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Student wins battle against plagiarism-detection requirement

By Emanuella Grinberg
Court TV


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(Court TV) -- After refusing to submit his class work to a plagiarism-detection Web site, a 19-year-old sophomore has become the first college student to challenge university policy on the issue  -- and win.

The senate committee at McGill University in Montreal sided last Thursday with sophomore Jesse Rosenfeld, who argued that he should not be required to submit his essays to Turnitin.com, a Web site that verifies originality by comparing documents to thousands of others.

Though the ruling was a boon to student organizations across Canada and the United States who have protested use of the plagiarism-detection site, Turnitin.com insists it is in compliance with all related copyright laws.

The conflict began in October, when Rosenfeld refused to hand in essays for his international development studies class through the Web site. He received failing grades for his assignments.

Rosenfeld filed an appeal with the university senate committee. Afterward, his professor "reluctantly" agreed to grade his papers without submitting them through the online plagiarism-detection program  -- giving him Bs and Cs for his work.

Rosenfeld said he had "an ethical and political problem" with the university's policy of submitting student work to Turnitin.com.

"I was having to prove I didn't plagiarize even before my paper was looked at by my professor," Rosenfeld said, according to the Globe and Mail.

Rosenfeld wasn't the only one concerned. Several on-campus groups have voiced opposition to the site, and the national body representing all Canadian student organizations, the Canadian Federation of Students, recently took up a policy position against it.

"Of the 20 Canadian universities currently using the site, not one consulted with students in the decision-making process when signing on with Turnitin.com," said Ian Boyko, national chairman of the CFS. "That in itself shows a lack of respect for students' rights."

Boyko also believes universities should not be permitted to turn over essays to sites like Turnitin.com, which he said makes money off students' work without their consent.

"The student is the author of the work, and deserves to be part of the decision as to where his work goes," Boyko said.

John Barrie, founder and president of Turnitin.com, said such accusations are groundless and made without due diligence.

"This is the first time since our inception in 1998, since millions of papers have gone through our site, that this issue has come up," Barrie said. "We are following the letter of the law, and not one of the 3,000 universities who use our service would have signed contracts with us if we weren't."

Because student work exists in Turnitin.com's database solely as digital fingerprints and not as collections of essays, Barrie disputes accusations that the company makes unfair use of students work.

"The value to our company is not in the collection of words and characters in an essay, but in the series of numbers derived from the essay once we transform those words and characters into digital fingerprints," Barrie said. "In short, the value to us is not derived from the student's actual work."

Barrie says in this way, Turnitin.com does not violate students' copyrights to their work, adding that students retain control over their copy.

"We don't harm the free-market value of the work  -- a student can take their Macbeth essay to the market and make millions," he said.

But, according to CFS, sites like Turnitin.com present an even broader political issue.

"We see the use of sites like Turnitin.com as means of cutting corners," Boyko said. "We think they are a poor substitute for trained individuals."

A former professor who launched the site after students complained of the proliferation of plagiarism because of the Internet, Barrie sees little merit in that argument.

"Human beings can't detect plagiarism," he said, and referred to a Rutgers University study that found 40 percent of students polled admitted they plagiarized at least once.

"Unless you apply a digital solution, it's impossible. We have 13 seven-foot, computer racks to determine if a student has lifted one line in an essay from the Internet."


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