Plagiarism software needed

As a faculty member at Kansas University, I must confess that my reaction to the university’s decision to abandon its subscription to “Turnitin,” one of the leading Web-based systems to assist teachers in detecting plagiarism in student papers, is a mixture of dismay, outrage and, in the words of the immortal Yogi Berra, “deja vu all over again.”

The university’s justification for dropping Turnitin is twofold. First, the university suggests that it is concerned about potential copyright violations when faculty use Turnitin. Second, it would appear that the annual subscription cost of $22,000 for the whole university is too great. Personally, I find neither of these concerns to be terribly convincing or sufficient to justify dropping so important a resource. If we truly care about stopping student cheating, something I – and most faculty feel strongly we ought to care about – then we should not drop the Turnitin subscription.

The alleged concern over potential copyright violations in the use of Turnitin stems from the way in which the service operates. Turnitin generally requires that a student paper be uploaded to its site so that it can be compared with other papers already in its files. This is how it detects plagiarism. Turnitin also retains a copy of the paper for its files, though access to the paper is severely limited.

It is this copying and retention that bothers some folks because, if the student has copyright in her paper, which is usually the case, then neither a faculty member nor Turnitin should copy the paper without student permission. But that’s precisely how a university can deal with the problem.

All the faculty member need do is inform students that enrollment in the class requires that the student give permission to the faculty member to copy the paper so it can be uploaded to Turnitin, if the professor deems it necessary. If a student resists this, he needn’t take the course. I cannot imagine why any honest student would object to giving such permission.

The solution I propose seems relatively obvious to me, and I teach copyright. But I’m not alone in this opinion. Turnitin itself has obtained legal opinions from major law firms around the world that its service complies with copyright laws. Other universities have also come to this conclusion. Cornell University’s general counsel, for instance, in a letter to Cornell Vice Provost Isaac Kramnick ( wrote that written permission by students to use the Turnitin service should effectively solve any copyright issues.

In my experience our university has rarely failed to follow a course of action it believed was pedagogically correct for fear of a lawsuit. Why should we now act in this manner when so much is at stake?

My own suspicion is that the real reason for dropping the Turnitin subscription is simply money. It has been stated in the news that the annual subscription cost has risen from $5,000 to $22,000. Certainly this is a large percentage increase. But as Provost Richard Lariviere recently pointed out in connection with rising tuition at KU, what’s important is the actual dollar amount not the percentage increase.

The annual university budget is, I believe, about $500 million. It’s hard to believe that we cannot find $22,000 to pay for a service used by many faculty and designed to catch student cheating. Indeed, to say that reducing cheating isn’t worth $22,000 to a university that spends millions on athletics is simply ludicrous.

It also sends a terrible message to students. How can we, as faculty members, stand up and tell students that the university condemns academic dishonesty and will not tolerate cheating when university officials announce that they are unwilling to spend $22,000 per year to reduce cheating? Students are not stupid. They get the message.

If the university can quickly find a substitute for Turnitin, which is as effective and doesn’t raise the “concerns” some administrators seem to have in regard to Turnitin, then they should do so quickly. But if they can’t and they remove this anti-cheating tool from the faculty arsenal then it’s clear that the administration doesn’t really care very much about whether students cheat. And that would be a shame indeed.