Can instructors distribute students' papers without permission?
December 14, 2006 8:35 AM   Subscribe

Can an instructor enter a student's paper into one of those paper databases without telling the student?

This is more of a curiosity thing than anything else, but I've always wondered this. I would have guessed the answer is "no" because my classes all required hard copies, but sometimes it seems that some schools are so deadset against sifting out plagiarizers that to them, sometimes the ends justify the means. Are there copies of my papers floating around somewhere and I don't know about it?

By paper databases, I mean private collections or something like
posted by sian to Education (20 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I found out early this semester that professors at my university are strongly encouraged to use; this is apparently not a new policy but I've been in the program for two years and this is the first I've heard of it.

Of course "can" is not necessarily the same as "should," and people can do nearly anything at all, including kidnapping children or murdering people over dinner.
posted by Tuwa at 8:41 AM on December 14, 2006

I had several professors say that they would submit questionable sections of a paper to these services, and they all said it after I turned the paper in. They can just retype sections or have an assistant enter sections in if they don't want to check entire sections. Maybe they just check conclusion sections or any sentences that are worded differently than a student's normal language.

My view is that these companies build better databases by adding my papers, then they can charge more money for their services, make more profits and therefore very clearly benefit from my work. I think students should be told before a semester starts that their papers may be submitted and then they have the option to protect their property and not take the course.

I've read through opinions of several of these companies regarding student copyrights and they range quite a bit. A few simply said this kind of thing hasn't been tested legally, at least one says they don't store the paper but rather use an algorithm to build a 'fingerprint' of the paper, like a hash and then compare that fingerprint to those of other texts. Therefore they don't actually copy your paper but rather derive another form from it.

I think it's sketchy at best.
posted by Science! at 8:45 AM on December 14, 2006 [2 favorites]

The only question left is if you gave up your copyrights on anything you turn in to the school. It's quite probable that in the signing up for school, you agreed to something along those lines.

I'd just ask a dean or something about copyrights under the guise of publishing a paper you've done for a class, but not specifically about the paper databases. That way you can get an idea of where you stand in terms of copyrights.
posted by cschneid at 9:08 AM on December 14, 2006

The legality is questionable but lots of professors do it anyway. Some of the schools that don't subscribe (like UC Berkeley) made their decision, at least partly on the basis of copyright law.

There are a few classes at my alma mater where the course retains electronic copies of all assignments and uses them much like turnitin's database. This works better for certain kinds of assignments than others, but it's much more legally defensible.
posted by phoenixy at 9:21 AM on December 14, 2006

I haven't done this for any of my courses, since it's usually easy to catch cheaters by other means. But my school does subscribe to TurnItIn.

I thought if a prof used TurnItIn to examine a paper, the paper wouldn't be "given" to TurnItIn. That is, I thought you could just have them check it without keeping it. It seems to me that if the service works like that, it's fine to use it without asking a student.

If the service works by keeping a copy of every paper checked by it, then it's not okay.

A professor would need to ask a student's permission to submit the student's paper for publication, I think.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:31 AM on December 14, 2006

The copyright of student work is a weird issue, since the assumption of many (undergraduate) institutions is that the work is work-in-progress and likely not publishable.

Your question was addressed by an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education a few years ago, but without a conclusive answer.

More recently, students of a high school in Fairfax, Virginia were wondering the same thing. Their attempt to fight the use of was featured by the Washington Post this September.

Surprisingly, the page about "copyright and privacy" doesn't address the issue of copyright very thoroughly. They are
claiming that Turnitin violates current laws or forces students to give up their copyrights is inaccurate.

More information is in their legal documents for the United States, Canada, and Australia.

The US document states arguments which I find convincing.
If copyright is present in a particular student’s work, the submission of the work to a teacher as part of the student’s coursework necessarily carries with it the expectation that the teacher will use the work in certain ways, consistent with the goal of evaluating and grading the student’s work. Specifically, by submitting the work, the student implicitly agrees that the teacher may comment on, criticize and otherwise evaluate the academic quality of the work, an evaluation that should include consideration of both the work’s content and integrity.


In some institutions, school policy reduces this “implied license” to use a work for academic evaluation to writing by, for example, specifying that teachers may receive, copy or distribute student works. Whether written or implied, such evaluation licenses carry with them certain collateral rights, to the extent necessary to the enjoyment of the right granted to perform the evaluation. See, legal authorities referenced above. Such collateral rights might include, for example, the right to make a copy of the work to enable others to evaluate it (e.g., a teaching assistant), the right to image the work for computerized grading (e.g., tests written on scannable test forms) or, as is true of dissertations and theses, the right to archive the work in a publicly accessible collection.

The question of whether the scope of such collateral rights extends to electronic submission of a written work to a computer database for purposes of review, “fingerprinting”, and/or archiving has not been tested in the courts, nor is it addressed explicitly by statute. However, legal precedent in other contexts strongly suggests that student submission of a work for grading provides the teacher with the right to utilize available technologies and tools to accomplish the grading task.
The policies of different universities and governments also affect these issues. Here are some examples of schools from varying countries:

UNC, in the United States, has a very clear and helpful website about their copyright and IP policy. NC State has a page dedicated to the question.

McMaster, in Canada, retains rights to a physical copy and reproduction for academic purposes. In fact, the "Academic Purpose" or "non-commercial" statement is often retained in these sorts of policies. My suspicion is that submittal to could be considered an "academic purpose".

Cambridge University, where I am currently studying, has a very favorable IP policy which gives the University dibs on the patents and trademarks for things it funds, but which allows us IP rights on anything else we do. This handy guide is primarily for the faculty and researchers.

Here at Cambridge, plagiarism is an issue of growing concern, but it's a different kind of issue than at many other places in the world. In many disciplines, individual essays are not assigned a grade. One-on-one supervisions can easily show faculty members who has really conducted research. But the supervision system is not part of a student's evaluation. Students are expected to draw from their essays in their end-of-year (or end of two years) comprehensive exams.

Recently, companies have begun to pay extremely high prices to Oxford and Cambridge students for academic work supplied on demand. This merges with the prohibition (at least at Johns) against being employed during the term, providing a very strong incentive for some students to write for pay. While the demand during term for essays is likely low (there is no official penalty for cancelling a supervision or essay), demand likely increases close to examination time, since purchased essays can provide useful material to use in the examination. Dissertations and other works are also available via these services.

When one-off projects and comprehensive exams define the majority of our degree, the temptation to cheat can be very large for those who have wasted their time for the first last year or two. The prices match the urgency and demand: some of them are more expensive than a year's rent. But what's that, some say, compared to the qualification you carry for a lifetime?

My response? What's a qualification, compared to integrity and peace of mind? Dishonesty doesn't wash off easily.
posted by honest knave at 9:32 AM on December 14, 2006

at least one says they don't store the paper but rather use an algorithm to build a 'fingerprint' of the paper, like a hash and then compare that fingerprint to those of other texts. Therefore they don't actually copy your paper but rather derive another form from it.

Derivative works are still covered by copyright law. These companies are basically just saying pretty things and hoping that students don't look to closely.
posted by spaceman_spiff at 9:53 AM on December 14, 2006

spaceman_spiff writes "Derivative works are still covered by copyright law."

Is a hash a "derivative work"? I know the commenter used that word, but not necessarily as a term of art. Is a word count derivative? A count of every third word? A count of the most frequently used verbs?
posted by OmieWise at 10:16 AM on December 14, 2006

NPR's Talk of The Nation program had the head of turnitin on a few months ago and he briefly mentioned the hash thing. Here's the page. I remember the show, and students' rights were barely mentioned and very much not the subject of the discussion.
posted by Science! at 10:26 AM on December 14, 2006

my college requires me to check everything on This is not really spelled out on the syllabus; all it says is that a digital copy is required with all papers turned in. I tell my students what I'm doing, but I don't know if all instructors do.
posted by octavia at 10:31 AM on December 14, 2006

Does anyone know why there haven't been any lawsuits about this? I definitely would be interested in filing one if I knew my papers were being used for Turnitin's benefit.
posted by matkline at 10:58 AM on December 14, 2006

During a discussion on Slashdot, a student once commented that he added an explicit assertion of copyright on everything he submitted to his university — something along the lines of, "This content may not be duplicated or transmitted electronically."

If, as the OP indicates, the work is submitted without the student's knowledge, then there's little that can be done. But since we have some bright lawyers on AskMe, it would be interesting to know: Hypothetically, what sort of boilerplate could a student put in the margin of his paper that would have the effect of absolutely screwing TurnItIn, if it were later discovered that they added the paper to their database without the student's express permission?

And if that happened, what might be the penalty? I assume there's a section of the DMCA that would apply.
posted by cribcage at 11:03 AM on December 14, 2006

cschneid writes "The only question left is if you gave up your copyrights on anything you turn in to the school. It's quite probable that in the signing up for school, you agreed to something along those lines. "

My institution specifically grants in it's policies (which you agree to follow during the application process) the right for instructors to keep a copy of all submitted work which they can use in anyway for instructional purposes. "instructional purposes" is the exact wording and to my mind at least is a pretty broad term that could cover practically anything an instructor might want to do. For example instructors can and do distribute copies of exceptional work to future classes as an example of a well done assignment.

How enforcable such a policy clause is and whether it would apply to services like TurnItIn would probably make a lot of money for laywers if push ever came to shove.
posted by Mitheral at 11:33 AM on December 14, 2006

Is a hash a "derivative work"? I know the commenter used that word, but not necessarily as a term of art. Is a word count derivative? A count of every third word? A count of the most frequently used verbs?

That I don't know. But I would guess that it is - after all, the only reason they want this hash is to have a record of your paper. They're creating a work that has no significant original value to it, but it merely a derivative of a previous work. (IANAL, obviously.) As for word counts and such, presumably that is something that the courts would have to decide.
posted by spaceman_spiff at 11:52 AM on December 14, 2006

We do it all the time. My syllabus says that I will use every means available to detect plagiarism and I figure that covers it.
posted by LarryC at 12:22 PM on December 14, 2006

Response by poster: Well, as I see it, it's not so much a problem for me as it is for other people. I don't plagiarize and my papers are of good quality, so if my professor submits them to a database to keep others from using it, then it's their problem if they plagiarize. However, it's my paper and I want to keep it in the hands of myself and that of my professors, only for the sake of my own education. I do not have a account as my professor requires hard copies in his office basket, so am I justified to say that I would be upset if my work was somehow submitted to that site without my knowledge and that was benefitting financially from its inclusion there?

I too would like to know if it is unreasonable to include a "please do not distribute" somewhere in the paper.
posted by sian at 12:39 PM on December 14, 2006

I asked our university administrator of the turnitin-equivalent this question just now. This is in Canada. The response (which is obviously not very definitive):

This matter has been investigated by the University solicitor, xxx (in reference to Turnitin, the predecessor to the MyDropbox product):

"... the University is "authorized" to collect the information for the purposes of evaluating it as part of course performance. It would be my view that submitting the paper to Turnitin could be justified as a part of that use since obviously a part of the evaluation process is to determine the proper citation of others' work and the academic integrity of the paper."

The software, MyDropBox is just another tool that educates students about plagiarism issues, and assists the instructor in making an academic judgement as to whether a paper is plagiarised or not. Papers are submitted as a requirement for fulfilling the requirements for successful completion of the course. I am unclear as to whether the student owns the copyright or not, but certainly the vendor does not acquire the copyright of the paper after it has been submitted.

posted by Rumple at 2:36 PM on December 14, 2006

I am wondering what happens when Turnitin has saved so many papers that all papers submitted will come up as "plagiarized." With thousands of basic essays on the same classic topics being assigned every year by colleges and added to the database, it seems feasible that more than one person can come up with the same phrasing of a basic idea.
posted by holyrood at 3:55 PM on December 14, 2006

Professors seem just as conflicted over programs like Turnitin as students -- one of the lists that I subscribe to has just had a conversation like this one. I was smugly above it all, as my institution doesn't subscribe to Turnitin; and now I've just had an email saying that we've acquired a subscription!

That list discussion turned away from questions of copyright pretty quickly (no one, as far as I can tell, has any concrete understanding of copyright and fair use), moving instead to arguments that instructors should be crafting essay questions that make plagiarism impossible (we're all art historians, so using local artworks, or asking them to compare specific critical essays were examples that came up). However, several members of the list pointed out that this isn't entirely practical. Whether we like it or not, most faculty agree that there's a core body of knowledge that students in a field should ultimately be held accountable for, and shared knowledge opens up the possibility of "shared" sources. (And on preview, holyrood's point is an amusing one: particularly since increasingly, theoretical writing relies on a very particular (and repetitive) use of language...)

To address the initial question: my admittedly third-hand understanding is that students cede certain rights to their work by enrolling at most universities; and that since Turnitin and similar services don't give anyone else access to the papers submitted, they just return an "originality" score to the instructor, it doesn't count as "publishing." In other words, they're apparently not violating the student's copyright, at least in that particular way.
posted by obliquicity at 4:13 PM on December 14, 2006

Response by poster: As an update to anyone browsing, there's some interesting lawsuits going on over Turnitin:

Wash Post Link
posted by sian at 12:45 PM on March 30, 2007

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