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Plagiarism Detection Services: Unsettled Questions

By Kim D. Gainer, Radford University, Radford, VA

In 2007, four students filed suit in a U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Virginia, against iParadigms, a company that owns the Turnitin plagiarism detection service. This service compares uploaded student papers against not only materials available on the web but also against a database of previously uploaded papers. The students in this case argued copyright infringement: that the inclusion of their papers in the database of a for-profit company was an appropriation of their intellectual property.  In 2008, the judge in the case ruled against the students, noting that in the course of uploading their papers, the students had clicked an “I agree” button that signified their acceptance of the company’s terms of service. The judge also ruled that Turnitin’s use of the students’ writing was “highly transformative” because the texts were being used for a purpose fundamentally different from the purpose for which they were created.

The students appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth District Circuit, but in 2009, a ruling let stand crucial elements of the original decision. The students filed notice to appeal, but several months later entered into a settlement with iParadigms in which each side agreed not to pursue any legal action against the other. (As an aside, a student in the case had accessed the Turnitin database using another person’s user id and password, and the settlement ended this student’s legal exposure.)  Absent a Supreme Court ruling, the appeals court decision applies only to schools in Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia, and North and South Carolina.  Although the students did not prevail, the debate over plagiarism detection services is likely to continue.

In its Recommendations Regarding Academic Integrity and the Use of Plagiarism Detection Services, the CCCC-Intellectual Property Caucus suggests that both pedagogical and ethical issues are raised by these programs.  In terms of pedagogy, use of such services casts the student in the role of someone who must be monitored rather than as a self-motivated learner. Simultaneously, it may shift the role of the teacher from educating to policing, possibly “compromise[ing] the relationship between teachers and students.” Moreover, the reactions of students to what is effectively a presumption of guilt may create an “adversarial climate.” The statement also expresses concern that relying on computer software may become a substitute for the conversations about academic integrity that should be central to the educational process.  In regard to legal concerns, it raises questions about students’ privacy rights because student writing is shared with “commercial third parties not engaged in the relationship implied in the educational process.” (Issues such as these are also explored in “McClean Students File Suit against,” an article in The CCCC-IP Annual: Top Intellectual Property Developments of 2007.)

Legal decisions have been rendered: a district court cited the fact that the students clicked on the “I agree” button and uploaded the papers themselves. Students may still question whether they may be required to agree to a plagiarism detection company’s terms of service. Moreover, students may raise objections if their papers are uploaded by their instructors without their consent. A student’s ‘ownership’ of her work may be undermined even if in the eyes of a judge her legal rights have not been violated.  Therefore, students may continue to challenge the use of Turnitin and other plagiarism detection services on intellectual property and other grounds, and some objections might lead to legal challenges. In essence, even if a case were to reach the Supreme Court and be decided against the students, educators may still wish to carefully consider the implications of using such services.

For further information, please contact the author, Kim Gainer.


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