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New software helps protect against plagiarism

by Sherry Fisher - April 14, 2008

A new software package called Safe Assign, part of the enhanced version of the course software HuskyCT, can help teach students when they have failed to cite sources properly and, perhaps, reduce plagiarism.

It complements the University’s efforts to foster a culture of academic honesty.

The software allows faculty to check students’ papers against sources on the Internet, a growing database of journals, and papers written by other UConn students.

If a student chooses, a paper may be submitted to a global database of student papers, and Safe Assign checks these papers against student papers from other universities as well.

Kim Chambers, director of educational technologies, says Safe Assign can be used in several ways.

A faculty member may tell the entire class that they are working on a Safe Assign assignment.

The papers are then submitted electronically, and automatically checked for proper citations. Or, using a feature called Direct Submit, faculty may check a particular student’s paper to check for improper citations.

Faculty also can allow students to use Safe Assign themselves before submitting work.

“If you’re a faculty member and check the box agreeing to allow students to check their papers first,” says Chambers, “there are going to be significantly fewer instances of students turning in papers where citations were improper, leading toward plagiarism.

“I’m encouraging faculty and students to use this not simply to detect plagiarism,” he adds, “but to teach students the process of scholarship and how to properly cite scholarly work.”

A paper that has been checked through Safe Assign will have text taken from other sources highlighted in different colors.

The exact text from the other source and a link to that source will appear on the paper.

“For example, you can look at the source in a particular paragraph to see how it matches something that’s on the Web,” Chambers says.

“If there are citations from a journal, you can click on that link and see the phrase there and the phrase written in the paper. You have comparisons for everything cited in the paper. It would be a heads-up to the student to know ‘I’ve quoted from this source, but I didn’t properly attribute the source.’”

Safe Assign gives a percentage score to each paper submitted. “It might conclude that 11 percent of a particular paper came from other sources, or 2 percent, or 100 percent,” says Chambers.

He says the percentage of agreement will depend on the nature of the assignment: “If you’re giving students a literature review, you’re going to want a fairly high percentage citing other sources. If it’s a research paper, you might want only about 20 percent to be cited from elsewhere. Rarely will you want zero percent, unless it’s a creative work or fiction.”

Chambers says today’s technology makes it easy to copy other work.

“Twenty years ago, you would have to type something out of a book. Now you can go to Wikipedia, highlight two paragraphs, copy, and paste.

“Hopefully,” he adds, “good pedagogical uses of Safe Assign will enhance student scholarship at UConn.”

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