Academic integrity is in the headlines these days, both on campus and in the world beyond. MIT associate professor of biology Luk Van Parijs was fired last week after admitting to falsifying data on several occasions. Ripple effects from this announcement have included an announcement from Cell Press, publishers of the journal Immunity, that they are in the process of re-examining the accuracy of three of Van Parijs' articles published in 1998-1999.
Closer to home, the Faculty Senate has taken up the issue of plagiarism on campus and is considering creating an ad hoc committee to deal with student plagiarism. One option being explored on campus is the use of plagiarism detection software. Since last spring, the library has been sponsoring a trial of TurnItIn.com, a Web-based service that allows professors to check student work against a database of documents including the public Web, content from several proprietary full-text article databases, and a huge compliation of student paper submissions. The issue of plagiarism and TurnItIn has received some media attention, including a 10/24/05 appearance on WFCR by Library Associate Director for User Services Anne C. Moore and coverage in the Daily Collegian.
The use of TurnItIn on college campuses has not been without controversy. In one high-profile lawsuit, a McGill University student successfully challenged the practice of compelling students to submit their papers to TurnItIn, arguing that the company was profiting by building a database in part from students' [copyrighted] original work. Others have objected that the use of tools like TurnItIn creates a negative climate by implicitly assuming students are guilty of plagiarism until proven innocent. It should be noted that both false negatives *and* false positives are possible with any automated plagiarism detection device.
Some of these concerns were addressed by Anne C. Moore at the faculty senate meeting on October 20. At UMass, the use of TurnItIn would be voluntary for both faculty and students. Moore also emphasized the potential to use TurnItIn not as a punitive tool, but as an educational opportunity to let students know where their work fails to meet academic integrity standards. Many students remain unaware of the gravity of plagiarism and other academic dishonesty; other times, plagiarism results from an unintentional failure to insert a citation; and some students come from cultures where using the exact words of others is considered honorific rather than dishonest. TurnItIn was hailed as one piece of a campus-wide solution to the plagiarism problem, along with [continued] faculty efforts to educate students about academic honesty AND strategies such as designing "plagiarism-proof" assignments.
If you have questions or comments about TurnItIn, please feel free to contact me personally or the library in general. You can also leave a comment on this blog if you have thoughts about academic integrity on campus or beyond.