Opinion, Science & Technology

Know Your Rights: Turnitin

Note: This article is hosted here for archival purposes only. It does not necessarily represent the values of the Iron Warrior or Waterloo Engineering Society in the present day.

With classes starting up again, many of you may start seeing that you are required to hand in reports, essays or projects into “Turnitin”, a plagiarism detection software program. While still not used in heavily technical courses found in Engineering, this program name is appearing more often on course syllabi. It’s important to fully understand what Turnitin is, and what your rights as a student are when enrolled in a course utilizing it.

Turnitin is plagiarism detection software that is becoming more popular with North American universities. Students are required to submit a soft copy of their file, from which the software analyzes the text to detect any similarities or exact wordings from a vast repository of books, online and other student work. An “Originality Report” is created for each submitted file which indicates what text appears to be plagiarized. However it is ultimately up to instructors to review any similarities and determine if it’s intentional or just a coincidence.

While the software aims to create a fair playing field, there are a number of other issues related to Turnitin that are overlooked in the blurb instructors are required to put on syllabi for courses utilizing it.

The most significant part left out of the mandatory “Turnitin” blurb is that once one submits a document, a copy is automatically archived on the Turnitin database to use to compare to future student submissions. A number of IP and privacy concerns have been raised about this, though some US courts have ruled this as legal. Ethical concerns about a private company profiting off of comparing your work to others for money still exist.

The second major issue has to do with where the archives are stored. According to both Turnitin, and uWaterloo, all Canadian university submissions are stored on servers within Canada. This is to relieve concerns about the US Government having access to archived files on US-based servers. However, in August 2011, Dalhousie University in Halifax cancelled its contract with Turnitin after it was revealed that submissions were being stored on US-based servers, despite the contractual agreement. At press, it’s unclear what checks and balances uWaterloo is taking to ensure that the same is not happening here, and one would hope they would be upfront and honest if any such breach had or is occurring.

So what can you do instead? It may be too late in the term already, but all instructors are required by uWaterloo policy to provide an alternative to students who don’t wish to submit their work to Turnitin during the first week of the term. I realize this article will reach you in week three, but try talking to your professor to find an arrangement if you do have concerns about either your IP or privacy rights as a student. Some recommended resolutions from the Office of Academic Integrity can include submitting an annotated bibliography, submitting a draft bibliography identifying all sources before the actual due date, or having a “scaffolded” assignment where a student submits the framework of their paper early on and then at least one draft with a bibliography before the final paper. However, other options that an instructor and student can agree upon are also valid.

For more information on uWaterloo’s TurnitIn policy and procedures, checkout http://ist.uwaterloo.ca/cs/Turnitin/. There is a wide variety of information available of student concerns about Turnitin on the web that is accessible through Google.

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