teacher Michael Kennedy, whose class the four students are in, believes that at the high school level, discussion of the legality of Turnitin is just “splitting hairs.”
“We’re not writing to publish or to sell, we’re writing to learn,” Kennedy said. “I can see at the university level, where people write dissertations that are being readied to publish, where there might be concern, but I don’t see that anything we write at the high school level can be used for monetary gain.”
Kennedy feels that the students did not appropriately bring their concerns about Turnitin to him, as they never told him directly that they refused to use Turnitin.
He explained that when he first announced to the class that they would be using Turnitin.com, there were no complaints from students. The following Monday J-block, a few students approached him to discuss the matter, but, because he had to go to the weekly meeting of the Gay-Straight Alliance, Kennedy was unable to discuss the matter with the students at the time.
“I think they [the students] took that as ‘we can’t talk’, or ‘I’m unwilling to talk,’” he said, adding that that was not the case.
He explained that Humphrey went straight to his guidance counselor, who brought the matter to English department head Frances Moyer before deflecting it back to Kennedy.
When the students’ complaint came to Moyer’s attention, she conducted an investigation into the matter.
“I spoke to [Assistant Superintendent] Brenda Keegan, the head librarian, and [Principal Brian] Salzer,” Moyer said, “As I understand it, there are no legal issues.”
Moyer explained that students at Newton North raised a similar issue, and the North Faculty-Student Council decided that Turnitin was a legitimate tool for plagiarism detection.
“To take a stand when there are no legal issues seems to me like challenging a teacher’s authority, which is inappropriate,” she said. “It’s defeating the purpose of having all the kids be part of the process. It breaks the system down.”
Lepilov, however, questions the legitimacy of the investigation.
“The Newton North Student-Faculty Council found no issues,” he said. “I don’t call that much of an investigation.”
Moyer believes that there might be other motives for the students’ complaint.
“It feels to me like he [Humphrey] is taking a stand more against a teacher than against an issue,” she said. “We have to look at the bigger picture: we are trying to find ways to help kids do honest work.”
In addition to the legal complaints, Humphrey, Lepilov, Forrow, and Halliday feel that using Turnitin presumes guilt. School Committee member Susan Heyman shares that concern.
“It [Turnitin.com] bothers me,” she said. “I don’t like the message it sends to students. It says, ‘We don’t trust you.’”
Heyman added that she only knows “one side of the story, not the other side,” but she feels that “it doesn’t feel like the atmosphere we want to cultivate.”
Kennedy, however, strongly disagrees.
“I’m not trying to create an atmosphere of mistrust at all,” he said. “We might be too trusting here at Newton South. I’ve literally seen students who report through questionnaires that they’ve cheated on homework over 200 times.”
South English teacher Alexander Kaplan taught for four years at Lausanne Collegiate School, which uses Turnitin for all major assignments. He believes that Turnitin is an effective tool to prevent plagiarism.
“I think that if all we do is trust and hope that students are doing the right thing, without checking, we’re being naïve,” he said.
According to Kaplan, Turnitin can be used to teach the benefits as well as the perils of the internet and to teach a moral code.
“The closer you get to being an adult, the more you need to be aware of the consequences of cheating,” he said. “The hope is that they [the students] will feel the pain of it in 9th grade, so that they don’t do it in 10th grade.”
With regard to the legal concerns of the students, Kaplan believes that “we should always consider legal ramifications, but I think that a teacher has a responsibility to err on the side of embracing academic honesty and discouraging academic dishonesty.”

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