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Returning students’ right to access, choice and notice: a proposed code of ethics for instructors using Turnitin


This paper identifies the ethical issues associated with college instructors’ use of plagiarism detection software (PDS), specifically the Turnitin program. It addresses the pros and cons of using such software in higher education, arguing that its use is justified on the basis that it increases institutional trust, and demonstrating that two common criticisms of such software are not universally valid. An analysis of the legal issues surrounding Turnitin, however, indicates that the way it is designed and operates raises some ethical issues because it denies students notice, access and choice about the treatment of their personal information. The paper concludes with a set of guidelines for instructors using Turnitin in the classroom.

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  1. 1.

    In their 2010 study, these authors submitted 24 papers from a variety of Education publications in their entirety to Turnitin (and one other PDS) and found that none of them were identified as 100% plagiarized. Unfortunately, the authors do not indicate whether or not the papers that came down with lower matches still contained enough information to lead the instructor to the original source. Regardless, these findings indicate that the databases against which Turnitin checks its material may contain significant gaps. The author of this article did a similar non-scientific test in which he uploaded six articles from six different disciplines and databases to Turnitin with significantly better results. Turnitin correctly labeled three of the six papers as 100% plagiarized.

  2. 2.

    Naturally, this does not mean that PDS alone can eliminate plagiarism and this certainly should not be interpreted as a rejection of methods designed to prevent rather than catch plagiarism. Prevention and education are crucial in the fight against plagiarism, but their effectiveness as well can only be assessed if there are methods available to detect plagiarism.

  3. 3.

    In order for an outside party to qualify as a school official, three conditions have to be met:

    1. 1.

      the outside party provides a service for the agency or institution that it would otherwise provide for itself using employees;

    2. 2.

      the outside party would have “legitimate educational interests” in the information disclosed if the service were performed by employees; and

    3. 3.

      the outside party is under the direct control of the educational agency or institution with respect to the use and maintenance of information from education records (FERPA (Sec. 99.31(a)(1)(i)(B)))

    According to Turnitin, it meets all three conditions. While this may very well be the case, there are some reasons to doubt this. It is far from certain that Turnitin is under the “direct control” of the schools with which it has licensing agreements (criterion three). It is also unclear that if not for Turnitin, institutions would otherwise provide the service themselves. It seems unlikely that institutions would collect papers from students at different schools to compare their students’ papers against. Turnitin reads this requirement as meaning that given “an inordinate amount of resources” it would be conceivable that a school would perform this service itself, but the Department of Education seems to require likelihood, not logical possibility, for this criterion to be met. Moreover, section 99.33 (a) (2) of FERPA states that “officers, employees, and agents of a party that receives information under paragraph (a)(1) of this section [the “school official” exemption] may use the information, but only for the purposes for which the disclosure was made.” The educational purpose of the disclosure is to conduct an originality analysis of the paper submitted to Turnitin, and one could argue that to have the paper become part of a database falls outside the purpose of disclosure.


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I would like to thank the students of my Spring 2010 Digital Ethics class whose input helped me shape my ideas about this issue. I further would like to thank Dr. William “Bo” Brinkman for generously sharing a draft of a paper he presented at the 2009 Association for Practical and Professional Ethics Annual Conference. His work introduced me to the ethical issues surrounding plagiarism detection software.

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Correspondence to Bastiaan Vanacker.

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Vanacker, B. Returning students’ right to access, choice and notice: a proposed code of ethics for instructors using Turnitin. Ethics Inf Technol 13, 327–338 (2011).

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  • Plagiarism detection software
  • Turnitin
  • Plagiarism
  • Copyright
  • Information ethics
  • Data privacy
  • Fair information practices