Plagiarism. Now What?

SafeAssign, the plagiarism detection tool built into Blackboard, does a decent job identifying potential plagiarism in student work. But, software cannot and will not replace the knowledge, judgment, and practical experience of an instructor. When the system suggests potential misconduct by one of your students, what are you to do? What should the student do? Is this a learning experiencing, and if so – what kind? Let’s explore this issue as it pertains to Blackboard’s SafeAssign tool. Before we get our hands dirty, here’s a short video that explains the gist of what you need to know, and might be worth sharing with your students:

What is SafeAssign?

This section borrowed from Blackboard’s public support site,

SafeAssign compares submitted assignments against a set of academic papers to identify areas of overlap between the submitted assignment and existing works. SafeAssign is based on a unique text matching algorithm capable of detecting exact and inexact matching between a paper and source material. Submissions are compared against several databases:

  • Internet: Comprehensive index of documents available for public access on the internet.
  • ProQuest ABI/Inform database: More than 1,100 publication titles and about 2.6 million articles from 1990 to present time, updated weekly (exclusive access).
  • Institutional document archives: Contains all papers submitted to SafeAssign by users in their respective institutions.
  • Global Reference Database: Contains papers that were volunteered by students from Blackboard client institutions to help prevent cross-institution plagiarism.

SafeAssign Originality Reports

After a paper is processed, a report is generated detailing the percentage of text in the submitted paper that matches existing sources.


Blackboard engineers have indicated that the percentage reported represents the likelihood that plagiarism exists within this paper, not the percentage of this paper that it found to be plagiarized.

The report shows the suspected sources for each section of the submitted paper that returns a match. You can delete matching sources from the report and process it again. This is useful if the paper is a continuation of a previously submitted work by the same student. Read the report carefully and investigate whether each block of text is properly attributed. To learn more, see SafeAssign Originality Reports.

Global Reference Database

Blackboard’s Global Reference Database is a separate database where students voluntarily donate copies of their papers to help prevent plagiarism. It is separated from each institution’s internal database, where all papers are stored by each corresponding institution. Students are free to select the option to check their papers without submitting them to the Global Reference Database. Students submit their papers to the database voluntarily and agree not to delete papers in the future. Submissions to the Global Reference Database are extra copies that are given voluntarily for the purpose of helping with plagiarism prevention. Blackboard does not claim ownership of submitted papers.

Benefits & Hazards

SafeAssign gives you a quick basis for comparison. Let’s say, for example, your students’ SafeAssign “scores” for a given assignment are:

66, 40, 39, 32, 21, 14, 10, 9, 6, 6, 5, 3, 1, 0

Is it safe to say that all but one plagiarized? No! But you might want to pay special attention to the reports for the top three or four students. Did they use quality sources? Did they use a lot of quotes? Both of those things are possible; whether or not the work meets your expectations can only be determined by you. But, with these numbers and reports you have a place to start digging. Let’s look at an example. Here is a paper that received a fairly high SafeAssign plagiarism score of 46% (and don’t worry – it’s fake). Below is the SafeAssign report for the above paper.

The Citations section lists the original sources in which matching phrases where found. At a quick glance, these sources include a blog, a YouTube page, a Wikipedia entry, and two other students’ work submitted through SafeAssign at this or another institution.

The student’s work follows, with each “matching” section highlighted and numbered according to the listed original source. Below, the instructor clicked on each highlighted section to reveal a side-by-side comparison between the two pieces of work. Now comes the importance of instructor judgement. Is the comparable work coincidence based on common, non-creative phraseology, direct copy/paste, a properly cited quotation (which can still factor into the SafeAssign score), or something else?



Will the student learn from you that they should do a better job cheating the system or will they learn how to be a better writer?

So, what do you do when a SafeAssign report indicates possible plagiarism? It is often expected that this software will make the judgement call for you. It will not. If you think there’s a reason to question a student’s work, then question it; professional instinct should not be underrated. This could be a very important learning experience for your student – a takeaway not necessarily related to your course but one that could have a lasting effect on this student’s professional life. Will the student learn from you that they should do a better job cheating the system or will they learn how to be a better writer? The answer might depend on how you introduce this technology to your learners and how you react when they submit questionable work.

  1. Compare the writing quality of this work to less formal student activity, such as their participation in online discussion forums, or even the quality of their in-class discussion. Is there a difference?
  2. Discuss it with the student. Show them the SafeAssign report, explain what it means, and ask them to explain their work. Don’t assume they know the work has been plagiarized or that they know what constitutes plagiarism – even if they’re seniors. Don’t assume someone else along the way has demonstrated these things, caught their errors, or shown them the way. It is not unheard-of  to discover late in a student’s academic life that that they have passed through school unaware of what they were doing wrong.
  3. We find many students don’t realize that the SafeAssign report is available to them just like it’s available to you (unless you change this setting). Let them know so it can become a tool in their academic toolbox, too.
  4. Ask (or require) students to work with the experts in the Writing Center. Make sure the student understands what exactly you feel needs improvement. Have them report back to you on what they’ve learned. Allow them to resubmit their work – maybe just this one time.

As technologists, we do not have all the answers, nor do we want to define your pedagogy. And, we certainly do not pretend that a piece of software can or should replace the professional judgement of an teacher. We do want to share the benefits and limitations of technology like SafeAssign, so that you consider it a tool in your toolbox – but a tool that is used to create positive learning experiences.