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McLean Students File Suit Against Useful Tool or Instrument of Tyranny?

Traci A. Zimmerman (Pipkins), James Madison University

In March 2007, two students at McLean High School in McLean, Virginia along with two students at Desert Vista High School in Phoenix, Arizona filed a lawsuit against, a California company hired by their respective schools to aid in the fight against plagiarism. (“turn it in”) is a for-profit service used by over 6,000 academic institutions in 90 countries (1).  According to the website:

iParadigms, the company behind Turnitin got its start in 1996, when a group of researchers at UC Berkeley created a series of computer programs to monitor the recycling of research papers in their large undergraduate classes. Encouraged by a high level of interest from their peers, the researchers teamed with a group of teachers, mathematicians, and computer scientists to form, the world’s first internet-based plagiarism detection service.  In the years since, has continued to grow and evolve, and is now recognized around the world as Turnitin and iThenticate, the internet’s most widely used and trusted resources for preventing the spread of internet plagiarism. (5)

In the following brief report, I will describe the context and motivation for the 2007 lawsuit, the details and central points of debate surrounding the case, and the implications that the case has for the rhetoric and composition classroom.  It will be impossible in such short space to provide the kind of depth and breadth of research that a subject like this demands; for that reason, I have provided an additional list of references which should serve as a solid starting point for further inquiry.

The Case Against

Though the March 2007 filing is the first lawsuit in the United States to be brought against Turnitin, it is not the first time students have expressed concern with the plagiarism detection software.  In 2003 and 2005, two McGill University students refused to submit their work to the Turnitin database in classes that mandated their using the service (2).  In at least one of the cases, the student received failing grades for his work just because he refused to submit his assignments to Turnitin. Ultimately, the McGill University Senate decided “in favor of each student’s right to have their papers graded without running them through the Turnitin database” (2). 

The events that led up to the eventual filing of the lawsuit in March 2007 began in September of 2006, when a group of students at McLean High School circulated a petition to oppose the mandatory submission of their work to a newly adopted (2).  The petition, which garnered 1,190 student signatures of the approximately 1800 students that attend the school, requested that the mandate to submit work to Turnitin be removed and that an “opt-out” option be allowed (2).  School officials responded to the petition by easing (but not removing) the mandate: instead of having all students in all grades submit their work to Turnitin, only 9th and 10th grade English and social studies classes would be required  to use the service.  Ultimately, this was no solution at all, since it meant that the current policy would be changed to exclude junior and seniors from the mandate only temporarily; after those two groups graduated, the policy would be reinstated, offering a kind of “grandfather clause” to the older students, but no consolation to those students who would come after.

In October of 2006, Dr. John Barrie, the President and CEO of iParadigms attended a McLean High School Parent Teacher Student Association (PTSA) meeting to address the growing Turnitin concerns (2).  According to many reports, this meeting was wholly unsuccessful; Barrie tended to defend rather than explain his product, saying things like “if Harvard, Yale, and other Ivy League schools use it, it certainly can’t be bad” though at the time Barrie made the claim, none of the Ivy Leagues had adopted Turnitin (2).  Harvard would become the first Ivy to adopt the service, and even then, only on a pilot basis (2).  But it would not be the last.  When Princeton announced later that same year that they “had no intention of using,” the student newspaper contacted Barrie for a comment.  He had one: “Princeton is soft on cheating” (3).  Brock Read, who writes about Barrie’s zealous attack on Princeton as an “anti-cheating” crusader, admits that

Mr. Barrie’s vehemance may have made him a persona non grata at Princeton, but it has helped him persuade instructors at more than 8,000 high schools and colleges – including two of Princeton’s Ivy League rivals, Harvard and Columbia, the University of California system, and the University of Oxford, in England – to use his service.  Last year [2007], professors and teachers submitted a whopping 30 million papers from their students to Turnitin. (emphasis mine) (3)

Ironically, the very reasons that propel Turnitin’s success are the same reasons that make McLean High School parents and students wary of the service: the sheer size of the database.  As he worked out the earliest versions of what would become, Barrie knew that the strength of the service would lie in its numbers; Turnitin would only succeed if it were built on “a database so massive that it creates a deterrent.” (3)  On their comprehensive and informative website “” (don’t turn it in), McLean parents and students certainly see the database as such a deterrent, noting as a “prohibitive factor” the fact that “original, intellectual work produced in a public school is being transferred to, archived by, and utilized for profit by a private company against the student’s wishes, but with the permission of the school administration” (6).  The fact that Turnitin uses these archived student papers to look for plagiarism in future submissions is what fuels the McLean lawsuit.  The four student plaintiffs allege that this practice constitutes copyright infringement and are asking for $900,000 in compensation for six papers that they claim were “added to Turnitin’s database against their will” (3).  Turnitin’s lawyers argue otherwise, claiming that the use of the papers fall under the “fair use” clause of the U.S. Copyright Act — the papers are neither “displayed [n]or distributed to anyone” and the students have to give their consent (by clicking “I agree”) before the paper is accepted by  (qtd in 7).

Robert A. Vanderhye, a retired lawyer in Virginia who has taken on the student’s case pro bono, says that Turnitin “tarnishes its claim of fair use by redistributing papers in its database: Turnitin offers to send professors complete copies of works that it identifies as the sources of plagiarized material” (3).

The parents and students who created agree that “cheating and plagiarism should never be tolerated in any academic or workplace setting” but go on to note that McLean High School has “a comprehensive honor code” in place that could possibly be “augmented” by on a “voluntary” basis; however, the current system of using Turnitin (as a kind of punitive tool rather than a pedagogical one) seems more of a solution in search of a problem than anything else.  A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education (February 29, 2008) echoes this concern:

When Mr. Barrie founded Turnitin, just over a decade ago, few professors had even thought about, let alone clamored for, plagiarism-detection software.  In essence, iParadigms has built a fast growing business out of almost nothing. (3)

Even Barrie himself agrees: “It’s safe to say that Turnitin is now a part of how education works” (3). 

Implications for the Rhetoric and Composition Classroom

On the surface, it might seem a salient fact that Dr. Barrie majored in (of all things) Rhetoric and Neurobiology while an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley (5).  In one of his later iterations as an entrepreneur and crusader in the area of plagiarism detection, he has become “a national leader and expert on the problem of plagiarism in education” (5).  But to whom?  The various blogs spawned by the McLean lawsuit, such as The Wired Campus from The Chronicle of Higher Education (September 22, 2006 and March 30, 2007) or Andy Carvin’s blog on entitled “The Politics of Plagiarism Detection Services” (September 22, 2006), only complicate the issue further, as teacher, student, principal, and Jane Q. Citizen draw virtual lines in the sand about where the boundaries of creativity and plagiarism, teaching and totalitarianism begin and end.  Is solely to blame?  Or should we look to those secondary schools, colleges, and universities that compel their students to submit to the service? 

The implications for the rhetoric and composition classroom can be separated into three main categories – two of which, “pedagogical” and “ethical” – are categories articulated brilliantly by Michael Donnelly in the introduction to “(Mis)Trusting Technology that Polices Integrity: A Critical Assessment of” (4)  I shall use his designations as well as add one additional category, “theoretical,” to sum up the main points of conflict. 

In their statement on best practices entitled “Defining and Avoiding Plagiarism,” the WPA lists 18 “shared responsibilities” among students, faculty and administrators to address the problem of plagiarism.  None of them include or advocate the use of plagiarism-detection software.  When the WPA does mention “plagiarism detection services,” they do so with a word of caution, noting that “although such services may be tempting, they are not always reliable.  Furthermore, their availability should never be used to justify the avoidance of responsible teaching methods” (9). Instead they offer, as one of their “best practices,” the following advice:

Make the research process, and technology used for it, visible.  Ask your students to consider how various technologies – computers, fax machines, photocopiers, email – affect the way information is gathered and synthesized, and what effect these technologies may have on plagiarism. (9)

The CCCC-IP Caucus, in their “Recommendations Regarding Academic Integrity and the Use of Plagiarism Detection Services,” is even more forceful and focused in their recommendations against such services as Turnitin noting that

Use of Plagiarism Detection Services poses several compromises to academic integrity and effective teaching of which educators need to be aware before or if their institutions avail themselves of these technologies.  The CCCC-IP Caucus recommends that compositionists take a leadership role in educating their institutions about the limitations of these services and conduct more empirical research to understand better how these technological services affect student’s writing and the educational environment. (8)

It is this “educational environment” that seems most damaged by the inclusion of plagiarism detection services like Turnitin.  In reading through the numerous articles and blogs about the McLean lawsuit, I noticed the repetition of comments centered on the culture of mistrust and fear that is created when students are forced to use Turnitin.  The idea of “guilty until proven innocent” (2) prevails, and students are left to grapple with the uncomfortable assumptions that the use of Turnitin reveals: that students are cheaters who need to be policed.

“Plagiarism is not,” Michael Donnelly writes, “a simple matter of catching dishonorable students and prosecuting them” (4).  If anything, it should be more about understanding connections than it is about policing boundaries.  Yet I certainly recognize what Charlie Lowe calls “the culture of fear” that attends to plagiarism and its detection; even as I wrote this article, I worried, perhaps even more than usual, about proper attribution and citation.  This anxiety might be a way to connect to the concerns raised by the student lawsuit:  “Faculty might want to ask themselves,” Lowe says, “about how they would feel if their departments asked them to submit everything they wrote to a plagiarism detection service” (qtd in 3).

Rebecca Moore Howard keenly identifies the theoretical implications of plagiarism detection services on the composition classroom in her book Standing in the Shadow of Giants: Plagiarists, Authors, Collaborators.  In it, she illustrates the ways in which these services stand to oversimplify and undermine our understandings of authorship, text, and reader.  She writes

The irony of [using] mechanical means for detecting plagiarism, especially as such means are enacted by computers, should not be overlooked.  Plagiarism-checking software would mechanize the monitoring of textual purity, excluding all but textual criteria.  Plagiarism-detection software excludes both authorial intention and reader interpretation  in the construction of authorship.  By automating textual purity, plagiarism-checking software naturalizes the increasingly embattled modern economy of authorship, even as the human factors that it elides would reveal that economy as a cultural arbitrary.  In the face of a revolution in authorship that rivals the introduction of the printing press, plagiarism-checking software would deploy digitized information technology to protect that which is threatened.  Instead of transforming the ways in which we think of reading and writing, this technology would freeze and reassert the notion of authorship in which writing is unitary, originary, proprietary, and linear, and in which the text is the locus and sole arbiter of meaning. (11)

There are two main areas of ethical concern when plagiarism detection software is used in the composition classroom:  student privacy and student property.

Student Privacy
The school that compels its students to submit their work to Turnitin may also compel the violation of those students’ privacy.  In the case of the McLean High School lawsuit, students were told that their submissions were “anonymous,” but “by virtue of the password authentication process through an off-site server, students still have to input their email addresses and names” (2).  Also, as noted earlier, entire copies of student work are offered to professors should the work be deemed the source of plagiarized material.  

Student property calls the violation of Intellectual Property Laws “the most complicated of all the issues…perhaps the most egregious issue of all” (6).  And they are not alone in their thinking.  Michael Donnelly writes that plagiarism detection software like Turnitin “doesn’t merely infringe on [student] rights, it simply ignores them” (4).  Wendy Warren Austin further illustrates the point, arguing that

Mandatory submission of student papers helps build’s database without any monetary compensation.  Although licensing fees are paid for professional articles that are contained within the database, students’ papers are obtained with no compensation though they add considerably to the product’s profitability.  Furthermore, although these high school students digitally sign a “consent” form as they have their papers submitted, they are in fact “signing” these consents under duress, i.e. under penalty of getting a zero, and by virtue of their status as minors, lack capacity to enter into a binding contract.

As Michael Donnelly soberly reminds us, this issue should be “even more pressing when faculty at colleges and universities across the country…are lobbying for better, clearer protection of their own Intellectual Property Rights” (4).  What might prove a more sobering reality is the most recent iteration of the McLean lawsuit: just last week, Judge Hilton issued an Order and Memorandum Opinion in which he grants summary judgment in favor of iParadigms (12). 

Works Cited

1. “McLean High School eases mandate that students submit essays to anti-plagiarism service.”  Legal Clips.  The National School Boards Association.  October 2006.

2. Austin, Wendy Warren.  “Virginia High School Students Rebel Against Mandatory Use of”  5 July 2007.  NCTE-CCCC.  /cccc/gov/committees/ip/127372.htm

3. Read, Brock.  “Anti-Cheating Crusader Vexes Some Professors: Software kingpin says using his product would cure plagiarism blight.”  The Chronicle of Higher Education.  29 February 2008.

4. Donnelly, Michael et al.  “(Mis)Trusting Technology that Polices Integrity: A Critical Assessment of”  Inventio.  Fall 2006.  Issue 1, Volume 8.

6. (Website created by McLean Parents and Students)

7. Anderson, Nate.  “High Schoolers Turn In Plagiarism Screeners for Copyright Infringement.”  30 March 2007.  Ars Technica

8. CCCC-IP Caucus Recommendations Regarding Academic Integrity and the Use of Plagiarism Detection Services.  /

9. Defining and Avoiding Plagiarism: The WPA Statement on Best Practices.

10. Glod, Maria.  “McLean Students Sue Anti-Cheating Service.”  29 March 2007. Washington Post.com

11. Howard, Rebecca Moore.  Standing in the Shadow of Giants: Plagiarists, Authors, Collaborators.  Volume 2 in the series Perspectives on Writing: Theory, Research, Practice. Connecticut:  Ablex Publishing Corporation, 1999.  130-131.

12. Judge Hilton’s Order and Memorandum Opinion in which he grants summary judgment for iParadigms, LLC. 11 March 2008.

Additional References

Anderson, Nate.  “Are Teachers and Computers Responsible for Plagiarism?”  20 October 2006.  Ars Technica

Carvin, Andy.  “The Politics of Plagiarism Detection Services.”  Learning Now.  PBS Teachers.  22 September 2006.

“High School Students Take on Turnitin.”  The Wired Campus.  From The Chronicle of Higher Education.  30 March 2007.
Mallon, Thomas.  Stolen Words: The Classic Book on Plagiarism.  New York: Harcourt, 2001.

Posner, Richard.  The Little Book of Plagiarism.  New York: Pantheon Books, 2007.

“Students File Lawsuit Against”  Legal Clips.  The National School Boards Association.  May 2007.

“Taking a Hard Line on Turnitin”  The Wired Campus.  From The Chronicle of Higher Education.  22 September 2006.

Turnitin Legal Document.  July 2002.  (Turnitin commissioned an opinion from the law firm of Foley & Lardner for to answer legal questions about the service).  Need website!!

United States District Court Eastern District of Virginia (Alexandria Division) Complaint for Copyright Infringement. (The McLean Lawsuit filed 19 March 2007).

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