Posted by: Greg Johns | October 19, 2010

Anti-Plagiarism Software–How SafeAssign Works


SafeAssign, an anti-plagiarism software program within Blackboard, is now available for professors and student on the UMass Boston campus. As a graduate student with aspirations to teach composition across varying curricula, I was intrigued with what SafeAssign really was, with what it really did, and with what it really allowed for. Plus, as a slow self-starter with all things technological, I thought I might learn something. Theresa Nelson Miller, a member of the Instructional Technology staff within the Educational Technology Division, has developed resources and is offering workshops to help faculty understand this tool.  Below is what I’ve learned from her.

SafeAssign, What Do You Do?

SafeAssign works by scanning submitted papers against four distinct databases containing source material: a campus-only database; a global database; Proquest ABI/Inform dabatase; and content found online. The software flags and shows any potential matches, providing links to compare all matches highlighted. The program does not scan papers for content that may have been copied from scholarly journals or books outside public domain. When students submit a paper through SafeAssign, that paper automatically goes into the campus’ database (unless in draft mode: see below for more). Students also have the option of allowing their work to be entered into the global database. Prior to final submission, the software displays a message encouraging students to remove all personal information–name and any other identity signifiers–from the text. Almost all file formats except Apple Pages are submittable.

Draft Mode & The Ins and Outs

When creating writing assignments through SafeAssign, professors can create assignments similar to regular assignments posted on Blackboard. Several options are available for each assignment created, including adding a description, a due date, and a draft mode.

Draft mode allows students to submit multiple drafts without the software submitting the papers to any database, including the campus-wide database. The software will scan the documents, allowing students to see where usage of source material may be considered problematic. Without activating Draft mode, any paper submitted more than once will automatically be flagged for a majority of its content.

Additionally, each assignment provides the professor with at least six easy-to-use links: Grade, where grades can be given (SafeAssign is integrated with the Grade Book on Blackboard); Text, where the professor can view the paper submitted with any student comments; Matching, where the professor can see the percentage of source material matching between students’ work and other sources; SA Report, where the professor can link to the actual SafeAssign Report; File, where the original student-submitted file can be downloaded; and Submitted, where the date and time can be viewed for each submission.

As far as accuracy, SafeAssign is fairly good at allowing the professor to view what has been flagged and remove a flag if he or she deems the match to be insubstantial. One significant caveat: SafeAssign always flags quoted source material as potential plagiarism in an assignment.

To What End?

Why use SafeAssign? Ultimately, that reasoning is left with the pedagogical enterprises of each professor. SafeAssign can be a handy tool if plagiarism is suspected. There is an alternate option within the software whereby professors can manually upload individual papers to be scanned, instead of having all student work go through the program. The software can also assist students while working with multiple drafts and proper source usage. The ever-accumulating campus-wide database can be handy, especially as its resources grow and students become more aware of the risks associated in borrowing from other students’ papers here, and at large.

The program has its limitations, too (which we consider in the next article), and might best be seen as another variant in the continued discussion of how best to address plagiarism with students.
Code of Academic Conduct, UMass Boston. .

Dee, Thomas and Brian Jacob. Rational Ignorance in Education: “A Field Experiment in Student Plagiarism.” NBER Working Papers. January 2010 .

Gabriel, Trip. “Plagiarism Lines Blur for Students in DigitalAge.” NYTimes August 1, 2010 .

For more information, including very helpful online tutorials, and resources for SafeAssign and plagiarism, including student-related materials, all developed by Theresa Nelson Miller of IT, visit http://www.umb.edu/it/services_detail/safeassign_at_umass_boston/.

To sign up for SafeAssign workshops go to www.umb.edu/training .

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