I am a careful writer. Not in the sense that my writing isn’t scattered with spelling errors and misuse of punctuation; but in the sense that I am careful about where I source my facts and how I attribute them. I have never been on the wrong end of the plagiarism stick, never accidentally, and certainly never deliberately - if I can’t do the work, I’ll chew on the failure that comes with that rather than be branded a charlatan and a cheat, and I certainly won’t get caught up in the victimisation of the careless.
TurnItIn is a system used by schools, colleges and other academic establishments to check for plagiarism and originality in works. It works by collecting up a huge database off the web of documents, essays, articles and the like, then comparing submitted documents with what it has on file. If there are blocks of text that are similar, either identical word for word or closely paraphrased, the submission is flagged as unoriginal and questions are no doubt asked of the author. When I read about TurnItIn, I thought “what an excellent idea” - finally, using the massive computing power and storage resources we have available in the Internet age, we can have a compendium of works that can be used to evaluate the originality supposed of new creations.
I then learned that TurnItIn has another feature - it actually collects work that have been submitted - so every student that writes an essay for a university that uses the service has their work put permanently on file for comparison with future submissions by other students. I began to consider the legal implications of this behaviour. Effectively, TurnItIn violates the copyrights owned by every student that has ever submitted a piece of work via their University or college. Just like a teenager that has amassed a huge quantity of stolen digital music from around the Internet, TurnItIn has collected a truly colossal volume of works. They aren’t just holding these works for themselves either - they are essentially monetising this collection by making it a cornerstone of their service - without this collected data, TurnItIn wouldn’t have such a strong selling point in this market.
There is another truth to this too. TurnItIn is owned by iParadigms LLC, and that company has a number of fronts - one being WriteCheck. This is a paid (starting to get a feel for what iParadigms is all about eh?) service directed straight at students, allowing them to run their work through TurnItIn’s database without the teacher or lecturer in the middle. I saw one quote from Alex Tabarrok on this behaviour in which he described them as “arming both sides of a plagiarism war” - and I could add “and making a buck off both sides in the process”.
I think some things need to change with regards to services like this. Firstly, students need to be made more aware that their work will be stored by TurnItIn. Services such as this one have created an impression that all work produced by students is homogeneous, standardised or simply a compilation of existing knowledge from other sources. That is not the case - students may have unique, original ideas that are simply being archived away as “taken” by these automated services. Students should have the choice to exclude themselves from this. It should never be the case that a tutor or examiner submits work to be stored in this way without explicit permission from the student. I feel that giving students this option would not have a serious impact on the successfulness of TurnItIn as a service anyway; granted, there will be students that deliberately exclude themselves from the submission process with the intent of passing their work on to friends or selling it. These will be few and far between, and I suspect part of the same educational establishments anyway and as such will likely be “picked up” by more traditional methods.
Secondly, these services need to be better regulated. They are handling the work and Intellectual Property rights of hundreds of thousands of individuals over the course of several years; and yet they are allowed to behave in irresponsible and immoral manners in doing so. Sure, spin-off services like WriteCheck can be wrapped up any way you like by the likes of iParadigms LLC, but surely people can see how wrong they are - allowing students with an obvious intent of plagiarising to know just how far they can push it without getting caught is a unprincipled idea thought up by a company looking to milk an already morally dubious cash cow to death.