A student at McGill University is challenging a controversial new rule requiring all students to submit essays to a U.S.-based for-profit company that checks papers for plagiarism.
Jesse Rosenfeld, a second-year student in McGill's international development program, received a zero on an economics assignment after he refused to submit the paper to Turnitin.com, a company that has compiled a database of more than one million student essays.
McGill recently signed a contract with the California-based company and now requires students in many courses to have their assignments vetted by Turnitin.com before being submitted for grading.
Rosenfeld says he refused to upload his paper to the American internet site for an "originality report" because he objects to how his academic work will be used.
"I'm supposed to hand in my paper to a private company, which is then entered into a database, which the company in turn profits from. I'm indirectly helping a private company make a profit off my paper," Rosenfeld told CanWest News Service.
Michael Geist, Canada Research Chair in internet and e-commerce law at the University of Ottawa, says Rosenfeld has good reasons to challenge the rule.
"On copyright, I do see his issue," Geist said. "The company is taking this personal material and adding it to their database."
In the United States, where about 400 colleges subscribe to Turnitin.com for an annual fee of $1,000 to $10,000 (U.S.), critics have argued that because student papers are copied into a database in their entirety, the service violates students' copyrights. As well, the copying is done often without the consent or knowledge of students and may therefore violate their privacy.
Such concerns led the University of California at Berkeley recently to decide against subscribing to the service.
"We take student intellectual property rights seriously, and that's become one of the trouble spots for us in moving ahead with this proposal," said Michael Smith, the university's assistant chancellor for legal affairs.
Turnitin.com founder John Barrie dismisses claims his company is violating copyright rules even if students aren't forewarned their papers will be copied, arguing that the service is making "fair use" of student material.
Dan Burk, a law professor at the University of Minnesota who specializes in intellectual property, says Barrie's fair use defence is "baloney."
"To run a database, you have to make a copy," Burk told the Chronicle of Higher Education earlier this year. "If the student hasn't authorized that, then that's potentially an infringing copy."
In Canada, in addition to McGill, Turnitin.com has signed contracts with the University of Toronto, the University of British Columbia, the University of Victoria and Ryerson University. At the U of T, students may refuse to submit their papers to Turnitin.com. If they refuse, they are required to provide evidence of original work, including rough drafts and an annotated bibliography.
Meanwhile, Rosenfeld plans to launch an action arguing the McGill requirement also violates basic rights and freedoms recognized in law, including the principle of presumption of innocence.