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Students sue antiplagiarism website for rights to their homework

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7,000 schools use Turnitin

Some 7,000 schools and other institutions now use Turnitin, including the California State University system, the University of Florida, and Georgetown University. The pricing has proved attractive, at less than a dollar per student for an entire year.

Students submit their papers – some 100,000 a day – through a Web form, and Turnitin calculates a "similarity index." This score is a percentage of the paper that closely matches the wording found in other sources, either online or in the database.

About 30 percent of papers received by Turnitin are found to be more than a quarter unoriginal, says Dr. Barrie. Half of that copied work comes from online sources. "Students are using the Internet like an 8-billion-page, searchable, cut-and-pasteable encyclopedia," he says.

Limited access to content

When matches are found to an existing student paper, the teacher can ask the other student's teacher to see the earlier work in full.

Critics of Turnitin such as Mr. Wade point out that this process doesn't seek the permission of the authors – the students. They also worry where the work could wind up in the longterm since iParadigms reserves the right to sell the database and its contents.

These "republishing" avenues are at the heart of the lawsuit filed late last month, which seeks $150,000 – the legally stipulated penalty – per paper registered by the four students.

"There is no way on God's green earth that we're ever going to turn a student's paper over to anybody except that student and their instructor until the end of time," says Barrie.

There still are those exceptions, which critics point out. But Barrie says, when a student's teacher decides to pass a paper to another teacher, no name is attached. And, in the event iParadigms is bought out, institutions can exercise their ability to cancel service and get their papers expunged.

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