At colleges across the country, it's midterm time and right about now, plagiarism — unauthorized appropriation of someone else's written work — rears its ugly head.
In the Internet age, when term papers are sold online by the thousands, some schools are turning to Turnitin.com, a California company that says it can check research papers in a matter of seconds for plagiarism.
Not all students are happy with the service, and some educators worry that it can be used for the wrong reasons.
But Dr. John Barrie, who founded Turnitin.com in 1996, says the business is growing fast. “We’ve been doubling in revenue and in usage for the last four years,” he said.
And right now is peak season. “We receive 50,000 student papers a day, and we’ll probably go up to 80,000 per day as final papers begin to come in," Barrie said. "It drops off in December, picks up again in January and keeps building. We're projected to grow to over 100,000 student papers a day in the spring of 2006.”
Papers are processed through proprietary technology and algorithms that mostly use three database sources: other academic papers; books and magazines; and the Internet. Turnitin updates its own 4.5 billion-page Web-page database at a rate of about 60 million pages a day.
Turnitin's Web site says that, compared to conventional online academic-paper searches that can take 12 minutes each, its service gives instructors the ability to research 125 papers in a blistering 15 seconds.
75 cents a student
How much does it cost? Barrie said the price is just 75 cents per student, a cost kept low by the number of customers. “We represent a lot of the world’s students,” he said.
Barrie said Turnitin also is used by 5,000 high schools and universities in 85 countries. Schools have included the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Dartmouth University, Rutgers University, the California state university system, all the colleges and universities in the United Kingdom and other international institutions such as the American University in Cairo.
The service is licensed only to faculty members, but can be accessible to students. “The institutions and the faculty members — those are our clients. If they want students to upload their work and check, it’s their decision," Barrie said.
Such rapidly growing business would be good news in most lines of work. But for Barrie, Turnitin’s success is bittersweet: “About one-third of the papers we screen are unoriginal.”
A social problem
“The problem starts with students using the Internet like an 8 billion-page, cut-and-paste encyclopedia,” he said. “Some of these students have been cheating in such a bold-faced way for so long with no repercussions, they think they’re untouchable.”
A 2003 Rutgers survey points to the growing scope of the problem. In the survey of 18,000 students on 23 college campuses, 38 percent said they'd engaged in “cut and paste” plagiarism from the Internet in the previous year — an increase from the 10 percent who admitted doing the same thing in a 2001 survey.
Barrie's enterprises cover many bases of intellectual-property protection. Turnitin’s parent company, iParadigms, has a service that monitors originality of work for publishers, corporations and news agencies. Such services may be the future for all written information, he said. “In the not-so-distant future, publishers will begin to see zero value in a work that hasn't been screened for originality,” he said, “not just in academics but broadly throughout our society.”
Not just for punishment
John Sandbrook, an educator at the University of California, Los Angeles, cautioned against seeing Turnitin as a purely disciplinary device.
“It simplifies the process for faculty members trying to find whether or not a student’s assignment has portions of it duplicated,” said Sandbrook, special assistant to the executive dean. “Sometimes it’s an innocent issue — a matter of students not properly footnoting. A lot of times, a faculty member finds it useful to illustrate to a student what a student should have done with respect to references. It's not in and of itself a disciplinary tool. It can also be a very instructive tool.”
Dr. Chip Kimball, assistant superintendent of Lake Washington School District, in Washington state, agreed. “While certainly plagiarism is an issue for us, we approach this from the perspective of trying to provide tools for students that help them improve academic performance,” he said.
“Plagiarism is important,” said Kimball, whose district has 24,000 students. “It's becoming particularly important for us because we have revised graduation requirements to include high-stakes writing assignments.”
Guilty until proven innocent?
But while many educators endorse Turnitin’s approach to defending intellectual property, others raise this question: Aren’t students effectively assumed to be guilty until proven innocent if they are forced to have their term papers checked against Turnitin’s database?
In January 2004, a faculty committee at McGill University in Montreal supported Jesse Rosenfeld, a 19-year-old student who objected to his essays being vetted by Turnitin.
Other concerns have been raised in online forums. In one forum on the Web site for the Chronicle of Higher Education, students and scholars have complained of Turnitin fostering “a false sense of security” among faculty and creating a “culture of suspicion.” At other sites, some have condemned Turnitin’s practice of keeping copies of students’ work and using them to make money, based on being able to compare the papers to other works.
Robin Garrell, a professor of chemistry and chair of faculty of UCLA College, said Turnitin has value as an educators' resource: “In my experience, it works as advertised.”
But she said she was “personally disappointed that we have to be concerned about intellectual honesty. I think we need to understand how the culture of information has changed over time. Fifty, or even 20 years ago, the act of expropriating intellectual property was more difficult.”