The $1.8 billion (£1.3 billion) sale of Turnitin has highlighted the growing power of the company that produces plagiarism-checking software used in universities across the globe, and raised questions about its business model.
Concerns about the sale of California-based Turnitin to Advance, a technology, media and communications company, have focused on the intellectual property held in the essays that its software collects and checks. The software checks papers submitted by students against a growing database of previously submitted papers and detects any similarities.
Michael Berman, chief innovation officer at California State University, said there was “an ongoing concern about the nature of a business that collects so much IP from students”.
“Will the new owners attempt to monetise this IP in new ways? And if so how does that impact the trust relationship between institutions and instructors that require students to contribute to this IP and whose work now forms a significant portion of the value of Turnitin?” he said.
For Dr Berman, the high price was not shocking “because Turnitin is so dominant within its sector that it effectively has no competition”.
Jesse Stommel, executive director of the division of teaching and learning technologies at the University of Mary Washington, said that what concerned him most about the size of the sale “is the way it reinforces a business model that relies on the collection and use of student data at students’ expense and without compensating them”.
“The new parent company insists they will only use the data to ‘improve the product’, however the ‘product’ in this case is the database of student intellectual property. Access to that database is primarily what they are selling,” he said.
“This problem is not just about Turnitin,” Dr Stommel added. “It’s about the relationships public educational institutions enter into with technology companies. We should be sceptical of those companies, not suspicious of our own students.”
Sioux McKenna, director of postgraduate education at South Africa’s Rhodes University, agreed that the high price tag was symptomatic of wider issues in higher education.
“Universities have become corporate institutions, they have brands and plagiarism is a reputational risk. Turnitin is a simple fix for many institutions,” she said. “I worry that it’s not being used to help students learn how to produce knowledge, it’s more ‘we can use this software to mitigate a reputational risk’.”
Dr McKenna said the corporatised culture in higher education was part of the reason Turnitin was able to be sold for such a large amount, as universities outsourced in the name of efficiency.
“Instead of having the academic go through students’ work to teach them not just about plagiarism but about referencing, substantiating claims, developing your voice, showing how your work connects to prior work, which is hard to do, universities say ‘the reason we reference is not to plagiarise and we can use a bit of software to handle that’,” she said.
A spokeswoman for Turnitin said the company encouraged students and academics to use its tools formatively.
“Turnitin has no intention of using the database for anything other than refining Turnitin's product offerings. Turnitin holds integrity as a core value,” she said.