MONTREAL (CUP) — Members of the McGill University community are speaking out against new Internet technology designed to detect plagiarism in students’ papers, saying that such systems unfairly assume students will attempt to cheat. Web sites like Turnitin.com (http://www.turnitin.com), a non-profit site that hosts an ever-increasing Internet database of student papers and Internet resources, are being used more and more by universities as a precautionary measure against plagiarism. McGill, however, is reluctant to implement such measures.
Morton Mendelson, McGill’s associate dean of science and chair of the Subcommittee on Academic Integrity, says there are pros and cons to using a system like Turnitin.com. “If the police enforce the speed limit with radar detection, people will be less likely to speed,” Mendelson said. “?Similarly, with a plagiarism detection system in place, students will be less likely to cheat.”
But the security comes at a price, Mendelson says. Instituting a system like Turnitin.com could be interpreted as an indication that universities don’t trust their students to be honest.
“I don’t think this program is the best way to deal with the problem of plagiarism,” said Mendelson. “McGill takes academic integrity very seriously. The best predictor of academic integrity on a campus is the ethos on the campus, the degree to which profs and students talk about plagiarism and cheating.
“I’m not willing to say Turnitin.com is evil and should never be used,” Mendelson said. “I’m saying it should be used in the context of other efforts.”
Bruce Shore, McGill’s dean of students, expressed a similar sentiment.
“Plagiarism is a problem everywhere, but I would stress building integrity before punishing transgressions,” Shore said. “I’d rather prevent 50 students from cheating than catch one.”
Shore says it is critical to maintain trust between a university and its students. “It’s important that students don’t feel under suspicion,” he said. “Turnitin.com says everyone is a suspect, and that’s not what I want to convey. I want to convey an atmosphere of mutual respect.”
According to Shore, McGill is not actively considering using Turnitin.com or any similar software.
“By not using it, it’s probably a fair assumption that we’re missing some cases, but we have to assume people are acting in good faith,” Shore said.
Several years ago, a chemistry professor at McGill used a plagiarism detection system on a trial basis in one of his classes. According to the chemistry department, the program was successful in detecting incidents of plagiarism in some students’ papers, but the professor has not used the program since.
Professors using Turnitin.com have their students submit papers directly to the Web site, which then checks the papers against Web resources and other students’ papers. If similarities are detected and the student has not made a citation in the paper, the professor is notified. Once a paper is evaluated at Turnitin.com, it is added to the site’s database and is used to check future papers.
The University of Western Ontario began using Turnitin.com in September 2001. Western is one of the first universities in Canada to adopt such a system.
Deborah Dawson, the director of Western’s Education Development Office, said the detection system has caught students who use the Internet to plagiarize.
“We have 31 faculty members using it, and we have found in some cases that students have plagiarized,” Dawson said. “We know that most students don’t cheat, but some students will plagiarize if they can get away with it. Clearly, the ease with which students can cut and paste from the Internet makes it necessary to put certain mechanisms in place.”
Dawson says Turnitin.com is beneficial both to instructors and students at Western. “The students like using it because they feel their work is honest, and it increases the value of their degree,” Dawson said.
Lil Chieh, a fourth-year honours student at Western studying media information and technoculture, sees nothing wrong with Western’s use of Turnitin.com.
“If the technology is there, then they might as well use it,” Chieh said. “Plagiarizing is not conducive to an academic atmosphere, so any technology to help catch it is beneficial.”
Chieh doesn’t see the system as a violation of trust between the university and its students. Rather, she says the new technology only enables the university to act on suspicions that have always existed.
“I think that the stress has always been there, that there’s a possibility you will plagiarize and people are looking out for it,” Chieh said. “Now there’s a way to prove it. I can’t speak for everybody, but I don’t think students should mind.”