INTRODUCTION :: The story goes something like this:
There was a particularly difficult college professor notorious for a low grading scale. After years of low grade following low grade, one paper finally earned a B minus, the highest grade ever awarded by this professor. Word spread about the paper, and the student author sold it to the highest bidder, who later turned in the same paper to the same professor and received a B. The next year, after being recycled yet again, the paper received a B plus. When the paper was recycled and submitted a fourth time, it finally received an A and a comment from the professor, “I’ve read this paper four times now, and I like it better each time.”
The story may be true, but it is more likely a college legend. Either way, this story and others like it help reduce the strain of college life and keep alive the eternal hope of one day outwitting a professor. But the stories also foster an improper sense of ease and comfort with plagiarism. Recycling another’s paper and resubmitting it does not gradually lead down the path to higher grades; rather, this is likely an academic violation that could lead to failing grades or worse.
In a “cut-and-paste” Internet environment where plagiarism is easier than ever, academic institutions face the daunting challenges of promoting honesty and respect for the work of others and of ensuring the integrity of the learning and grading processes. Many academic institutions have accordingly turned to commercial plagiarism prevention and detection services, such as those provided by a company called Turnitin. Yet those institutions that use the Turnitin system may be fostering infringement of the intellectual property rights of their students. When Virginia’s McLean High School recently announced plans to use Turnitin, students balked and collected 1,190 student signatures on a petition that opposed mandatory use of the system, because that use of Turnitin would infringe their intellectual property rights by automatically adding their essays to the company’s massive database. In response, school officials backed off a plan to require students in all grades to submit essays to Turnitin, deciding instead to phase in use of Turnitin by making it mandatory only for ninth- and tenth-grade students in specified classes. As one student stated, “‘It seems they pretty much changed the policy so they don’t have to deal with the people who are protesting it.’”
But as the plagiarism problem grows and questions about the legality and effectiveness of the Turnitin system linger and extend far beyond McLean High School, the academic world will be able to dodge the problem only for so long. Part II of this Note examines the plagiarism problem facing the academic world; Part III examines the origins and workings of the Turnitin system; Part IV analyzes the copyright issues raised by Turnitin’s service and examines the broader question whether plagiarism prevention justifies deferential treatment in a fair use inquiry; Part V examines further implications of the copyright analysis; Part VI examines Turnitin’s effectiveness; and Part VII provides alternative solutions to the plagiarism problem.
May 2015, Vol. 67, No. 3
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