THE WAR ON PLAGIARISM

In Features /

By Adrian Morrow and Jesse McLean

It was nearly 3 a.m. when S.A. finished the first research paper he had ever written. The second-year electrical engineering student was tired; this was the first liberal study he had taken since arriving from Pakistan in 2005. He and his group members had split up the work. Ahmed and one partner would do the research, the third student would write the paper. This simple plan, a miscommunication and a piece of computer software ruined Ahmed’s career.

Without his knowledge, whole sections of Ahmed’s research were cut and pasted directly into the project by his partner. When the professor ran the paper through Turnitin.com, the plagiarism-detection service, it came out as a colourful mess — most of it was plagiarized. The instructor called Ahmed and his group members into her office to deliver the news. There would be a black mark on all their academic records.

Ahmed was devastated. He had no idea what had happened. “I’m not going to get a job with that on my record. I want my internship — how can I get that?” he asked.

When Turnitin first came to Ryerson in fall 2002, it was met with a furor of opposition: students protested, faculty argued and one member of the Senate, then called Academic Council, resigned. Since then, the firestorm has died down, but flared up again with last year’s revelation that U.S. intelligence officers can access the papers students submit to the website. At universities across the country, Turnitin has ignited anger over the invasion of privacy entrained by a new security culture.

Now, for the first time in Canada, the Eyeopener uncovers a school’s dealings with the controversial service. Seven hundred pages of documents expose Ryerson’s assault on plagiarism in the name of academic integrity, and the lack of consultation that keeps the attack moving.

***

At 7:31 a.m on Sept. 11, 2001, the head of Ryerson’s tech department forwarded an e-mail to her boss suggesting that professors consider purchasing Turnitin. It is the earliest record of the school discussing the program. It emerged again the next year, as the Patriot Act worked its way through Congress.

From the beginning, Diane Schulman carried the school’s banner in its anti-plagiarism crusade. “I’m on a one-woman campaign to tear these down,” she said, her fist clenching pink posters advertising an online paper-mill.

The secretary of Academic Council seized on Turnitin as a powerful weapon in her arsenal. She became its biggest proponent at Ryerson. “I just see it as a tool for our faculty to read your paper in the assurance that it’s your paper,” she said, pointing out that no professor is forced to use the service — it’s a purely voluntary program. She said that using Turnitin is for the students’ own good.

“We don’t want you to have a degree if you cheat to get it,” she said. “I want to be turning out engineers who know how to build a bridge.”

She inherited the Turnitin portfolio from Michael Dewson, Ryerson’s vice-provost faculty affairs. Dewson got serious about bringing the service to the school in the spring and summer of 2002, and corresponded with York University about the possibility of a joint purchase.

The plan to sign a joint contract fell through after some of York’s faculty questioned whether Turnitin would expose the IP addresses of students using the service. But Ryerson forged on. Against the expressed wishes of some students and faculty, the school bought the rights to use the service in June 2002.

Some members of Academic Council were angry that administration had signed the school up for Turnitin without putting it to a vote. Schulman insisted there was no need to consult them, saying it’s up to administration to decide what to buy.

“It wasn’t a decision for academic council to make,” she said.

Other council members thought differently. Journalism student Stephen Wicary quit Academic Council, citing the administration’s bypassing of council on Turnitin as a major motivation.

“Given the importance of upholding the academic integrity of the school, one could reasonably assume the issue would be put to council. It was not,” he wrote in his letter of resignation. He compared the use of Turnitin to the suspension of civil liberties in post-9/11 America.

“It’s kind of a paternalistic attitude towards students,” he said. “You’re guilty until proven innocent.”

Documents show that Schulman forwarded the resignation to Dewson, warning him that there might be some discussion of Turnitin at the next council meeting on Oct. 1, 2002. When asked by the Eyeopener, neither could remember Wicary’s resignation. “I’ve never heard of it, I have no clue,” said Schulman while holding a copy of her response to his letter.

In the early days of the fight, Ken Marciniec became the voice of student opposition to Turnitin on Academic Council. As the friendly, soft-spoken VP Education for the Ryerson Students’ Administrative Council (RyeSAC, now the Ryerson Students’ Union), the unlikely firebrand would find himself opposing Schulman for the better part of two years.

“We used to joke that her ‘war on plagiarism’ was like the ‘war on terrorism’ and that it was just as effective — which is not very effective at all,” he said.

He heard complaints about Turnitin from students and identified several problems with the service. The fact that a private company was profiting from the work of students topped the list, followed by the concern that the system would mistake poorly-cited essays for plagiarism. “Students submit to it, and it’s their work. It’s not the university’s work, not the work of some private American company,” Marciniec said.

At the Oct. 1 council meeting, he pressed the administration for details on Turnitin. Although Schulman had already paid U.S. $6,662.50 for the service, she told council that the service would cost no more than $5,000.

“They didn’t want a debate on it, it was much easier for them to bring it in, then leave council to push for it after the fact,” Marciniec recalled. “You’d think being a university, being a place where people come to learn, you’d think there’d be more of a genuine discussion and debate over something that was so controversial. My sense is that they wouldn’t have been successful if they put it to a debate.”

The decision to adopt Turnitin was part of a larger push to improve academic honesty. Around the same time, the faculty of arts had started an initiative that included educating students on properly citing papers and professors on how to discourage cheating.

Don McCabe, a researcher at Rutgers University in New Jersey, also evaluated Ryerson’s academic integrity that year. While Schulman referenced McCabe’s findings in the fight against plagiarism, he said that he never endorsed Turnitin. “In some ways, Turnitin is the antithesis of having an honour code that supports honesty and integrity,” he said.

In an e-mail to RyeSAC on the subject in Nov.ember 2003, he described the service as a quick-fix to the problem of plagiarism, but cautioned that it can break down the relationship of trust between students and their professors.

“I still believe that the widespread use of Turnitin, while solving a short-term problem, does a lot to destroy the element of trust between faculty and students,” he wrote. “Students … are beginning to suggest to me that the more widespread use of Turnitin is simply causing them to think of new ways to cheat. It’s almost like nuclear proliferation.”

***

John Barrie never intended to catch plagiarists. As a teaching assistant at the University of California, Berkeley, where he earned a doctorate in biophysics, Barrie developed a peer-review forum for students to critique each other’s work. In fact, in 1996, Science Magazine published his manuscript on how to use the Internet to expand the current model of education.

But then the experiment turned sour. Students stormed his office, complaining that people in other classes were downloading the papers from the online forum and passing the assignments off as their own. Some reports had a student hawking papers for $10 apiece.

So Barrie changed the program. Using a brain-wave pattern-recognition technology he was working on in neurobiology as his inspiration, he applied similar software to a large database of texts. As Barrie told the Melbourne Press Club in a 2003 keynote speech, one of the first articles published about Turnitin ended its first sentence with, “John Barrie could be your worst nightmare.”

And his work has spread through iParadigms, the company he founded to market Turnitin. Millions of students and faculties use the software in more than 85 countries, including every university in the United Kingdom. The website receives about 40,000 student submissions a day — with numbers doubling every year.

According to Turnitin’s proposal to Ontario universities, the technology is straightforward. The site uses “powerful algorithms” to reduce a student’s manuscript to a collection of numbers. The numbers are then cross-referenced against thousands of papers in the company’s California database. At the same time, an automated web-crawler combs through billions of websites, hunting for a possible match. A 10-page paper takes about 10 seconds to process. Finally, the service produces a colour-coded “originality report” — a rainbow of plagiarism detection. “Turnitin is our effort at providing a digital solution to this digital problem,” Barrie said.

But the software has problems. Ryerson’s contract with Turnitin states that the agreement “shall be governed by the laws of the United States of America.” And according to Section 215 of the contentious, post-9/11 U.S. Patriot Act, any text stored in the company’s database can be investigated by U.S. officials.

Dewson said any hypothetical scenario of an essay leading to a Maher Arar case will be moot once the company installs a database in Canada in late November.

Still, there’s another issue — perhaps the closest to Ryerson’s heart. Under Section 11 of the contract, it states that Ryerson must “defend, indemnify and hold iParadigms harmless” if the school doesn’t follow the contract’s “strong recommendations” in case someone sues. The recommendations? Ryerson must inform students in their course outlines that they will be subject to Turnitin, and offer an opt-out option.

Julia Hanigsberg, Ryerson’s general counsel, has been reviewing the legalities of Turnitin since last winter. Although she hasn’t heard of any legal pursuits against the service in North America, “If a student decided to sue and the contract was somehow breached, Ryerson would have to defend it,” she said. S.A.’s professor didn’t include Turnitin in the course outline or provide an opt-out, against the conditions of the indemnification clause. In the case that Ahmed pursues legal action, Ryerson would be completely on the hook while iParadigms would walk away untouched.

***

Around Halloween 2003, the student members of Academic Council met in RyeSAC’s old office in the basement of Jorgenson Hall. Marciniec, who was now RyeSAC’s President, and council member Ben Lewis asked the student union’s lawyer William Reid for his analysis of the service and its copyright implications.

Meanwhile, 12 floors above them in Jorgenson, administration was panicking. E-mail documents between Schulman, Dewson and then-president Claude Lajeunesse indicate that they feared a legal challenge to Turnitin was brewing at the school. Even the company’s executives in California got wind of the legal opinion, e-mailing and phoning Schulman to find out what was happening.

Back downstairs, Reid briefed Marciniec and Lewis. It wasn’t clear, he said, whether Turnitin’s use of student papers was really “fair use” under Canadian copyright law. Reid said the problem wouldn’t be resolved until someone took the company to court in Canada and he suggested Ryerson tell Turnitin to submit a test case. Reid’s was the first legal brief on the issue in Canada. “At the time, Turnitin was new and people were afraid to say much,” he said. “There was nothing else written.”

The documents suggest that there was no legal challenge — RyeSAC went no further than Reid’s legal opinion. But administration had reason to fear the possibility that RyeSAC would: at McGill, international development student Jesse Rosenfeld was actively challenging his school’s use of Turnitin. He refused to submit three assignments for his second-year economics course to the website, so his professor refused to grade them. He maintained that every paper submitted to the site is added to Turnitin’s database, enlarging their resource bank, which allows the company to court higher prices in future contracts. In the end, McGill caved. Rosenfeld’s professor agreed to mark his essay and talk of a legal challenge evaporated.

***

While students discussed the legal implications of Turnitin, the faculty debated the ethics of the service itself. “I work very hard at establishing a relationship of trust with my students because I believe that trust is a necessary condition of learning. I am not going to jeopardize that because one or two students might believe they are gaining something by cheating,” wrote image arts instructor Lila Pine on the faculty’s online forum.

“I refuse to run my class like a police state.”

But others said this opinion was an overreaction. Politics professor Neil Thomlinson argued that students had to trust that professors would award marks fairly. A service like Turnitin could help this end, he said, as long as students can opt out.

In a Dec. 9 meeting with Schulman, Marciniec suggested that the university adopt a policy requiring instructors to give their students the choice to opt out — in which students who objected to submitting their work to Turnitin could perform an alternative, such as providing a more detailed bibliography, in exchange for not having to use the service. Schulman indicated that they’d already started looking into it.

Over the next few months, the opt-out became the focus of the Turnitin debate at Academic Council: even though administration argued that council had no jurisdiction in buying the service, the body could at least regulate it. However, Schulman wanted to make sure few students would opt out. As she wrote in an email to fellow admin: “[Faculty] must give students some sort of an opt-out option… It should be a substantial alternative so as to not make it too attractive.”

After a few more meetings, Academic Council approved a policy that made an opt-out option available to students.

***

Ryerson now pays $18,087.50 per year to Turnitin — a price that Schulman once credited to bargaining skills she honed in the working-class Lower East Side of Manhattan. And with more than 65,000 papers submitted since 2002, most of which come from the business school, it seems that Turnitin has found a home at Ryerson.

Turnitin flags only about seven per cent of submitted papers for having strong similarities to texts already in the database. But as Schulman points out, only a small fraction of these are actually plagiarized — the rest are just poorly cited.

For Ahmed, that fact makes all the difference. More than a year after he was accused of plagiarizing, he finally appeared before an appeal committee — and he won. His record is clean. But he’s left with a deep distrust for Turnitin and the system whose zeal for integrity presupposed his guilt. “It’s like you’ve done everything wrong,” he said. “They treat you like you’re a criminal.”

Leave a Comment