£1.3 billion Turnitin sale spotlights intellectual property fears

Huge price tag demonstrates power of plagiarism-checking company

March 11, 2019
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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.


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Reader's comments (2)

I suspect this is also a case of Turnitin backers 'cashing out' before the market disappears. Essay mills pose a greater problem for Universities now. By its very nature, Turnitin cannot detect if a unique essay was written by the student or by a 'paid for' surrogate. Turnitin has been very successful at stopping students from cutting and pasting online essays but it has shifted the problem into an area it cannot address. The best way to ensure a student has written a piece of work is for an academic who knows the ability of the student to mark the essay and, if necessary, quiz the student on the contents. Precisely the kind of expensive labour intensive work Universities inc want to avoid
Though they are trying to work on a new index to show the likelihood of particular student having written the work. From memory, they're looking at 2 main algorithms - the linguistic analysis within a single essay - that huge shift in writing styles (that it's actually relatively easy as a marker to spot); but also following a particular student (did the same person write this as wrote other items of work they've submitted); which relies on it starting to build up a database of work. (i.e. the same process as legal forensic analysis). I agree that TII (and all other similar tools) are all much better at the similarity to other items detection than the authorship identification aspects. You've mentioned "Getting to know the students" - that's particularly difficult in the UK with the current preference for anonymous marking. It's much easier if you are more used to having the same marker mark different items from named students over the course of their degree.