Seeking to combat academic dishonesty enabled by the Internet, Provost Kent Fuchs approved a Faculty Senate resolution on Jan. 27 that called for the campus-wide implementation of the controversial plagiarism detection service Turnitin.
Although the University rejected a proposal to implement Turnitin in 2001 because of legal concerns, the University’s legal counsel believes these questions have been resolved following a 2008 lawsuit.
Fuchs said the University expects to begin using Turnitin in the 2011-12 academic year.
Turnitin assists faculty in identifying plagiarized assignments by automatically comparing new papers with a large database of previously published materials. If the content of the submitted paper matches that of another work in the database, Turnitin will flag the plagiarized section and provide a link to the source from which it was possibly copied.
Although the resolution passed the Faculty Senate with 66 percent of the vote, some professors oppose the implementation of the service, particularly as a mandatory requirement for assignment submission. The University has not yet determined how Turnitin will be used in classroom procedures.
Prof. Isaac Kramnick, government, said that the service should only be used when faculty suspect student plagiarism is at hand.
It would be “absolutely abhorrent” if professors begin automatically submitting student papers to Turnitin, since this would wrongly presume student guilt, Kramnick said.
Although he said he voted for the resolution to learn more about the plagiarism service, Prof. David Levitsky, nutrition, a member of the Faculty Senate, said he has “reservations about privacy and a bunch of other aspects” of the service.
Turnitin is “worrisome to me because it is an invasion of student privacy,” Levitsky said.
The service has drawn some national criticism. The Intellectual Property Caucus of the Conference on College Composition and Communication issued a statement in 2007 arguing that services like Turnitin foster distrust between students and faculty and may therefore allow “several compromises to academic integrity and effective teaching.”
In 2008, researchers at Texas Tech conducted a study of Turnitin which found that “many of the instances of ‘non-originality’ that Turnitin finds aren’t plagiarism,” according to an article on the study in Inside Higher Ed.
“Likewise, commonly used phrases generate much flagging even though writing something like ‘there is not enough money to go around,’ while not original, wouldn’t be considered plagiarism,” the article said.
Yet many faculty and administrators said Turnitin is necessary to prevent what they said was a dramatic increase in plagiarism enabled by new methods of cheating.
The recent resolution called for the University to purchase Turnitin in response to “increasing faculty frustration” toward the “consensus … that academic dishonesty is prevalent on our campus.”
When the Educational Policy Committee presented Turnitin to the Faculty Senate on May 12, Prof. David Delchamps, electrical and computer engineering, called plagiarism at Cornell a “huge problem,” according to the meeting’s minutes. Delchamps said that in one College of Arts and Sciences department, 15 percent of honors students lost their honors distinction because of plagiarism in 2010.
Although acknowledging that Turnitin is “going to cost a lot of money to the University,” Delchamps said the service would help reduce endemic plagiarism.
A fee of $2 a student each year is charged for the service, according to Chris Harrick, vice president of marketing at Turnitin. If the University chose to enroll each of the 13,562 undergrads, it would amount to an annual expense of about $27,000.
Prof. Evan Cooch, natural resources, said at the May 12 meeting that the service could help catch student academic dishonesty professors could not.
“There’s no way that we, as individual faculty, are going to be able to take individual papers … and do what Turnitin or equivalent companies can do,” Cooch said.
A large portion of Cornell professors expressed this need for better plagiarism protection, according to Prof. Bruce Levitt, theatre, Chairman of the Educational Policy Committee.
“There was a survey of faculty in 2009, and over 90 percent of the 400 respondents favored some kind of software,” Levitt said.
At the May 12 meeting, Delchamps said Cornell could adopt Turnitin because “lingering legal issues of various kinds about [Turnitin] … have been resolved to the satisfaction of University Counsel.”
In 2001, the University declined a proposal to adopt the service after University lawyers cautioned against copyright issues, according to Kramnick, who was the vice provost of undergraduate education at that time.
But after a 2008 court ruling declared Turnitin’s practices legal, the University’s lawyers abandoned their former caution.
In 2008, four high school students from Virginia sued Turnitin’s parent company, iParadigms, claiming that Turnitin violated copyright laws by adding papers submitted by its clients to the company’s database.
After the court found Turnitin’s use of student’s papers “transformative,” it dismissed claims of copyright violation, as every student who submits a paper to Turnitin is first required to agree to the terms and conditions of the site.
University officials consider the service capable of solving intentional as well as accidental plagiarism. Carol Grumbach, associate dean of students, said the administration plans to use Turnitin as a source of both regulation and education.
“First, plagiarism detection software can be and should be used to educate, not simply punish,” Grumbach said. “However, to the extent that students do cheat, it is important for all students that there be consequences.”
Currently, 2,500 colleges and universities hold a subscription to Turnitin, including 69 percent of U.S. News and World Report Ranking’s Top 100 schools, according to Harrick at Turnitin.
Still, some say plagiarism will remain even if the University adopts Turnitin.
“The reality is students can still pay someone to write a paper for them, and this service would not detect it,” said Gregory Ells, associate director of Gannett Health Services. “No matter what the University does, the issue of academic integrity is ultimately up to the student to consider to what extent integrity is a core value for them.”
Jeff Stein contributed to this report.