As a student at U of T, it’s very likely that that at least one of your courses requires you to submit some sort of paper—whether it’s a lab report, essay, or a short assignment. The chances are even higher that this submission is expected to be carried out through the anti-plagiarism website Turnitin.com.
Turnitin, managed by the commercial company iParadigms LLC, offers services focused primarily on originality checks, with additional tools such as online grading and conducting peer reviews.
U of T is one of the 10,000 annually licensed institutions spread across 135 countries that uses Turnitin, requiring students to set up an account and submit their assignments via a file upload or cut and paste.
When checking originality, Turnitin crosschecks the submission with over 45 billion pages of digital content. Along with being regularly updated, the software currently claims to hold 337 million submissions in the student archive and over 130,000 professional, academic, and commercial journals.
The software flags word sequences that match other word sequences in their database. Instructors logging into the website determine at their own discretion if a flagged match counts as plagiarism or qualifies as a properly-cited quote.
The numbers do portray Turnitin as being incredibly useful and widely used across the world, but there are certain suspicious aspects to the anti-plagiarism website. Submissions to Turnitin continuously instigate sentiments of being presumed “guilty until proven innocent” among students, leading students to perceive their instructors as distrusting antagonists.
Additionally, there is an important question left for students to ponder: now that I’ve submitted my ideas to an online database, what happens to them?
Well, as part of their ownership policy, Turnitin describes that they use the content of submitted papers to only provide their services. Turnitin further claims to facilitate students’ submissions by including an option where students can store their work in an institution-only private zone.
However, in the same policy, under “Your license to us”, the website states, “We are free to use any ideas, concepts, techniques, know-how in your Communications for any purpose, including, but not limited to, the development and use of products and services based on the Communications.”
U of T’s policy requires relevant course syllabi to include the following statement: “Normally, students will be required to submit their course essays to Turnitin.com for a review of textual similarity and detection of possible plagiarism. In doing so, students will allow their essays to be included as source documents in the Turnitin.com reference database, where they will be used solely for the purpose of detecting plagiarism.”
This begs the question: does Turnitin own your intellectual property now that you have submitted it?
On the one hand, while the software is commercial, Turnitin does not report any profit being made from student-submitted theses. Additionally, Turnitin also provides a definition for the word “Communications” in their usage policy as “questions, comments, suggestions, and other data and information” submitted on the site, but they specifically exclude “any papers submitted to the site”.
On the other hand, the Office of Teaching Support and Innovation at U of T states that the use of Turnitin by instructors is entirely voluntary.
Students are provided with the right to refuse the use of Turnitin, in which case, according to the Office of Teaching Advancement at U of T, a reasonable offline alternative must be offered.
The Office of Teaching Advancement describes the availability of a wide variety of non-electronic methods that can be used to deter and detect plagiarism. For example, instructors can request students to hand in all related rough work along with the paper, or that the student include an annotated bibliography with the paper. The office recommends instructors to consult with the Office of Teaching Advancement when establishing these alternatives.
However, I find myself agreeing with Kiran Siddiqui, a third-year biotechnology specialist, who says that “the alternative seems too time consuming”.
“Instead of preparing drafts and notes to hand in additionally, I’d rather get it over with online and spend those three hours completing the other three essays I have due at the same time,” she adds.
While Turnitin’s policy on intellectual property may be ambiguous due to a lack of clarity in the wording, students do have alternative routes they can pursue.