[otn / coding / licensing]

Plagiarism & Licensing of works - academic and otherwise

A short paper by Robin Hugh Johnson (robbat2_AT_orbis_DASH_terrarum_DOT_net)
September 7, 2003
(Paper still in process of being written)

Recently, many universities have started looking towards outside services in an attempt to combat plagiarism. While this in itself is an acceptable goal, the approaches that have been taken to date should cause a lot more concern than they do presently.

What is plagiarism?

To steal or purloin from the writings of another; to appropriate without due acknowledgment (the ideas or expressions of another). [Emphasis Added]
(Source: Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary, © 1996, 1998 MICRA, Inc. accessed via Dictionary.com)

The problem is not directly taking the work of another, but rather taking the work of another and not properly acknowledging that you have done so. References, Citations, et al. are all part of acknowledging your sources.

For the moment, let's focus on two specific sub-areas of work: Papers/Essays and Programming Assignments. Both of these have some factors of their plagiarism in common. The primary plagiarism in both is simply students sharing their work. I am a noted programmer in the open source software world due to my work, and I have no qualms with people looking at my code as an example of good coding and for a better understanding of the concepts behind my work. In such cases, they are required to cite that they may have borrowed some concepts or code from my work. While I do not personally mind if they borrow my code (and cite it), I do strongly object to people borrowing material from my written papers. Such a position may be assumed as hypocritical, but I reason that you require a base level of understanding to actually figure out my code, whereas my papers are self-explanatory and can thus be more easily used in plagiarism.

Beyond simple sharing of work, there lurks a more subversive and tempting demon: Term-Paper Mills. Services that either for free (revenue generated from advertising), or profit provide pre-written papers and in some cases custom paper writing services. Margaret Fain of Coastal Carolina University has collected an extensive list of known Internet Paper Mills (http://www.coastal.edu/library/mills2.htm).

Returning to Custom Paper Writing, it has been observed in many programming courses that students have come to programming communities on the Internet with their assignments and have succeeded on more than one occasion in getting other people to write their code to the assignment specifications.

Detecting plagiarism

Perhaps the most well-known site is TurnItIn.com (previously Plagiarism.org), but Google has a whole directory category for these services, and lists many more in its actual search index. However, some supposedly anti-plagiarism sites have been linked to term-paper mills (http://plagiarism.phys.virginia.edu/links.html), and furthermore this does not address the issue of any such site being attacked either by an outside agent, or for a dis-gruntled employee to take copies of the submitted works.

The problem with this approach

Obviously, by attending university or college, one must submit work to instructors/professors etc., for the purposes of grading. Many universities have policies requiring them to archive your work for a period of time to allow later changes of grade as necessary. However, if they utilize a third-party plagiarism detection service, they are transferring your work to a third-party, and this is where problems start to occur.

There is no requirement on any third-party service to be correct, which raises questions with false positive results, as under the implicit contracts of the site, they make no warranty of accuracy, nor provide any recourse to the student should such results exist. Our entire legal system is based on the premise that you are innocent until proven guilty, and here you no longer have much say in that matter. TurnItIn.com notes in their usage policy: "In no event does Licensor warrant that the licensed programs or services, related documentation, or other related services will satisfy a user's requirements, be without errors, or that all licensed program errors will be corrected." [emphasis added]

A further element in the false-positives is effects of 'boilerplate' style blocks of identical legal text in submitted works and other large and identical sections of text being submitted to the services that can corrupt and poison the database and results.

Even scarier are some of the latest things TurnItIn.com has put together (http://www.turnitin.com/static/about_us/whats_new.html): "Every Turnitin Originality Report has the option of being displayed 'side-by-side.' This means that the faculty (or student) can directly compare the actual sources Turnitin found to the student paper.", in doing this, they reveal my private paper to an un-authorized third party, for their own commercial interests!

It gets worse (time to put on your tin-foil hats): "Using Turnitin's grade book, faculty can enter grades for Turnitin assignments and non-Turnitin assignments. Student attendance can be tracked, and everything can then be exported to an Excel spreadsheet. When grades are entered they are immediately accessible to every student in the class. In the future we will also give instructors the ability to display grades to the parents of their students." So in that, every grade is available to every student? Thats a violation of privacy I think...

Furthermore, I vehemently object to the fact that somebody else is profiting off my work. Yes, Turnitin.com and many other services charge the universities reasonable sums of money for their services, but then they profit it the work of the student, with absolutely no compenstation being made to the student. At least if I publish something, I get royalties, but here I'm getting nothing! Either they MUST not profit off student work, or we should be compenstated in some way for the profits they garner from our work.

I am informed that some colleges and universities have policies that state anything you submit becomes their property. In these cases, they may be able to submit your work to a third-party, but I patently believe if they have policies such as these, there is a lot more wrong.

What can be done about it?

For Students: I would urge you to include a strongly worded license with any work that you provide to anybody else, and follow up on the usage of your work. You may use the license I have created for my own work, as found here: http://www.orbis-terrarum.net/?l=coding.licensing.license.

For Instructors: I am currently soliciting interest in writing a open source software system intended for use inside each university separately, along with a database of publicly accessible works to utilize with the system. Please contact me via email if you are interested.

Turnitin.com and plagiarism in the news

Times-Colonist, September 2003:
http://www.opuswindsor.ca/Communication.asp?Table=Dialogue&ID=372 (the original link has died)

Computers to check for essay cheats
Date: 10/1/03
Sarah Schmidt & Richard Watts
CanWest News Service and Times Colonist

Some call it a pre-emptive strike against plagiarism. But at the University of Victoria, educators are calling it a teaching aid.

This fall, some of Canada's top universities are requiring students to hand in essays to an American company so it can scan its electronic database for duplicate passages. www.turnitin.com then spits out an "originality report" to their professors along with electronic copies of the papers.

The underlying assumption -- guilty until proven innocent -- changes the nature of the battle against plagiarism, a growing problem at universities as class sizes balloon and personal contact with professors diminishes. In the past, professors went to turnitin.com only if they were suspicious of a paper's authenticity.

The University of Toronto, McGill University in Montreal and the University of British Columbia are also among those testing this more aggressive tactic. They say it's the best deterrent against plagiarism and the fairest way to catch cheats.

UVic performed a pilot test last term and beginning this month is making the program available to faculty members who wish to use it.

Geraldine Van Gyn, director of the learning and teaching centre at UVic, said the program serves as a "portal" through which students submit their papers.

But Van Gyn said UVic's policy insists professors inform their students ahead of time they will be using the program as a screen for plagiarism.

And she said by informing students ahead of time professors can initiate discussion with students about what plagiarism is, something many students don't understand well. And that makes it an educational tool.

"We really look at it, rather than something for catching cheaters, as more of a preventive measure," said Van Gyn.

McGill has launched a pilot project to test it out in a handful of classes in the faculties of arts and science. It will decide next term whether to institute the practice campus-wide.

"It's pre-emptive in the sense that we are telling students, 'This is important, if you're an honest student, there's no cost to you.' This will assure you that everybody in the class is conducting themselves honestly," said Morton Mendelson, chairman of McGill's academic integrity committee and associate dean of academic and student affairs in the faculty of science.

The turnitin.com database searches 1.5 billion pages on the Internet. It also stores over a million previously submitted essays. The California-based company will add the assignments handed in this year by Canadian students to its electronic repository, and can track whether any other student tries to pass this off in the future as their own (or whether the same student hands the work again in another course).

Turnitin.com chairman John Barrie said of the 15,000 papers analysed daily, about 30 per cent "are less than original." He also said most clients start out with limited use of the service, then move to blanket policy of preemptive screening. At the University of Toronto, students in about 100 courses will be required to hand in their assignments to turnitin.com.

Pam Gravestock, assistant director of the office of teaching advancement, says it's "too cumbersome" for professors to go to turnitin.com when they have an inkling that an assignment is plagiarized.

"This is much more blanket. It doesn't allow a faculty member to pick on a student that they're suspicious of. Everybody is being checked across the classroom. It's giving all the students the same starting point. It levels the playing field as things get more competitive and classes grow in size."

Professors at the University of British Columbia are free to use turnitin.com if they are suspicious of a student's work, or they can apply it across the board, as is the case at McGill and U of T. About half of all professors using the service apply the blanket approach.

Don McCabe knows plagiarism is a problem on campuses: he recently found one in three undergraduates admitted to plagiarizing at least once in their academic career in the first national survey of plagiarism at Canadian universities. But the professor of organization management at Rutgers University in New Jersey is a staunch critic of the blanket policy forcing all students to pass the "originality" test at turnitin.com.

"I have no qualms of going to turnitin.com if a professor is suspicious, but to submit everything, it immediately destroys the potential bond of trust between students and professors," he said.

Vancouver Sun, October 16, 2003:

Student challenges plagiarism rules
Sarah Schmidt - CanWest News Service
Thursday, October 16, 2003

A 19-year-old student has launched the first challenge to controversial new rules at some Canadian universities that force students to submit essays to an American company where they're vetted for plagiarism.

Jesse Rosenfeld, a second-year International Development student at McGill University, has filed a grievance with a senate committee at the Montreal university after receiving a zero on an assignment in his economics class.

Rosenfeld had refused to submit his work to turnitin.com, a new course requirement, and instead handed in his work directly to his professor. That landed him the failing grade.

Rosenfeld says he doesn't like being treated as though he's guilty until proven innocent. Besides, he doesn't consent to the way the California-based company plans to use his original academic work.

"I'm suppose to hand in my paper to a private company, which is then entered into a data base, which the company in turn profits from. I'm indirectly helping a private company make a profit off my paper," said Rosenfeld.

The McGill dispute is much larger than one student at one institution, experts say. They say the standoff over a commercial plagiarism detection program raises key academic freedom and copyright issues.

In the past, professors at many Canadian universities uploaded essays to turnitin.com only if they were suspicious of a paper's authenticity. This year, some schools are testing this more aggressive tactic in some courses -- requiring students to prove their work is not plagiarized before a professor will read it.


Thanks to:

  • Jim Hodgins - originally raising this issue in our classes at the university formerly known as Technical University Of British Columbia (now Simon Fraser University Surrey).
  • Thomas Johnson - ideas on more material for this paper
  • APA references for all the links and excepts from sites.
  • A section on 'acceptable' plagiarism in software development.
  • How to allow for the Academic Peer Review that some instructors use while still preserving rights.
  • (See other TODO notes in the document)