Plagiarise this: UK universities may use law to validate submissions

With plagiarism detection software under UK law, either students can hand over their intellectual property rights and potentially succeed, or refuse... and have their assignments forced through anyway. Fair or unfair?
Written by Zack Whittaker, Contributor on

UK universities who subscribe to the quasi-plagiarism detector, Turnitin, can use the law to force students to submit coursework or essays even if they refuse.

But the company who own the Turnitin software, iParadigms, has already caused controversy by forcing university customers to hand over the intellectual property rights of submissions, which often own the rights as part of the contract between the institution and the student. The numbers are staggering, with the company claiming to own 19 million 'licensed students' and nearly 130 million student papers to check for 'originality' in new essay submissions.


Background For those who remember the post aboutthe license rights to competition submissions by students to the Microsoft Imagine Cup, you can apply the same logic here.

But for some students who are uneasy about handing their work to their university for a split second before it is snapped up by a third-party private company, they can refuse. Refusal though is futile as there is an interpreted element to the UK Data Protection Act which allows universities and colleges to push through the document regardless of the student's wishes.

The institution I study at, the University of Kent (see disclosure) offers some interesting guidance and advice, provided in part by the legal department of the JISC, the Joint Information Systems Committee, which provides IT and computing infrastructure and support to hundreds of universities and colleges in the country.

When a student submits an essay via Turnitin as their primary method of handing an assignment to their academic department at university, they will often go through their university's virtual learning environment, like Moodle or BlackBoard.

Ultimately, the university either via email or through the course tutor, lecturer or similar relevant academic must at some point inform the student that it may be necessary to use this software for submissions. The student must agree to this. This unfortunately means nothing.

(Turnitin 'originality report' console: left, new view - right, classic view.)

One of the documents from the university replies in the frequent asked questions section for students says:

Q. Can I object to my work being stored in the [Turnitin database] system? A. If a copy was legitimately made of your assignment for submission to Turnitin, then you do not have a right to object to the work being stored on copyright grounds.

If your objection is to personal data continuing to be stored on the system, you can submit a notice under Section 10 of the Data Protection Act 1998 if processing of your data would be likely to cause substantial damage or distress.

This means that under copyright laws, you do not have grounds to complain or object because the intellectual property rights have been automatically transferred from you, the student and submitter, to Turnitin's owner, iParadigms.

However, if you have reason (and only you would know) to believe that the work being stored could affect your safety, security or cause you legal, financial or physical harm, the law can be used for your protection and will be taken strongly into account. Ultimately it could be up to a court to intervene if necessary.

But here is where it gets interesting.

From another guidance document relating to more common questions from academics:

Q. Can my students refuse permission to have their personal details and assignments processed by the Turnitin service? A. The Data Protection Act 1998 sets out when and how personal data can be 'processed'. For any institution to validly process personal data, it must comply with one of the two conditions in Schedule 2 of the Data Protection Act 1998. These are:

  • Condition 1: "The data subject has given his consent to the processing."
  • Condition 6: "(1) The processing is necessary for the purposes of legitimate interests pursued by the data controller or by the third party or parties to whom the data are disclosed, except where the processing is unwarranted in any particular case by reason of prejudice to the rights and freedoms or legitimate interests of the data subject."

The [university] will ask for the student’s consent during the registration process at the start of the year. If consent is given, condition 1 is fulfilled. Without consent, the institution may use condition 6 to process the data, on the basis that quality of marking and detection of academic deceit are legitimate interests of the institution.

Consent or no consent, once the document is handed in whether it was done electronically through Turnitin (student gives consent), or handing it in on paper to the relevant submission area (student does not give consent), it is within the university's right to submit it themselves via Turnitin under Condition 6 of Schedule 2 of the UK Data Protection Act.

If the student does not hand in the assignment at all, thus also not giving consent for the work to be submitted through Turnitin, they will not receive marks and could fail their module, course, or entire degree as a result.

The student is in a Catch 22 position. If you want a degree but your school or university uses Turnitin to submit its papers and you object, frankly you can either bite the bullet and accept defeat, or make a stand and fail your course.

What would you do: bite the bullet and succeed, make a stand and fail?

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