Anti-plagiarism tool pulled from professors’ arsenal

Most agree plagiarism is a growing problem on college campuses since the Internet has made it easier to lift material.

But Kansas University officials have sent word to professors that KU will no longer subscribe to, a computerized plagiarism detection service that some instructors said was their best tool for catching cheaters.

“This is like leaving a door to a bank unlocked,” KU political science professor Phil Schrodt said. “Turnitin is a rational response to a problem. The problem is that a student can now download tens of thousands of term papers at the click of the mouse.”

For several years, KU has subscribed to, an online program that scans student papers and compares the content to information found on the Internet and in databases of student work, journals and periodicals.

But a recent e-mail informed KU users of the service that the Provost’s Office wouldn’t extend the subscription past its Oct. 3 expiration because of copyright concerns and the $22,000 cost.

“I really hope (that decision is) reversed,” said Tim Miller, professor and interim chairman of religious studies. “I think academic dishonesty is a very, very serious problem on the KU campus, and I would love to see us take it seriously.”

A tool

Many at KU said that plagiarism is a continual worry and that it’s a bad move to drop the best instrument instructors have to vet papers and deter students from stealing others’ work.

Robert Rowland, professor and chairman of communication studies, said many in the department found the service valuable.

“We’ve caught some people with it,” he said. “We think it also deters people.”

Kiley Larson, a graduate teaching assistant in communication studies, said helps students while ensuring that a KU degree is worth something.

“It sounds like we’re using it to crack down and be mean,” she said. “It’s really to help them become better students.”

KU Provost Richard Lariviere, the university’s point man on the issue, was out Tuesday and could not be reached for comment. It was unclear whether the university would consider another option to help deter plagiarism.

Worth the cost

It was unclear Tuesday how many KU faculty and instructors use the service.

“I’ve talked to a lot of people, and I’ve not found one who thought this was a good decision,” Miller said of dropping Turnitin. “This is one of the best tools we’ve had around here for enforcing academic honesty – and, ironically, it’s at a time when KU is talking more and more about academic honesty, and yet we’re getting rid of the most effective tool we have for trying to enforce it.”

Lindy Eakin, KU vice provost for administration and finance, said the service cost $6,000 when KU first subscribed, but the costs have increased.

But the $22,000 price tag is worth it, professors said.

“What fraction is that of the salary of our athletic director?” Schrodt said. “Turnitin has changed the way I grade papers. It gives me a reassurance. It gives my students a reassurance.”

Copyright issues

Copyright concerns with the service are nothing new and may predate KU’s original move to subscribe to it. The concern centers on the database of student work that Turnitin keeps and whether that infringes upon copyright or intellectual property rights.

The issue was the subject of a 2001 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and has responded with a statement on its Web site: “Multiple law firms have confirmed that Turnitin operates in full accordance with the intellectual property and privacy laws of the United States.”

Several instructors said they notified students about the use of the service on course syllabi.

“They tell you upfront when they’re going to use it,” said KU senior Claire Scharenberg, who has taken classes from instructors who use the plagiarism detection service.

Ongoing concern

Faculty and instructors said plagiarism wasn’t rampant at KU, but it is a constant concern.

“It’s not a major problem, but it is a problem,” said Astrid Villamil, a graduate teaching assistant in communication studies.

Don McCabe, a Rutgers University professor whose expertise includes cheating and plagiarism, conducts an ongoing survey of plagiarism.

His survey of more than 60,000 undergraduates found that 38 percent admit to stealing information from printed sources, while 37 percent admit to lifting information from the Web.

McCabe said he thinks the actual figures are higher because many students don’t ‘fess up to plagiarizing.

He said has it usefulness and there’s no question it’s a deterrent. He supports honor code systems that call on students to be a part of the solution.

“It makes academic integrity a more campuswide issue,” he said.