By Stephen Huebl
This year Ryerson has decided to fight fire with fire in dealing with plagiarism.
Professors will be able to submit assignments and essays to Turnitin.com, a website that can determine if any part of an essay has been plagiarized.
Papers submitted to the site are checked against a database of essays, books and journals, as well as more than a billion websites. Phrases that appear to be unoriginal are flagged for professors to check.
Because the site keeps copies of all the papers that have been submitted, some American schools do not allow the use of Turnitin.com because of privacy and copyright issues.
John Barrie, founder of Turnitin.com, said that universities can opt out of the central database if they want to use on-campus servers instead, but they won’t get as much out of the service if they do.
“If the university wants to opt out, our service is probably not for you,” he said.
Barrie dismissed privacy concerns, saying that the company does not give out student information or papers that have been submitted, even to university administrators.
He said the only person with access to the reports is the professor.
Barrie said there are no copyright infringements, as the student maintains ownership of the paper.
“It’s a non-issue because we don’t distribute the papers,” he said. “It’s called fair use of students’ work.”
The Turnitin.com website boasts that it is deterring nearly five million students worldwide from plagiarizing, and claims it is used in over 50 countries at some of the world’s most respected institutions.
Barrie said the service is being used by universities and colleges across the United States, and by every university in the U.K., including Cambridge and Oxford.
“Canada is probably second to the UK in making a concerted effort to stop plagiarism,” he said.
Ryerson will be adding its name to a growing list of Canadian universities that already use the site, including Western, UBC, Brock, Dalhousie, Simon Fraser and York. The University of Toronto will be signed up with the website by the end of the month.
Barrie, a former Berkeley University student, developed an early version of the program in 1994. The original intention was to allow students in large lecture classes to share their papers with others in the class to see how others were approaching the assignments.
That backfired when some students began talking and submitting papers that weren’t their own.
Several years later Barrie read some articles about the new breed of cheat sites that were making money from selling papers online. That’s when he decided to use his technology to combat this form of cheating.
Diane Schulman, Secretary of the Academic Counsel at Ryerson, spearheaded the initiative to use the site. She said the university researched different options and settled on Turnitin.com, finding it to be the most “widely-used and best service available.”
Academic Council will not have to approve the use of the web site, as it was an executive decision, said Schulman.
And if students refuse to have their work submitted to the site, Schulman said the faculty member will have to settle on an alternative substitution, such as requiring the student to hand in copies of cited sources.
Schulman didn’t have any specifics about the cost, but said it would be modest. Barrie said the price is $500 USD, plus about 50 cents per student enrolled in the school. Ryerson’s plan is for one year of unlimited use, he said.
Ryerson is entitled to a 40 per cent discount because it purchased the service through the Ontario University Consortium.
Ira Levine, dean of the faculty of communications and design, said the problem of plagiarism has been made worse by the availability of online material.
“The decision [to use the site] will be made on a school by school basis,” he said. “Obviously it will be more appropriate for some.”
Levine said that assignments in his faculty are more creative and therefore beyond the scope of online services. He said Turnitin.com would be more useful to liberal studies courses that use more conventional assignments.
Genita Campbell, a second-year social work student thinks it will be an effective way to deter students from plagiarizing, but said there should be a certain amount of leeway given.
“I think it will definitely bring down the number of cases of plagiarism,” she said, “but there should be a tolerance level for people who make a simple mistake with citing.”
Barrie said the aim of the service is to act as a deterrent against plagiarizing, not about catching people.
“It’s kind of like an alarm sticker on a car window,” he said.
Schulman said the site will be an important part of Ryerson’s efforts to put a stop to academic cheating.
“We want cheating to be unacceptable,” said Schulman. “Like throwing a recyclable can in the garbage. We want people here to be honest.”