Competing to Catch Plagiarizers

Blackboard incorporates a plagiarism detection service into its software, posing potential challenge to Turnitin.
July 10, 2007

As technology makes it easier for students to cheat on exams or plagiarize papers, there has been no shortage of technology meant to deter and catch students who use cell phones, iPods and Google for a little extra help.

Turnitin and SafeAssignment are the two dominant technologies for comparing students' submissions to databases of millions of student papers, articles and Web sites. But the educational software company Blackboard is today creating a new service, sort of -- releasing SafeAssign, a repackaged version of MyDropBox's SafeAssignment that will come pre-installed in future versions of the Blackboard Learning System, the leading course management software in the market.

Institutional subscriptions for Turnitin cost 87 cents per student annually, SafeAssign is free for the 2,200 institutions that have Blackboard enterprise accounts, an added service for subscribers. Turnitin offers a plug-in that allows it to be used with Blackboard.

Blackboard is billing SafeAssign as something new, explaining that it comes with the strength of Blackboard's user network and a database that will slowly expand as more student papers are checked with the service. “This is an opportunity for institutions to work together to address a problem that exists at every single school," Blackboard president and CEO Michael Chasen said. “They can connect to each other and as a community help to ensure that students aren’t plagiarizing and are citing properly."

Perhaps not surprisingly, John Barrie, president and CEO of Turnitin's parent company, iParadigms, is skeptical of Blackboard's SafeAssign technology. He calls it "the same thing as SafeAssignment but with four fewer letters," a competitor that Turnitin has "absolutely slaughtered in the market."

Using either service, graders can with the click of a mouse scan a student’s submission and get back a report on the similarity of that assignment to everything else in the database.

It’s up to the faculty member, then, to figure out whether the similarities actually constitute plagiarism or are just the unavoidable similarities that a search of millions of documents can find between, say, a student’s paper on Thomas Jefferson’s role in the Continental Congress and every other account of Jefferson in the 1770s.

It’s also up to the grader’s judgment to determine whether a student who wrote “We hold these truths to be self-evident" is passing them off as his own words or is simply including that phrase as a properly cited quotation. Graders can then comment on and evaluate assignments within the plagiarism detection applications.

The major difference, then, is the database. SafeAssign's library will include a scan of the Internet and weekly updates of the ProQuest ABI/Inform database of 2.6 million articles, as well as student and faculty submissions made Blackboard's network of users.

Barrie said Turnitin has a far larger advantage of scale: the Turnitin database includes 40 million student papers from 9,000 academic institutions in 90 countries. The database also incorporates archived copies of the Internet since 2000, meaning that even if a Web page has been taken down, Turnitin can still detect similarities.

Unlike Turnitin, which has faced complaints and lawsuits from students who say that the for-profit company’s policy of storing student papers in its database violates intellectual property law, SafeAssign asks students for permission to store their papers each time they submit one via Blackboard, which may mean that the catalog grows more slowly than Turnitin's average of 100,000 new papers each day.

Many students, Chasen said, “don’t want their hard work to be copied” and, he anticipates, will gladly allow their submissions to be included in the database. He added, “It almost becomes circular -- the more people who use it, the more we have stored in the database, becoming more accurate and more accurate as time goes on.”

SafeAssign is the underdog in the competition, with a smaller library and fewer subscribers. Daniel E. Wueste, director of the Rutland Institute for Ethics at Clemson University, said that "the size of the database is a significant challenge" for SafeAssign to "catch up with Turnitin any time soon."

But Turnitin's database is flawed, too, Wueste said. While large, it is not exhaustive of the complete contents of university libraries and essay mill collections. "It's just not true that having passed Turnitin means something's not plagiarized," he said. "No service will catch everything."

Though Barrie said Turnitin does "not consider SafeAssign to be a competitor," Wueste said it could become one for institutions driven by the bottom line. Once administrators at institutions that subscribe to both Blackboard and Turnitin realize they have "two systems that do the same job," they might choose to get rid of Turnitin, Wueste said, despite its larger database. "The main pressure point is institutions that will feel the crunch of the cost."

He added, "It's hard to know how many of those are out there and whether they'll see the redundancy."


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