This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

Does plagiarism-detection service violate student privacy?

Published: October 12, 2006

Contributing Editor

The chair of the Faculty Senate Computer Services Committee yesterday presented several "issues of concern" to the senate's executive committee regarding UB faculty members' use of Turnitin, a plagiarism-detection service that can help determine whether a student paper has been copied from uncited sources.

John Ringland, associate professor and director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Mathematics, spoke about recent developments, including a Canadian student suing McMaster University in Hamilton to prevent his papers from being submitted to Turnitin, that "make it timely to think a little a harder about our participation in this service."

"There's a question whether this procedure actually violates rights the students have in their own work," Ringland said, noting that as a result of the successful lawsuit by the student, "The policy at McMaster is that participation in Turnitin is entirely voluntary. Students can opt out of it. I don't know if the U.S. courts will take a similar position on that or not, but it's certainly a possibility."

Student privacy is the most important issue surrounding use of Turnitin, which UB began subscribing to earlier this year, according to Ringland.

"There is enormous potential for accident and abuse in the creation of a permanent, central data-minable repository of everything that every student ever writes. Moreover, this database is completely outside the ownership of us at UB and that magnifies the problem."

Falling into the wrong hands, the Turnitin database "could be an irresistibly attractive resource for any present or future government that would seek to police thought," Ringland said, adding, "Certainly one can imagine that a student concerned over possible surveillance would cause self-censorship in their writing."

Ringland concluded by saying: "The threat to freedom of thought, freedom of expression is by far the most important of all issues here. We in academia should be the first line of defense against threats to these things. So it seems ironic and hard to credit that we in academia are actually the ones that are causing to be brought into existence this instrument by which these fundamental freedoms could be suppressed."

William H. Baumer, professor of philosophy, who served as part of the original test group and recommended UB subscribe to the service, answered questions from several faculty senators about how papers are submitted to Turnitin.

Either students themselves or their instructors can submit the students' papers to Turnitin, "but on either account it is possible not to use the student's name," Baumer said. "It is not necessarily traceable to that person in terms of someone accessing the Turnitin database." Faculty can attach a phony name or even a number to each paper submitted for checking.

Ringland argued this still doesn't protect students.

"Association need not be at the level of name to be troublesome because there will still be an association with a course, so it will not be anonymous," he said.

Baumer explained that only instructors who "use all of what Turnitin makes available"—i.e., choosing an option that allows each student in the course to submit a paper for a report from Turnitin—will encounter the risk of those papers being associated with particular courses.

"Otherwise, the most that's going to happen is it's going to be traced back to me," Baumer said. "And if I use a dummy name for the student, there's no way, unless somebody comes back to me and says 'who was that?' that anybody is going to find out who that student was. At that point, I have all the responsibilities that I already had in terms of keeping it confidential."

Furthermore, Baumer said he doesn't submit "300 research essays from a couple sets of world civilization courses," but only the papers he suspects of plagiarism.

Debra Street, assistant professor and director of graduate studies in the Department of Sociology, was concerned "that we start with the assumption that students are cheaters.

"I think all of us can sense plagiarism when it happens; we have hunches, we know our fields," she said. "Actually, doing a competent Google search...typically finds the brilliant piece of plagiarism. I like to start a class with the assumption that if I treat students respectfully, they will be respectful back. And I remind them of that every time they hand in a paper and exam. This is a little too 'Big Brother' for me."

Ringland and Baumer agreed that a set of guidelines regarding student privacy is needed for UB faculty members who use Turnitin.

When UB began using the service earlier this year, Michael Ryan, vice provost and dean for undergraduate education, recommended that faculty members "include certain passages in our course syllabus (noting) that materials suspected of being plagiarized could be submitted to an electronic check so that it was not without notice to the students if faculty did that," Baumer said.

Following a suggestion by Judith A. Adams-Volpe, director of university and external relations for the UB Libraries, that the Educational Technology Center could draft such guidelines, Peter A. Nickerson, professor of pathology and chair of the Faculty Senate, said he would submit the request to the ETC.

In other business, Lawrence A. Labinski, chair of the Professional Staff Senate, said he and Nickerson will be forming an ad hoc committee of members from both senates to produce a wellness plan for UB employees that goes beyond the annual Wellness Fair and makes resources and information available year-round.