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Ethics Week 8: What Do You Do with Academic Software?

So this week (and the past couple weeks, actually) I’ve been doing some reading on the legal policies of a company called Gradescope. While this isn’t a full write-up, more an extension of some annotation I’ve been doing lately, I thought it would make a good blog post.

So, Gradescope. What is it? Who is it? What does it mean for us?

What is Gradescope?

Gradescope is a web-based subscription software that allows educators to organize and delegate the collection and grading of assignments, in order to allow them to better focus on the needs of their students.

Or, simply put: it’s like Moodle (turn in your assignments online) but it also grades stuff if you ask it to and tell it how.

They’re not giving it to humans to grade, either — they’re grading algorithmically, based on a rubric.

It’s aimed primarily at STEM, econ and business classes, which makes sense, since quantitative classes would be easier to grade consistently by machine. But their website does boast that it handles papers, even if it’s a little unclear on what aspects of the papers it handles (collection, maybe grammar) vs what aspects are handed to the educator (style and content, hopefully).

Who is Gradescope?

Well, as of October 2018, Turnitin owns Gradescope. Turnitin is another web-based software company, this one oriented towards catching plagiarism and determining authorship of papers. They partner with large databases, including Crossref, Elsevier, Springer, Wiley-Blackwell, IEEE and Taylor & Francis, in order to check what percentage of a paper matches with other papers out there. In fact, they claim their content database includes “70 billion current and archived webpages”.

But their plagiarism checker is a little concerning, missing 44% of plagiarized sources in a 2015 experiment at UT-Austin. Penn State University, in their online guide to Turnitin, outlined various ways to get false positives, none of which inspire confidence in Turnitin’s algorithms.

  • Any rough draft stored in Turnitin’s repository could come up as a false positive when the final draft is submitted.
  • Any copies of the paper submitted to Turnitin to check for plagiarism before the paper is officially turned in for class will be stored in the repository – which can generate a false positive.
  • Turnitin doesn’t check whether a student’s original work is being plagiarized, just whether their work matches with another source in the repository.
  • A paper that expands on/includes material from a previous paper on the same topic can also generate a false positive.

It’s remarkably hard to find any information on Gradescope’s own effectiveness or practices, incidentally. Their terms of service and privacy policy mention third-party partners and third-party recruiters, but decline to elaborate on either. One can sign in with Google, making Google a third-party partner with access to their data, but I can’t find any clear indication of what recruiters might be present on Gradescope’s site.

Additionally, though their privacy policy claims to comply with GDPR and Privacy Shield (an opt-in U.S.-E.U. and U.S.-Switzerland privacy rubric that allows members certain privileges), their terms of service were last updated in November 2014 — which means they predate GDPR (adopted April 2016), Privacy Shield (July 2016) and the CCPA (fall 2019), a California-based privacy law which they are also subject to. Their privacy policy was last updated in June of 2018.

What does it mean for Carleton?

At present, not much. I haven’t heard of any courses that use either Gradescope or Turnitin, which are subscription-based models that would need to be funded by whatever department chose to use them (or by the college at large).

While Gradescope’s privacy policy and terms of service are mostly standard legal jargon, there are a couple of things I tend to sideeye – like, what happens if your account is deleted due to a false positive?

The first of my major issues is that they’re not publicly forthcoming with their revenue streams. Of course they charge for subscriptions from the schools they work with, and their client base is obviously private, but as I said above, I can’t find out what third-party recruiters have access to their site. Nor can I find out how these recruiters get access — do they pay for it? Does Gradescope seek them out, or do they contact Gradescope? What sort of data do they get to look at, and how can users manage their privacy?

The second is their grading methods. Since they’re owned by Turnitin, it’s very likely they use Turnitin’s plagiarism checker — which, as we know, is faulty, despite its wide access to databases.

Which brings me to my third point: Gradescope keeps student work, and makes it accessible to the third-party partners they use to do their work (like, for example, Turnitin). Turnitin keeps student work and adds it to their databases so they can check for plagiarism more expansively. This is a feature schools pay for.

Or, put another way: schools pay for Gradescope and Turnitin to make money from other schools off of their students’ work.

Gradescope has policies in place that comply with GDPR – meaning, any user has the right to be forgotten. You can write to Gradescope, ask them what information they have on you, and tell them to delete it, and they will do it (with a few caveats related to anonymized and group data).

But, at the same time, their terms of service are six years out of date. Their privacy policy doesn’t mention the California Consumer Privacy act, and I haven’t been able to find any official statements from Gradescope on the topic. And, possibly most worryingly, it is very unclear whether their partners have the same policies in place. And even if they do, would requesting that Gradescope delete your information would extend to any party with whom they’ve shared that information?


“Turnitin Acquires Gradescope”, Zeligs Hand, Amanda, Turnitin, 3 October 2018.

“Database Content”, Turnitin.

“How Much Do You Know About Turnitin’s Content?”, Lee, Christine, Turnitin, 30 May 2019.

“Optimizing the Originality Report”, Penn State University.

“UT-Austin test results for Turnitin”, Schorn, Susan, University of Texas — Austin.

“Privacy Policy”, Gradescope, 25 June 2018.

“Terms of Use”, Gradescope, 3 November 2014.

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