The war on plagiarism

Students know that it is often difficult to understand what constitutes plagiarism – a topic that is introduced during every first week of classes – and that even the most conscientious of students can sometimes make an honest mistake. Professors often attempt to teach what plagiarism is, but the definitions are often ambiguous and leave a grey area for unassuming students. To remedy this ubiquitous problem, the University has adopted use of SafeAssign, a computer program which allows professors to run students’ papers through software to look for potential instances of plagiarism.

The program highlights possible matches in the students’ work with Internet sources, the ProQuest database, documents submitted by the University, and documents submitted by other students at other institutions that also use SafeAssign. The program was created by Blackboard, the institution behind WebCT. The submitted papers are flagged for matching text and put into three categories: less than 15 percent flagged, 15 to 40 percent flagged and over 40 percent flagged. Most papers will be flagged to some degree because they contain quotations that would match other sources on file. Therefore, it is up to the professor to refer back to the students’ paper and the SafeAssign results to differentiate quotes and paraphrasing from plagiarized material.

Although the program aids professors, it would be even more valuable to students. Freshmen could especially benefit from use of the software. The transition from high school to college writing is often a turbulent one, causing many first years to fall prey to temptation. ACS classes could implement student use of SafeAssign when explaining paper writing and ethics. If the software was made available to underclassmen, they could learn early the responsibility to uphold academic standards.

While SafeAssign certainly makes a teacher’s job of upholding academic integrity more feasible, it is not without its limitations. No software program is ever foolproof. Professors need to understand not to take SafeAssign at face value; they should look into the portions of an assignment that the software flags as potential instances of plagiarism, not definite examples of cheating.

Rutgers University professor Donald McCabe, who has conducted studies on cheating in college, finds that only 40 percent of students admit to cheating, down from 10 percent in 2002. Still, among business students, 56 percent admit to cheating, which is the highest percentage among different academic fields, McCabe said in an October 2008 Newsweek article.

There will always be dishonest students, and technology makes it even easier to plagiarize, but the University is wise to also use technology to its advantage. Professors should use SafeAssign as a tool against cheating while also understanding its shortcomings. They should make the program available to students who would like to review their work for possible instances of plagiarism. By utilizing SafeAssign and making it accessible to students, Villanova will be able to dually uphold high academic and ethical standards.