External Economies, Plagiarism Detection, & the Spleen

What rights do students have with respect to the commercial reuse of their class assignments? That question, in part, has come up in Canada in the context of Turnitin.com, an online plagiarism detection tool. Turnitin relies partly on searching the Internet for similar texts, but it also uses its growing database of other submitted student papers to detect plagiarism.

Last fall a Montreal student refused to enter his assignments into Turnitin.com, and his professor gave him a failing grade. Now the academic senate at McGill University, where this all happened, has decided that the student’s assignments are to be graded nevertheless. Contrary to some reports, there is no clear final decision yet at McGill about the use of Turnitin.

What intrigues me is the claim that Turnitin makes money from these papers, meanwhile making students unwilling content providers. While Turnitin doesn’t resell individual papers, it does make money from them in the sense that the papers, in aggregate, become a signature database that can be used to assess the uniqueness of new papers submitted. In effect, students become unpaid employees of Turnitin.

Some critics argue that students should be allowed to opt out, thus ceasing to be unpaid workers. In the alternative, students should be paid for their content, perhaps a flat rate of pennies per page per paper.

Turnitin wants none of that, of course, arguing that it doesn’t use individual papers per se, just all the submitted papers in aggregate. Compensating every student would, in that argument, be nonsensical, creating an economic relationship where no such relationship exists.

It is intriguing. And it is also different from eBay’s policy of reselling data created by transactions on that auction site. After all, no-one is forcing you to use eBay — if you don’t like its policy of reselling transaction information you create, then you shouldn’t use eBay. Students, however, are compelled to use Turnitin, so they contribute without receiving the economic benefit.

So what is the solution? A controversial case from almost two decades ago — “The Strange Case of John Moore and the Splendid Stolen Spleen” — suggests that in a legal challenge students will lose. In the Moore case a cell line was created using T-lymphocytes from a patient’s cancerous spleen. That cell line was patented, and, unbeknowst to Moore, it became a profit-generating venture for the cancer researcher involved.

The defendant’s lawyer argued that the researcher acted in bad faith, and did not obtain informed consent. After much wrangling, it was decided, in effect, that patient Moore did not have explicit and complete rights to all byproducts of his spleen. In other words, Moore was not entitled to receive royalties from the cell lines involving his own spleen — and students are likely to do no better with term papers.