Teaching Academic Integrity Through Plagiarism Prevention Technology


The following article was published on E-Learn Magazine on July 18, 2018 and is based on an interview with Trey Buck, at the time SafeAssign Senior Product Manager at Blackboard. We are republishing it in its original form. Click here for the Spanish version.

Rather than “catching” students doing something wrong, tools like SafeAssign present learning opportunities to improve student writing.

Plagiarism has always existed, but the availability of information and technology has made this practice much easier – and more traceable. For a generation of people who have grown up using collaborative resources like Wikipedia, music file sharing and other websites and applications, the concept of authorship may have become more diffuse or difficult to understand.

“Having the answer to almost any question imaginable right at your fingertips is something entirely new to humanity. I believe it makes it harder to strive to come up with our own unique answers, and students may end up finding an answer someone else has already created more quickly or easily than generating their own”, says Trey Buck, SafeAssign Senior Product Manager at Blackboard and SafeAssign product expert. “At the same time, though, I see it as a real opportunity. It is a benefit to education that there is information readily available that can help solve problems, but critical thinking skills – being able to assimilate information and really understand, write about, and ultimately communicate that information in a way that is unique – are more important than ever. Platforms like Tumblr and Facebook allow people to get their voices out, but given that the possibility of plagiarizing is greater, our content needs to be more original, as well.”

Educational Tool

Offered as a part of the overall Blackboard Learn solution, Blackboard SafeAssign is a plagiarism prevention tool based on text-matching algorithms capable of detecting multiple exact and inexact matches between a submitted paper and source material. It compares documents across several sources, including the Global Reference Database, which contains papers that were volunteered by students from Blackboard client institutions to help prevent cross-institutional plagiarism.

According to Buck, who has been working with SafeAssign for the last five years, there has been a significant growth in the adoption of the tool, with 30 to 40 percent increases year over year. This growth is being driven by both existing Blackboard clients using SafeAssign more regularly and new schools coming online with SafeAssign for the first time. “More and more schools, I believe, will start to place emphasis on these types of tools because the natural adoption and usage of online educational tools broadly has gotten far more sophisticated. Enabling SafeAssign within Blackboard Learn is so easy and being able to decide where to use it inside of courses and assignments provides flexibility and choice to schools and instructors,” he says.

Buck states that the most important thing about plagiarism prevention technology is its intended use as an instructional tool rather than a punitive tool for policing students. “SafeAssign should not be treated as a perfect mechanism that is going to ‘catch’ students in all cases. What we really want is for our customers to use SafeAssign as a way to teach students about the value of original writing as well as proper citation.”

He reminds us that there are several forms of plagiarism out there, and unintentional plagiarism is a reality. “I often use the example of a history class. An introductory history class in, let´s say, the history of Brazil, is very likely to have a lot of the same high-level topics that have been covered for years – even if the prompts change – and therefore it can be difficult for students to write truly new and unique content about that sort of subject. So, it is very possible that students end up writing something similar to what has previously been written, even totally unintentionally. We want users to think about SafeAssign as a tool to help improve the educational experience and the practice of administrating education, and not as a way of trying to catch students doing something wrong.”

Buck points out that it can be difficult to engage students on the topic of plagiarism without it feeling threatening: “That is something we hear from students quite a bit, that they feel like the school is always judging them, so to speak. That may not be the school´s intention at all, but because of the way the students often feel about these types of tools, the perception is inherently negative. Even the idea of plagiarism is kind of a negative thing, so people do not necessarily want to talk about it,” he says.

In order to mitigate students’ feelings that they may be punished by using the service, it can be a helpful practice to allow students to submit drafts and correct their own work prior to submitting the final version of an assignment. Instructors can also create assignments with an unlimited number of submissions to allow students to resubmit after review. In short, it’s important to use plagiarism software in a preventative and educational way so students will not feel that they are being caught by surprise or assessed unfairly.

Plagiarism can be a constant malaise in the education sphere, and many schools have academic conduct policies that at least mention plagiarism. Additionally, students should be learning about original writing throughout their educational journey. “It is a topic that covers a lot of different writing levels as well as educational levels, and I do not think it is the school´s sole responsibility to teach their students about this,” he says. “I think it is the responsibility of schools to use tools like SafeAssign to help educate their students as a part of the learning process, in addition to giving them writing assignments and allowing students to do their own creative work. And then, in cases where intentional or unintentional plagiarism may be of concern, schools can use the analysis of a tool like SafeAssign to help facilitate the appropriate actions.”

In Buck’s opinion, the main challenges that institutions are facing are setting the right expectations for both instructors and teachers when they are using these types of tools, making sure they understand what they are getting out of the tool, and ensuring that students do not feel like they are getting punished in every way by the school and the institutions that use these tools. “There are so many learning opportunities that these tools can create, and we want people to recognize and act on those occasions as opportunities rather than punishments.”

Technology Evolution

Blackboard has owned SafeAssign for more than a decade, and over that time the tool has improved in many aspects. For example, it was moved from a separate tool in Blackboard Learn – where the teacher had to create a separate assignment type to use – to an integrated option in the native Learn assignment workflow. “We have also made some adjustments to the algorithms over time, to make results more accurate, and we have improved the user experience and overall quality of the SafeAssign Originality Reports,” affirms Buck. “Another interesting thing is that, for each client that signs up to use SafeAssign, every document that has been submitted by their users goes in a database just for them, and the longer they use the server, the bigger that database gets. So, they have an ever-growing database of documents to analyze student work against.”

As for the future, he believes that SafeAssign should present matches in a smarter way. “Today we very much rely on the teachers to do their own understanding and interpretation of the originality of the reports, even in the most basic level. That is good in some ways, but we can certainly continue to make the results more intuitive. And I think that, over time, we will likely start to roll in additional functions to SafeAssign that surround that basic progress.”

Although tools like SafeAssign tend to get smarter with time, Buck emphasizes that they should never replace a human. “It is concerning when we see schools that will set policies like, ‘if the match percentage of originality in the report is over a certain amount, that report automatically gets flagged for review by an academic oversight committee’ or something similar. I also know that, to students, a policy like that feels very much like oversight rather than support and further exacerbates students’ concerns about these types of tools,” he says.

“Blackboard is extremely conscious of the implications of accusing students of plagiarizing and that is why we always position SafeAssign as one tool of many in an instructor’s toolbox. We always leave the choice in our clients’ hands as to what to do with the results; we do not flag them for follow up, we do not report them anywhere,” Buck adds. “The tool is meant to support our clients’ pedagogies and beliefs in how education should happen at their school. At the end of the day, humans – not machines – should be deciding whether plagiarism has occurred and then taking the subsequent actions. Programmatic tools like SafeAssign are built to help inform decisions that humans should always be making based on as much information as possible.”