Turnitin: if you're a student, all your intellectual property might belong to us

Summary:To most students, it seems like Turnitin is just another case of "The Man" being out to get them.

If you're a student, odds are that you've encountered the anti-plagiarism site Turnitin.com. And if you have, you may be feeling as if you've been forced to turn over all your intellectual property rights to a commercial company called iParadigms, LLC.

Turnitin is a service used by schools to cross-checks student assignments against submissions by other students, and also against other research resources and Web pages all across the Internet.

The service, operated by iParadigms, claims it has 123 million student papers, 785,689 active instructors, 19 million "licensed" students, 20+ billion Web pages crawled, more than 80,000 journals, periodicals, and books, and 9,000 educational institutions worldwide.

Students are often required by their instructors or schools to use the service, or risk failing. When a student turns in a paper, the process usually involves getting an account and uploading the paper.

Turnitin's software cross-checks the text against a large database and then flags word sequences that match other word sequences in their database. It's up to the teacher, who also logs into the service, to determine if a flagged match counts as plagiarism or is a properly-cited quote.

Although many students obviously feel untrusted when using this service, as a former college professor, I can sadly see the value. And as an editor, nothing sucks more than thinking you're getting an original article only to find it's been published before.

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All your intellectual property belong to us

My issue with Turnitin, and the reason it was pointed out to me by a student friend of mine, is the company's usage policy.

There are two relevant paragraphs. The first paragraph is located in the Ownership section, and seems quite reasonable:

To the extent you are a student submitting a paper for review in connection with a class you are taking, then we may only use the content of your paper for the purpose of performing our services for your educational provider and for future use as part of our database.

As you can see, it says they can only use the content of the paper for the purpose of performing their services. So far, so good.

But later, in the "Your License to Us" section, they appear to go way too far:

We are free to use any ideas, concepts, techniques, know-how in your Communications for any purpose, including, but not limited to, the development and use of products and services based on the Communications.

At first glance, this looks like they own any intellectual property submitted through their service.

For example, back in the days of wooden ships and iron programmers, my thesis for my Computer Science degree was the invention of a new programming language, one of the very first to use objects. Had I used Turnitin, I'd be worried that the entire invention might have effectively become their product.

To be fair to iParadigms, it's not 100% clear they're out to take your thesis and profit from it. Earlier in the usage policy, they define Communications as "questions, comments, suggestions, and other data and information" submitted on the site. They specifically exclude "any papers submitted to the Site".

There oughta be a law!

When I originally found out about the students' complaints about Turnitin, it seemed like there might need to be some federal protection of students rights in response to this service. After a more careful review, I think its best if we leave Congress to the infighting and counter-productive squabbles its best at, at least for this issue.

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I does seem that this is a case of the company's attorneys being far to aggressive, to the possible detriment of the students involved. I looked at the software and it seems thoughtfully designed and well implemented.

But since the student users of Turnitin are effectively hostages to the service, the student's I've talked to have obsessively mined the site for things to freak out about.

There is no reason for the company to claim ownership of any student's intellectual property rights, whether embodied in a paper or thesis submitted, or the result of correspondence on the site.

iParadigms needs to rewrite, simplify, and clarify their usage policy so it doesn't seem so predatory.

Advice to students

If you're a student, be aware of what you submit. Maybe you should be on the safe side and do your best to keep any true innovations out of the papers you submit to the service. Most definitely you should keep them out of your supporting communications.

Advice to professors

If you're a professor, be aware that Turnitin provides an overall match score and you might be tempted to use that as the final arbiter of whether a student has plagiarized material. The company itself clearly says not to use that number alone to judge students.

If you're going to use Turnitin.com, you have to do your homework, too. You're obligated to look carefully at each paragraph, and be sure items flagged are actual plagiarism and not simply properly cited quotes.

Also, teachers have the option to show students how Turnitin has rated their papers. Even if this is an extra cost option, it's only fair to turn this option on, so students can see how they've been judged -- and perhaps defend themselves if the site has misread their work.

Finally, think about what kind of message you're sending when you demand that your students use this service.

Closing thoughts

Sadly, Turnitin might be an academic necessity. The company seems to be doing its best to provide value to teachers and a relatively reasonable experience to students. But with a poorly-written usage policy, it looks to most students like Turnitin is just another case of "The Man" being out to get them.

Topics: Legal, Enterprise Software

About

In addition to hosting the ZDNet Government and ZDNet DIY-IT blogs, CBS Interactive's Distinguished Lecturer David Gewirtz is an author, U.S. policy advisor and computer scientist. He is featured in The History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets, is one of America's foremost cyber-security experts, and is a top expert on savi... Full Bio

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