MU improves conversation about plagiarism through software

Sunday, November 22, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CST; updated 8:33 p.m. CST, Monday, November 23, 2009

An earlier version of this story misspelled Danna Vessell's name.

COLUMBIA — A year ago, MU introduced a campuswide plagiarism detection program called SafeAssign.

Although plagiarism is known to be widespread in colleges and universities, SafeAssign was adopted to be instructive, not punitive.

It is intended as a learning tool to help students avoid plagiarism rather than a way to catch and punish students, said Danna Vessell, director of Education Technologies at MU.

"We don't want people to use this program to shake a finger at plagiarism," Vessell said. Instead, she hopes it is a tool that professors can use to educate students about avoiding plagiarism.

"Professors who have talked about usage said it helped them and their students have a conversation about plagiarism," she said.

Because the program is so new to MU, only a handful of professors are taking advantage of it so far, Vessell said. Incidents are not collected or reported, she said. 

SafeAssign takes submitted student papers and looks for matches on online documents and databases.

According to MU SafeAssign, the program "does not detect plagiarism per se, but by flagging copied material, showing possible sources, and indicating the percentage of the paper copied, it can be used as an aid in fighting plagiarism."

It is offered on Blackboard, the online learning system at MU. It is available to any professor who wants to incorporate it into their classroom teaching, Vessell said. Because the program is offered through Blackboard, the university did not have to pay additional costs.

According to Greg Ritter, director of product management for Blackboard, so far there have been no studies conducted on the affect of SafeAssign on plagiarism in the schools that utilize it. SafeAssign was acquired by Blackboard in 2007. The tool is based on technology from a product called SafeAssignment which was owned by a company called Sciworth, said Ritter.

It is widely known that plagiarism has been an increasing problem in high schools and on college campuses, especially when Internet is so readily available to students. According to, however, little information exists about levels of national plagiarism because the problem often goes "undetected or unreported."

SafeAssign is just one plagiarism detection software program being used in schools to combat the problem. 

These programs use pattern-matching technology to compare an assignment to documents online, including databases of journals, books, newspapers and other student papers. A percentage number is displayed representing how much of the document's text matched up with text from other documents.

A match doesn't necessarily mean a student has plagiarized, it is up to the instructor to determine whether it is a case of academic integrity or not.

A variety of plagiarism detection programs are available online. is one of the most popular, used in more than 6,500 high schools and colleges in 106 countries." and SafeAssign have similar protocols.

Rock Bridge High School has been using for four years. History teacher David Graham and Matt Webel in the English department are two teachers who use the Web site often. Both assign two to three class papers  each month.

They let students submit papers to the site as many times as they wish before the final draft is due. Students must also submit hard copies in addition to their online submissions to

Graham said the program adds a layer of accountability for students.

"I think anytime a kid can see in front of them, the level of plagiarism or level of copying on their paper, they have to confront that," he said.

Teachers see it not as a tool for punishment but as a way of enlightening students about the problem.

"We're teachers; we're not cops," Graham said. "If a student is found to have plagiarized, we'll sit down with them and say 'Here's where it is,' and talk about it."

This year the school cut funding for the program, which costs several thousand dollars, but Graham and Webel wanted to keep using the program and used department funds to pay for the license.

Katie Shay, a senior at Rock Bridge, said has helped her avoid unintentional plagiarism.

"It definitely teaches you how to put ideas in your own words," she said. Even so, she said there are still some students who are caught for plagiarizing.

"There will always be those kids who go on Wikipedia and copy and paste because they waited until the last minute," she said.

Other local schools using are Stephens College, Hickman High School and Missouri State University.

Kristen Epps, an instructor for the history department at Kansas University, said the school has been using SafeAssign for two years. The program provides "teachable moments" she says. "That is the most positive outcome of using such a plagiarism detection program."

Epps recently used the program to show a student how to improve her paraphrasing skills. Before SafeAssign, KU used, which Epps said she prefers because she believes it was more accurate.

Missouri Baptist University has been using SafeAssign since Blackboard began offering it in 2007. Van Vaughn, a professor at the university, said he has seen students pay greater attention to detail because of the program.

When an example of plagiarism occurs, he said, he takes the opportunity to sit down with the student and discuss the problem.

"Prior to SafeAssign, plagiarism checks were done based on instinct, and I suspect not all was caught," he said.


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