Posted by: Greg Johns | October 19, 2010

A SafeAssign User’s Perspective: An Interview with Carol Allen

Like faculty at other universities, those who teach here at UMass Boston are finding one of the most effective ways to use SafeAssign is as an instructional tool.

When Carol Allen, a member of the Nursing faculty, used SafeAssign this past spring as part of a pilot, she knew she wanted to use it with new students in the Intermediate Seminar who needed help learning to write academic papers.  “I wanted to look at it as a tool for the students,” Allen said. “I wanted to use it to address plagiarism, because they don’t know what plagiarism is.”

Allen, along with instructors in three other UMass Boston nursing school courses, used only the draft function of SafeAssign this past spring term.  (The draft mode allows students to submit multiple copies of their writing without any of it being cached into the databases SafeAssign uses to compare with students’ submitted papers.)  Three separate nursing courses used the software similarly with recent summer course work. The software matches potential plagiarism with sources via the Internet, a school-wide database, a global database, and the Proquest ABI/Inform database. In draft mode, students can see what comes up as “flagged” and can correct the error in subsequent written drafts. Allen said it’s a type of reinforcement for students learning what constitutes plagiarism.


A colleague of Allen’s, Kathleen Polley, who submitted a survey to the students who used the program, said 87% of survey respondents felt the software was helpful as a tool, especially in the higher level courses.

The faculty, Allen added, found the software equally helpful for their students and for highlighting potential instances of plagiarism.

“The amount of work is still the same as a professor,” Allen said, regarding whether SafeAssign made her job easier. Allen did like the software enough to endorse its use in 16 nursing school courses this semester.

Pedagogical Ramifications

Where her students always write two major papers during the course of the Intermediate Seminar (the course where most students are still developing researching and reporting skills), Allen has since changed the assignments to include source material she knows is in SafeAssign’s databases. That way, she said, she can better assess the accuracy of the program, as well as the most significant issues facing her students when it comes to citing source material.

Words of Advice

Allen is quick to profess caution to any professor who wants to use SafeAssign.

There are several flags professors should be aware of when using the software: any quoted material will be flagged; some material, including books and scholarly journal articles, are not in the databases; and sometimes real plagiarism does not get flagged.

“We’ve had students with instances of plagiarism, but it wasn’t picked up by the program,” Allen admits. “We’ve also had matches flagged that we determined were not plagiarism.”

(“Match” is the term SafeAssign uses, quantified in a percentage, of material from a student’s submitted paper and material in the databases.) Allen recommended professors “not jump the gun” when it comes to relying solely on the match percentage.

“[SafeAssign] is presented as a tool for [our] students–something to help them,” Allen insisted. “It’s a helpful tool to use,” she added, but one she did not feel appropriate for assigning a paper’s final grade.


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