Posted by: Ellie Kutz | October 19, 2010

Plagiarism in a Digital Age: Overview

Plagiarism in A Digital Age: Overview

In this issue of the newsletter, we will be exploring the complex issue of Plagiarism in a Digital Age.  With rich resources made easily available on the web, it has become easy for students to draw from those resources inappropriately—not citing the sources of materials they use, not paraphrasing adequately, or even cutting and pasting the words they find into their own documents without quoting them.  This situation has engendered both a new public awareness and discussion of plagiarism concerns and the development of anti-plagiarism software such as Turnitin and SafeAssign to assess the “originality” (or lack thereof) in the work that students turn in.  Since SafeAssign has become available (through Blackboard) to all faculty at UMass Boston in Fall 2010, this is an appropriate moment to look at both the tool itself and the larger concerns it is designed to address.

This issue begins with a brief inquiry into the large problem of why students “plagiarize” and how we might understand the nature of the problem. We then offer a description of the SafeAssign tool and its features.  We look at what the research has shown so far about the effectiveness of such software—its design, its limitations, and the things that instructors need to know to use it most productivelyin their teaching.   We address the question “Why Use Safe Assign?” through an interview with a member of the Nursing Faculty, Carol Allen, who is implementing the use of SafeAssign in the RN to BA nursing courses. We address the question of what students need to know in the new academic literacy context created by the internet.  And we offer the alternative ways of thinking about plagiarism, with new metaphors for teaching about appropriate and inappropriate borrowings, drawing from the prize-winning blog entries of Wayne Rhodes of the English Department.

In a sense, the path I’m following here, as editor of the newsletter, is also the path of my own inquiry as a member of the English department and long-time teacher of both freshman writing and of graduate students who are or will become teachers of writing in high schools and colleges (and English MA student Greg Johns, who is assisting with this issue, is preparing to follow a similar path).  I want to know, for my own graduate students who will move to other institutions where they will be expected to take on the issue of plagiarism and where tools like SafeAssign and Turnitin will be widely used, what’s important to understand about how these tools work, what safeguards are needed, when and how to implement them effectively, and how to shape a larger pedagogical context that will help our students understand and care about authority and authorship.



  1. Ellie,

    Thanks so much to you and your colleagues. I found this newsletter to be extremely informative and useful.

    Dan Shimshak
    Management Science and Information Systems Department

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