Canada's largest student group hopes a successful challenge of a plagiarism-detecting website by a Quebec student will fuel the fight against the practice across Canada, including at UWO. "It will give a lot of students, who had reservations (about the website) but didn't have confidence to say no, a bit of a boost to know there are other students out there who have the same concerns," said Joel Duff, Ontario chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students.
"This decision will set a precedent. We're encouraging other students to use this victory and fight it."
McGill University student Jesse Rosenfeld originally got a zero on an assignment because he refused to submit it through the website turnitin.com. This week, Rosenfeld got his paper back, with a grade.
UWO was the first Canadian university to subscribe to turnitin.com, a sophisticated Internet database which scans assignments for plagiarism. The copying of other people's work without attribution is the ultimate academic no-no.
Students submit assignments through turnitin.com and the website scans the work for similarities to those held in the databases, culled from the Internet, published work and every student paper submitted through the website. The professor gets an "originality report," and the company copies the student's essay into its database.
When Western signed up, the service cost $4,000 U.S. a year. By the end of last year, 140 UWO professors had used turnitin.com and 12,000 assignments had gone through the website.
Universities argue it's a way for them to deter cheating, protect the integrity of grades and let professors focus on teaching and not policing.
Frances Bauer, UWO's ombudsperson, said it's essential to ensure academic records accurately reflect student performance. "A great deal relies on grades. They are the currency of post-secondary education," she said. "There's far more to be gained (by using the service) than lost."
But the Canadian Federation of Students says the practice presumes students are guilty, removes the student's right to choose who has their intellectual property and allows a private company to profit from original academic work.
Duff said widespread use of the service is a symptom of an underfunded system that overworks professors and the best prevention is small classes so professors know the students and their work.
Debra Dawson, director of the educational development office, said turnitin.com is mainly used by professors of large, first- and second-year classes.
She said the university got the service, which costs pennies a page, because professors needed a tool to help them fight plagiarism. Concerns about privacy and the rights to intellectual property were satisfied by the company, she added.
As for profits, Dawson said it's no different than a student using a certain piece of software for school.
"I think there's a great difference between using software, or a textbook, and actually giving your academic work over to a company to generate profit."
Dave Ford, vice-president education of UWO's University Student Council, said he has heard a few complaints about the website, but added: "There is by no means an overwhelming backlash to this taking place." He said the student caucus on governance will look at the issue and decide on an official stance before the end of this school year, but that may be sped up by the news from McGill.