UBC has maintained a contract with Turnitin, a California-based online tool, since 2001. It’s meant to aid instructors in detecting copied phrases or misquoted texts that could constitute a breach in academic integrity.
Students can also use it to pick out and correct originality errors in their papers before submitting it to their instructors.
“People are using this software because it supports an academic need… Our graduate students and some researchers use it to protect their intellectual property and assist them with inadvertently committing plagiarism,” Marianne Schroeder, senior manager of Teaching and Learning Technologies at UBC, wrote in an email.
But returning students may have observed that the convenient link to Turnitin through WebCT Vista has been disconnected.
It was discovered around mid-March this year that Turnitin had been saving student information on American servers. This violates BC’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA), which states that personal information in university control must only be stored in Canada. The Vista connection was disabled and UBC entered negotiations with Turnitin.
Schroeder explained that in 2006, Turnitin agreed to move their servers to Canada in order to renew their contract with UBC. The recent discovery in March was a complete surprise. Schroeder said UBC took immediate action.
UBC ﬁrst requested that Turnitin stop backing up data to the US, in order to comply with FIPPA. However, the request was rejected. The second option was to design a connection between UBC’s Vista and Turnitin’s website, so that information identifying a student would be removed before a paper was submitted to Turnitin. Again, Turnitin was unwilling to invest in the option.
While Turnitin is still being used by the university, the Vista connection remains disabled. New accounts and passwords must be created by visiting Turnitin’s website, as opposed to the simpler access through Vista.
As extra precaution, students are instructed to register under a pseudonym and remove any personal information from their papers. The added complications are necessary in order for UBC to be compliant with FIPPA and protect students’ privacy.
“It is discouraging that Turnitin has taken this approach, particularly given our long history with them,” Schroeder said in her email, after conﬁrming that negotiations are ongoing, with no easy solution in sight.
UBC’s current contract with Turnitin expires in 2013, and it is unclear what the future will hold in terms of contract renewal or ﬁnding an alternative software. “We are currently considering our options,” Schroeder stated.