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Copy That

In schools and universities across the world, the laid-back plagiarism busters of Turnitin.com are keeping things real


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Dr. John Barrie is all about plagiarism. As the mastermind behind Turnitin.com, the 35-year-old neurobiology Ph.D. has become the poster boy for preventing Internet theft of published material. It's a long way from the world of labs and test tubes he entered when he first began college, long before he had any idea he'd help found the world's most successful--and increasingly omnipresent--Internet-based system for catching cheaters and would-be plagiarists.

"Using the Internet to cheat," he says, "has ballooned into an epidemic. The prevailing attitude seems to be that things from the Internet are inherently different than their material counterparts. For example, it's cool to download a song from the Internet, but it's uncool to steal a CD from a store. It's OK to pull a computer program off the Internet but it's not OK to walk into CompUSA and just take the thing. Same thing with textual intellectual property. It's not OK to check a book out of the library and copy directly from the book and call it your own, but for some reason, it's more OK to cut and paste something from the Internet and stick it in your own school paper."

Since it was launched less than five years ago, the services of Turnitin.com have been subscribed to by countless high schools, universities, and even some elementary schools. The entire California State University system is a Turnitin.com client, as are hundreds of high school districts across the country and every university in the United Kingdom.

The way it works is simple. Sort of. A teacher or college professor assigns her students to write a report or term paper and instructs them to log on to Turnitin.com, enter a special password to access that teacher's "classroom," and upload the text of their report. Before the teacher downloads that report, however, the Turnitin.com computers will put it to the test, checking to make sure that none of it was "borrowed" from other sources on the Internet. The teacher receives the paper along with a report on its level of originality.

Like Barrie's own career, the Turnitin.com story is a tale of surprises and unexpected success. In 1994, while slaving away at UC Berkeley as a grad student in neurobiology and an undergrad in rhetoric, John Barrie--then 24 years old and a hardworking teacher's assistant in several classes--woke up one morning determined to make some of those classes "a little more interesting." On top of his own classwork, he was frustrated at the minimal amount of feedback he could give to students whose papers he was grading.

"With 1,000 or so papers to grade," he says, "I could only put 'A--Great paper, B--Check your spelling, or D--Did you ever come to class?' That was the level of feedback I could give the students."

It would be helpful, he decided, to jump-start the level of communication among the students themselves by instilling a peer-review program so students could get and give feedback on one another's papers.

"It's the irony of all ironies," he says, "that even today, all of professional academics is based on the peer review process, but 99.4 percent of all undergraduates are never exposed to that process."

Barrie also felt that students would like to answer a couple of fundamental questions for themselves. "One of those questions happened to be, 'OK, I just wrote this paper. What did all the other students write about?' And the second question is something like, 'Wow, I got a B on my paper. So what does an A paper look like?'"

To help students find answers, Barrie set up a website and required everyone in class to turn in their term papers to the website, after which each student was randomly assigned two papers to read and review--everything done anonymously, with neither the papers' authors nor the reviewers being named--and finally, all the reviews were posted on the site alongside the papers.

"It worked like a charm," Barrie says. "Suddenly, each student was getting six pages of feedback from their peers while being graded on the quality of the reviews they wrote." Barrie's project created such a stir that it was written up in Science magazine in 1996, in an article titled "How to Extend Education by Using the Internet." In that article, after saying glowing things about the educational uses of the Internet, Barrie was asked to predict one or two ways the Internet might also be detrimental to education.

"That proved to be a very easy task," he laughs. The biggest problem facing educators using the Internet, he already knew, was the ease by which students could use the Internet to steal parts of previously published works--and even whole papers--without being found out.

"After I started the peer-review program," Barrie says, "I had a parade of students coming into my office, telling me about so-and-so who'd taken a paper from our website and turned it into another class, or who copied a paper from the Internet and turned it in as their own."

Suddenly devoted to finding ways that the Internet could be used in the effort to prevent and control Internet plagiarism, Barrie--still up to his ears in neurobiology research--teamed up with some Berkeley buddies and "threw together some technology" that was put to use in their classes at Berkeley. Basically, the system took a student's paper and searched the Internet, piece by piece, looking for any parts of the paper that matched those already published and posted in cyberspace.

"After a while," Barrie says, "as we began reading newspaper reports of how bad Internet plagiarism had become, we thought, 'Hey! Why not take this technology and throw it out there for everyone to use?'" They quickly put together a site called Plagiarism.org, through which students could submit a paper to their instructor, subjecting it first to a thorough search for any plagiarized material.

"People started using it right away," Barrie says, "but then we realized that it was uncool for a student to submit a paper to any site titled 'Plagiarism,' so we got our brain trust together and we decided on the most neutral name we could think of--Turnitin.com."

Success occurred, as Barrie puts it, in "a blindingly fast way," turning Barrie and his buddies into accidental entrepreneurs more or less overnight. They were suddenly the creators of one of the fastest growing companies on the Internet. Turnitin.com also features an active peer-review program, all part of Barrie's ongoing goal of making school a fair place for all students.

"There are plenty of students working hard to do their own original work," he says, "and they know which students are cheating. But until now, there hasn't been a damn thing they can do about it--which kind of devalues the work that the good students are doing."

Though he finally earned his degree in neurobiology, Barrie now doubts he'll ever use it. But with Turnitin.com has come rewards he'd have never received from neurobiology. That, he says, "is the rare opportunity of seeing the immediate payoff, in our society, of what I am doing. We've put this technology out there, people are using it, and it is changing the way education works, right before our eyes, and all in a very short matter of time. That's extremely satisfying."

And to think it was done without having to cheat.

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From the August 14-20, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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