Saving Time or Betraying Trust?

A proposal at the University of Maryland to detect possible plagiarism with software pits overworked graduate students against students and professors.
November 12, 2007

It doesn't come as a surprise that a proposal to curb plagiarism would draw criticism from its intended targets. But at the University of Maryland at College Park, a plan to introduce text matching software has drawn fire not only from students but from their professors as well.

As at many research universities, the bulk of grading is often left to teaching assistants, and the amount of effort that goes into tracking down potential plagiarism has some graduate students complaining that they could be making better use of their time. At Maryland, a recent survey of graduate assistants found that they were working (on the TA duties they have on top of the graduate education) an average of 29.1 hours a week, well over the expected 20. The Ph.D. completion rate is under 50 percent, which some partially attribute to workload.

The idea to use automated detection software originated with Laura Moore, president of the Graduate Student Government, in January, largely as an effort to shift the burden from TA's to a program called SafeAssign, which Blackboard recently added as a free module for institutions that already subscribe to its enterprise course management package. At Maryland, according to an official at the Office of Information Technology, the module is currently disabled, but there is talk of starting a pilot program.

"I think in our case, TA workload has to be reduced. It’s affecting our success as graduate students. So we need to find ways to do that; this is a cheap and easy way to do it," Moore said.

Whether the plan ever gets past that stage depends on the outcome of discussions at various levels of the administration and faculty leadership. Last week, the University Senate's executive committee held informal discussions on Moore's proposal (among other issues) that ended without agreement or action, but members voiced concerns that the software could return false positives and create a presumption of guilt that students are cheating. Graduate students, meanwhile, argue that due process would be preserved and that any results from SafeAssign would have to be interpreted anyway.

"I’m not very keen on this idea, but I’ve never used it," said Kenneth G. Holum, a professor of history who sits on the executive committee. "I have Googled things on the Web, my teaching assistants have and we’ve actually found papers that were plagiarized ... it’s terrible but I think the relationship between faculty and students is more important than the few people who damage mostly themselves by engaging in that kind of conduct."

Blackboard added SafeAssign -- originally MyDropBox's SafeAssignment software -- to its offerings this summer. The program works much like the dominant player in the field, Turnitin, by scanning millions of documents on the Internet and various databases to search for matches to a student's work. According to Karen Gage, Blackboard's vice president of product strategy, the system checks a number of sources, including the results of Web searches (through Microsoft's Live Search engine), journal articles in the ProQuest database, all assignments submitted through SafeAssign at a particular campus, and a database of papers voluntarily submitted to a global database representing all member institutions.

If the module is made available, professors can also decide to let their students submit drafts to SafeAssign, although the student body president worries that matches on a preliminary version could be just as detrimental. Gage stressed that the results don't necessarily mean that a student has plagiarized; a grader must decide whether the match is real and if it constitutes a genuine breach of academic integrity.

Similar issues were raised several years ago when Turnitin approached the university about adopting its service. Since Maryland adopted a "modified honor code" in 1990 that evaluates cases individually (rather than a "single-sanction" approach), said Andrea Goodwin, the associate director of student conduct, "adopting something like on a regular basis may be more detrimental to that trust-building and that community-building" necessary to "a culture of honesty and integrity."

Moore, who is a master's student in entomology, believes that's a legitimate concern, and she hopes that the campus has a chance to examine the issue thoroughly in the coming weeks.

"My interest in this particular tool stems in part from my experience as a TA," she wrote in an October e-mail to the University Senate. "When I TA'd for BSCI 105 and BSCI 106, much emphasis was placed on teaching students how to paraphrase original sources without plagiarizing. One of the first labs of the semester was devoted to learning about paraphrasing and plagiarism. Since many of our students were freshmen and were learning these concepts for the first time in a college setting, we felt that it was important to spend time emphasizing these concepts.

"TA's were instructed to check students' lab reports to ensure that referenced material was paraphrased appropriately. This took a tremendous amount of time. Each lab report typically took about 20 minutes to grade, and often up to 5-10 minutes of this was spent doing web searches on suspect phrases and researching original material. Since the plagiarism-detection portion of grading could potentially be automated, I thought this was worth investigating."

Initial meetings with IT officials were favorable to adopting SafeAssign, but the University Senate's response has been decidedly cooler. The outcome depends largely on which body makes the final decision. The student body president, Andrew Friedson, says he's concerned that the plan could "alter the relationship between the professor and the student" and "set a standard and a culture and expectation of cheating."

"The reservation that I have is rooted in the fact that ... having a program like SafeAssign on our campus ... creates an assumption that people are cheating, and you have to prove yourself to have not cheated," he said.

For her part, Moore will continue pushing the plan, but she sees the issue as part of a larger problem. She's also working to pursue unionizing the university's graduate students.


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