By Matthew Kwong
Turnitin.com, an electronic service used at Ryerson to combat academic dishonesty, could be challenged in court because of issues related to copyright ownership.
At RyeSAC’s request, legal counsel Bill Reid reviewed the Web site, which keeps an electronic data bank of essays submitted by students across North America in order to deter plagiarism.
In a Nov. 3 briefing paper, Reid noted that he can’t resolve the legal issues created by the site, but he can point to the fact that issues exist.
One of the most significant issues is whether Turnitin violates copyright held by students. According to its online legal document, Turnitin’s use of student work complies with copyright laws and requirements, but only under U.S. law.
But Reid calls attention to the service being based in California, where American legislation’s terms for fair use are ‘open-ended,’ as opposed to Canada’s more restrictive legislation.
John Barrie, founder of Turnitin.com, says lawyers will dispute anything that has a trace of grey area.
“I hate to say this, but you’ll always find someone who will pick up what they see and make some wiggle room,” he said. “If what we were doing wasn’t legal, nobody would have signed that contract.”
RyeSAC sought its own legal opinion from Reid after Ryerson made it impossible for students to opt out of using the Web site.
“There was really no consultation about whether the service should be mandatory or not, and that I take issue with,” said Ben Lewis, a member of RyeSAC’s board of directors. He hopes that by the end of this year, Ryerson will reconsider their subscription to the service, which cost the university $5000 last year. but according to Barrie’s records at Turnitin, the school has already paid the company for the next three years.
Some faculty members, such as Kenneth Montague, a philosophy professor, refuse to use the service because they dislike how Turnitin sets up a guilty-until-proven-innocent model.
Barrie has a different view.
“Are you telling me that on your hockey rink up there in Canada, you’re saying that ll of your athletes are cheating bastards because there are referees on the ice?”
He says the function of his company is to ensure students follow the rules.
Reid recommends that Academic Council request that Turnitin submit a test case to Ontario courts to clarify its legal boundaries to Ryerson.
But the university’s president Claude Lajeunesse firmly opposes such a move.
“As RyeSAC themselves say many times, students are paying a lot of money and I’m not going to waste [student money] on this type of activity,” he said.
Lajeunesse says the service increases the level of fairness. By removing the cheaters, students are only competing against others who have done their work, not those who cheated to get their grade.
Barrie agrees and says his Web site catches cheaters.
“Look, you can search google until the cows come home, but I guarantee you’ll never find out if a student copied from 99 per cent of the journals out there,” he said. “Believe me, if there were a way better way to hunt cheaters, people would be doing it and you wouldn’t hear about us.”
Ryerson subscribed to the service two years ago.