Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Plagiarism Web Site Stirs Debate

Georgetown’s Honor Council has pushed faculty over the past several years to increase the use of anti-plagiarism tools in classes, spurring a debate over students’ academic privacy rights.

Sonia Jacobson, director of the Honor Council, has led several initiatives at Georgetown to promote Turnitin.com, a Web site that automatically checks students’ papers for plagiarism. Jacobson said that in addition to routing out intellectual theft, the service serves as a deterrent and an educator about academic integrity.

“This year we are encouraging faculty to try the system as an educational tool, not just as a deterrent to plagiarism,” Jacobson said. “It can be a learning process, not another form of traffic tickets.”

Less than 20 percent of Georgetown professors currently use the service, Jacobson said, even though a 2005 study by Duke University showed that plagiarism has increased at college campuses in recent years. She said that around 2 percent of students at Georgetown are reported to the Honor Council for potential violations of the honor code during their academic careers.

Since Georgetown began its subscription to Turnitin.com in 2002, the Honor Council has tried several methods to persuade more of the faculty to use the service, Jacobson said. She said that the council may survey student opinions of the Web site as part of its continuing campaign.

Several years ago, the Honor Council added a detailed guide to its Web site that features instructions for using the service, suggestions for integrating it into a course’s curriculum and testimonials from faculty members who have had success using the program in their classes.

Alexander Pruss, a philosophy professor, was one professor who rated the site favorably.

“Cheating is sadly common,” Pruss said. “I catch a case of plagiarism roughly once a year. Ironically, most are in ethics courses.”

But the site is not without its detractors, particularly among students.

Julia Thompson (SFS ’10), whose high school subscribed to the service, said that she objects to the Web site using students’ work for their own operations without compensation. Turnitin.com retains copies of all students’ papers it receives as part of the database against which it checks students’ work.

“I don’t like how the work I’ve done is saved online without my permission,” Thompson said. “That should be my choice.”

Jacobson said that many faculty members have also voiced opposition to the service because they say it profits from students’ work and gives students the sense that they are not trusted.

“We instruct the faculty how to use it and how to address students who object to the service. Every year, we try to get across to the faculty how easy it is to use so that the service can be cost-effective for Georgetown,” Jacobson said.

Jacobson said that the service is completely legal.

But several Ivy League universities – including Harvard, Princeton and Yale – do not use the program because they feel it would undermine trust between students and faculty.

“I would rather create a culture of integrity and honesty and expect the best,” Yale College Dean Peter Salovey recently told Bloomberg News.

A high school in Northern Virginia last week backed off a proposal to require all students to submit their work to Turnitin.com after students voiced objections.

Pruss said that although he uses the site, he remains wary of its flaws. He said that he uses Turnitin.com only in his lower-level courses, and personally checks the results whenever the Web site indicates that a paper has been plagiarized.

“An Honor Council case is never based on simply an automated system,” Pruss said.

Jacobson acknowledged that the service is not a panacea for plagiarism and does not suit the needs of all professors and classes.

“Our message to the faculty is, `It’s worth trying,’ and if they do use it, to use it right,” she said.

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