Debunking common Turnitin myths

Contrary to the common misconception among some students, submitting essays to Turnitin.com does not result in the loss of ownership or copyright privileges to their work. “Students surrender no rights to their work when submitting to Turnitin” said Chris Harrick, vice president of marketing at Turnitin.

The University of Toronto’s policy on use of the website maintains that students who do not wish to use the service must be provided with an alternative means of verifying they are providing original work. Turnitin.com is a widely used tool both in Canada and the United States that helps to detect plagiarism in written assignments. Each is algorithmically checked for textual similarities against 24 billion pages on the Internet, as well as more than 300 million assignments previously submitted to Turnitin. Once the paper is analyzed, an Originality Report is generated highlighting any questionable areas in the paper. These are typically accessible to the instructors, but may also be made available to the students. Many U of T Arts & Science faculty members use Turnitin because, according to U of T’s policy: “the Turnitin Originality Reports can save instructors time in the investigation of the originality of student work and can allow for efficient citation verification.” However, the use of the website is not universal across all instructors and most who do use the tool offer a the choice to opt out. Typically, students are able to opt out of the service by discussing the matter with their instructor.

Instructors who choose to use the service must adhere to three guidelines — first: “instructors must exercise their independent professional judgment in, and assume responsibility for, determining whether a text has been plagiarized or not.” Second: students must be informed about the use of Turnitin at the start of the course in the syllabus. And third, “if and when students object to its use on principle, a reasonable offline alternative must be offered.” For example, as an alternative students may be asked to submit their rough work with an annotated bibliography. The university last updated its policy in September 2013.

As for the copyright issue, Turnitin works by mapping out the words in the papers algorithmically and comparing it to other combinations of words on the Internet. Turnitin does not store true representations of papers, only searchable and comparable data. Ryan Green, an educational technology liaison for U of T’s Centre for Teaching Support and Innovation (CTSI) said: “[papers] are stored algorithmically… to look for matches.” Green went on to state that he believes in the six years the university has worked with the website it has developed a good program. Green also said that after the Originality Report is given, students can ask for their papers to be removed and papers always remain students’ intellectual property.

Many instructors choose to use the website for its ease and convenience. Gustavo Indart, senior lecturer in the Department of Economics, said he believes most of his students are honest; however, Turnitin is a valuable tool for discouraging those who might consider plagarism. Indart likes the service because it “reduces the temptation not to learn”.

However, not all feel the same way about the Turnitin services. The University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) has a history of campaigning against the website, and as a part of their on-going Student Rights initiative, its website maintains that students have: “the right to own [their] work and refuse to use turnitin.com.” The UTSU also spearheaded a campaign called “Ban Turnitin.com.”

Some faculty share UTSU’s views on the issue. Romin Tafarodi, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, said that he does not use Turnitin.com because “…it symbolizes distrust. Using Turnitin means I need to use policing when establishing a relationship with a student.” Tafarodi addressed another complaint students have against the service, mainly that it assumes students’ guilt and is used as a tool to prove their innocence. Tafarodi believes that the “best thing we could do to cure plagiarism is to create a healthy and ethical environment in the classroom for students, where they’ll understand that if they won’t write in their own words, they would be losing a valuable opportunity.” Shawn Tian, president of the Arts and Science Students’ Union (ASSU) had a similar view: “When you implement so many measures to contract, it indicates a lack of trust,” he said.

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