Georgetown University prides itself on a strong ethical tradition. In my own journalism masters program, an ethics class is one of two mandatory graduation requirements. The University also boasts a policy-oriented ethics institute whose mission is to “serve as an unequalled resource for those who research and study ethics, as well as those who debate and make public policy.” And, in a nod to the University’s Jesuit tradition, undergrads are required to take a year’s worth each of philosophy and theology courses. In short, a Georgetown education is supposed to be an ethical education.
So why does the University condone coerced trampling of students’ intellectual property while presuming we are all possible plagiarizers?
The problem stems from the presence of Turnitin.com on the Georgetown campus, a website through which students submit papers that are then compared against a database to detect possible instances of plagiarism. In a 2006 interview with the Washington Business Journal, then–Honor Council Executive Director Sonia Jacobson reported that 10 to 15 percent of professors were using the service.
You might wonder what students who don’t cheat have to fear from plagiarism detection software. What’s so wrong with a harmless software program whose only aim is to ensure an honest day’s work?
First, there’s the dubious ethics of presuming students’ guilt and forcing them to demonstrate their innocence. An ethical education should involve a degree of trust. Georgetown should be confident that the ethical precepts it emphasizes would be reflected in the actions of their student body. A presumption of guilt goes against Western legal and ethical principles and has no place in an academic setting.
But more importantly, there’s the issue of mandatory copyright violation that’s built into the Turnitin.com business model. In trying to detect plagiarism, the website does a tripartite search. First, it crawls the free Web in a manner similar to Google. Second, it searches a database of copyrighted material like newspapers and academic journals—a database that it pays copyright holders to access. And finally, it searches its own databases of every student paper that it has ever received.
Under U.S. law, students retain the copyright to their work. Turnitin.com makes a profit off of archiving copyrighted student material without any recompense. A 2008 lawsuit against the website’s operators was dismissed in court, partially because the students had forfeited their right to sue by accepting Turnitin.com’s Terms of Service. If a school mandates that students use Turnitin.com, what practical recourse do they have?
The thorny legal question remains unanswered. If Turnitin.com pays a fee to license published content from copyright holders like newspapers, magazines, and academic journals, why are student copyright holders any different? Turnitin.com charges schools to use its services, then archives the papers it receives to expand its database. A non-profit foundation or crowd-sourced version of Turnitin.com might have a legitimate case for existing. But paying corporate copyright holders while greedily arguing that students have no legitimate rights is unacceptable.
Ultimately, these issues are for courts to grapple with. But in the meantime, there is something that can be done immediately. Students can start to refuse to use the service. Submit a physical copy of all papers to your professor, but refuse to hand over your copyright to a third-party company. At my undergrad alma mater, McGill University, it only took two acts of civil disobedience to convince the school that Turnitin.com was a violation of student rights. Jesse Rosenfeld and Denise Brunsdon both refused to submit their assignments to the site. Both were vindicated by the University Senate, which curtailed the use of the site by professors and prevented them from requiring its use.
In banning this website, Georgetown would be in good company. Following McGill, top-tier schools like Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and Princeton soon followed suit in banning the site completely. It is up to us to add Georgetown to that distinguished company.