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Turnitin was turned back at the March 17 Senate meeting. A long-awaited policy to govern the use of plagiarism-detection software, such as the controversial turnitin.com that was recently given a trial run at McGill, was sent back to the Committee on Student Affairs after a lengthy debate.
Several dozen students holding placards with slogans like "Throw it out" and "My degree is not guilty" lined the back wall of the Robert Vogel Council Room as senators discussed the pros and cons of the proposed policy.
Dean of Students Bruce Shore pointed out that the policy was not an endorsement of turnitin.com, nor necessarily of plagiarism-detection software. The policy he proposed was simply designed to fill a regulatory void.
"There is no policy at present - a university-wide policy would create a set of rules and a level playing field," he said, explaining that with such regulations, professors are free to use whatever standards they wish in using turnitin.com and similar programs.
The proposed policy simply recognizes that current university practices in preventing plagiarism are out of date, as they were drafted before internet use was as widespread as it is today.
"New risks require new tools," he said.
The policy as he outlined it would have provided guidelines for use of plagiarism-detection software. As proposed to Senate, these guidelines specifically said professors could not be compelled to use the software in classes, and students who objected to their work being submitted to turnitin.com would have the option of using other means to prove the originality of their work, such as submitting photocopies of sources or being quizzed.
Professors can only compel use when there is a suspect case, and in those cases can only submit the passage thought to not be original.
Objections to the proposed policy were many, and widespread.
Student senators spoke eloquently and at length about the atmosphere of distrust created by the use of such software. Other concerns were related to biases inherent in the programs' weaknesses: the inability of turnitin.com and other programs to function in other languages means that there would be inequities in application.
Professor Sam Noumoff pointed out that the opt-out clause "is like the Fifth Amendment in the U.S. Constitution: try to use it and you're smeared."
He also pointed out that intellectual property issues were a concern - every paper submitted to turnitin.com bolsters that company's claim to have an extensive and growing database.
Associate dean Morton Mendelson spoke in favour of the policy, pointing out that in fact intellectual property rights were enhanced as it protected students' papers from being plagiarized. He said that having turnitin.com would allow professors to confidently assign projects where plagiarism is a possibility, whereas before they might have minimized the problem by relying more on tests and quizzes where plagiarism can be controlled.
"By removing tools, we remove educational options," he cautioned.
Librarian Kendall Wallis said that the best prevention for plagiarism is education. Many cases of plagiarism are due not to dishonesty or laziness, but ignorance.
"I'd like to make a plea for more education, specifically for more information literacy," he said.
With so many concerns relating to the policy, Dean Martha Crago moved that the document be sent back to committee. SSMU president Kate Rhodes moved an amendment that it be sent back to a special workgroup, and that a moratorium on the use of turnitin.com be placed while the group did its work. This was defeated.
Provost Luc Vinet presented a memorandum to Senate on the interim harassment policy discussed in the last Senate meeting. The policy will be supplanted by the equity policy, which is expected to be introduced next year. Noumoff pointed out that the new policy should be harmonized with the existing sexual harassment policy.
Student Nafay Choudury wanted to know why certain departments were charging a fee for viewing final examinations when this is supposed to be a right in the Student Handbook. Vinet responded that often such fees are introduced to reduce requests, but the university is reviewing policies across faculties on this issue, and that he will report back to Senate.
Wallis pointed out that McGill emails were being blocked by such major internet service providers as AOL, as McGill is a source of spam. Chief Information Officer Anthony Masi said that McGill's email systems are effectively unregulated, with over 350 servers on campus. He said the university will be aggressively tackling this issue with a number of measures, including filters and mandatory virus scanners for desktop computers. The Reporter will do a full story on this in an upcoming issue.
Bruce Shore presented a report on the rise in the student services fee. PGSS VP Academic Jodene Baccus wanted to know why surplus funds from student fees had been put into a capital accumulation fund instead of back into student services. Shore replied that there was precedent for this, and such practices had funded the creation of the William and Mary Brown Building.