Turnitin neither infringement, effective
Turnitin.com, the popular anti-plagiarism Web site, provides a valuable function when it is understood and used properly. While concerns of student’s rights are misplaced, concerns about professors who don’t understand the software are real, which can cause at least headaches and at worst a total nightmare.
There is a concern Turnitin violates student’s rights as the Web site stores a copy of submitted work to its massive archive, it then use to check future work. This argument rests upon the faulty assumption students are not consenting to the paper being added to the archive. Upon clicking "agree" to the user agreement terms and the use of Turnitin, the student grants Turnitin a limited right to compare their work to other works.
Submitting a paper to Turnitin in no way makes them the owner of the work, and Turnitin has no right to sell, publish, or use the work in any other non-disclosed capacity. The student remains the copyright holder of the work with respective rights.
When Turnitin finds a similar passage in another student-based work, Turnitin does not display the whole text, but a limited section. Permission to view the whole text in question can be submitted to the copyright holder through the Turnitin system.
"They made a profit from copyrighted material" is not necessarily a violation of rights. "Fair use" under U.S. copyright law allows for commercial use of copyrighted material when only a portion of the work is being used or when the use does not affect the marketability of the work. This derives from the court case Folsom v. Marsh, which states to evaluate "fair use," one must "look to the nature and objects of the selections made, the quantity and value of the materials used, and the degree in which the use may prejudice the sale, or diminish the profits, or supersede the objects, of the original work."
Consider a for-profit book quoting a paragraph of text from another copyrighted article in order to criticize the position. Such use of copyrighted material does not mean the rights of the author of the quoted article have been infringed. But on the other hand, if the book republishes the entire article, even with proper citation, this would be a clear case of copyright infringement. A judiciary body is needed to find the appropriate line between fair and unfair use.
In the Turnitin case, such a court ruling has taken place in A.V. v. iParadigms. In March 2007, two Virginia and two Arizona high school students sought $900,000 in damages from Turnitin after submitting a paper to Turnitin under instruction of their teacher. The case was thrown out in March of this year. The judge cited in both the defenses Turnitin was covered by the acceptance of the user agreement and the use of Turnitin was sufficiently transformative, allowing the action to fall under fair use.
The high school students claimed the acceptance of the user agreement was made under duress, because if they did not submit the paper they would fail the assignment. Such an argument from college students would be less sound because attending college and signing up for a specific course that has Turnitin requirements are voluntary choices, compared to the compulsory nature of high school attendance.
The largest misconception held by some is that Turnitin alone can catch plagiarism. It cannot. No piece of software can catch plagiarism; software can only find similarities, which Turnitin does very well. It is only a tool to help in the assistance of finding plagiarism. Turnitin’s similarity index, the percent of similar text compared with Turnitin’s archive, is not a plagiarism percentage. If a submitted paper kicks back a 20, 40, or 60 percent similarity index, this means nothing in the relation of plagiarism.
What can be frustrating is when professors require all submitted papers to have 30 percent or below similarity indexes. Why is 29 percent acceptable, but 31 is not? The end result is time spent on the student’s behalf changing direct quotes into paraphrases, removing sections of the paper that cite external material, or making the paper longer without quoting additional sources. These actions will all function to shrink the similarity percentage. These paper modifications happen in a climate of fear as the image hangs in the background of being pulled in front of a university plagiarism board and having one’s college education come to an abrupt end.
Turnitin compares direct text, so changing words to synonyms can help evade its similarity detection. But even with this limitation, Turnitin is better than the alternatives of blind accusations or randomly putting phrases into Google in hoping of finding the original material.
Overall, Turnitin helps catch and deter plagiarism, which in the end is one of the grossest violations of intellectual property and copyright infringement plaguing the academic world today.