Some Schools Resist Anti-Cheating Software

Last week Trip Gabriel wrote in the New York Times about the increasingly high-tech methods employed by universities to catch cheating students. Fifty-five percent of Universities use anti-plagiarism websites, according a study cited by the article.

But some universities have resisted the rising popularity–from around 6,000 client institutions in 2006 to over 9,000 in 2010–of anti-cheating software like Turnitin.com , the most popular anti-plagiarism service.

With Turnitin students submit their papers to the website, which then checks the paper against a database of billions of web pages and millions of papers for plagiarism. But in the eyes of some universities, forcing all students to use Turnitin runs counter to their trust and expectation of high-quality work.

Princeton University, for example, has consciously avoided using anti-cheating software and instead stressed the importance of its Honor Code, a pledge of honesty signed by Princeton students after every paper and exam. Emily Aronson, Princeton University spokesperson, wrote in an email to the College Guide that,

The University at several points in the past years has explored electronic programs that would detect plagiarism, most recently in the winter of 2006, and our position to not adopt this kind of software remains the same. We have at every point maintained that centrally adopting this kind of software sends a message to our students that is not one that we want to send. We don’t want to presume that they aren’t approaching their work honestly. We want to presume that they’re behaving with integrity.

She added that the turnitin.com is “not fool proof” and, anyway, Princeton is “Uncomfortable asking our students to take their own intellectual property and submit it over to a private company.”

Cornell University shares this concern. . Back in 2001, Cornell’s legal team, at the urging of then Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Isaac Kramnick, decided that the University could not force students to submit their original – and therefore copyrighted – academic material to the website. Alternately, individual professors could employ the anti-cheating website for their class, as long as they told students at the beginning of the course. Cornell continues to abide by this policy.

Cornell’s position mirrors a copyright-infringement lawsuit from several years ago, A.V. et al v. iParadigms, filed by a number of high school students who claimed that Turnitin violated their copyright material. In 2009, the 4th Circuit of Appeals rejected the students’ copyright infringement claims, concluding that Turnitin met the four bench marks to qualify for the “fair use” of copyrighted materials.

In contrast to Princeton and Cornell, Harvard College centrally adopted the online tool several years ago. For years, Harvard sounded like Cornell or Princeton, telling Bloomberg News in 2006 that the website was both unnecessary given campus culture and in violation of students copyright. But that same year, Harvard College quietly signed a contract with Turnitin and began adopting it on a department-by-department basis.

Harvard’s decision to use Turnitin speaks to a larger trend: today’s universities are struggling to keep pace with tech-savvy cheaters by renting tech savviness from private companies. In a world of nearly limitless potential to plagiarize, Turnitin’s growing popularity makes sense.

But this new way approach to catching cheaters comes at a price, as Princeton’s spokesperson pointed out: schools now assume students are guilty until proven innocent.

Paul Craft

Paul Craft is an intern at the Washington Monthly.