SafeAssign fails faculty demo


After last month’s discussion of plagiarism at our Teaching Circle, I was asked to demonstrate the use of SafeAssign, the plagiarism prevention service offered by Blackboard in its Blackboard Learning System. I was happy to do so.

On Tuesday, I grabbed a few sample papers from the Internet and ran them through SafeAssign’s scan. One was from CustomPapers.com, one from Hacker Handbooks, and one from Dr. Cecilia Barnbaum’s page at Valdosta State‘s web site. The scan matching results were 100%, 100%, and 100% respectively. The faculty present were pleased with the results and with how it worked. The suspected sources included student papers from other institutions, as well as the Internet.

For Wednesday’s circle I decided to use documents that would better demonstrate SafeAssign’s capabilities. The first document was a sample exam full of random questions, such as What color is the sky? What is Lady Gaga’s given, birth name? How many windows are there in the Pentagon? and What is Pi, to the 10th digit? The second document was the EarthDance Delaware press release from 2011. And the third document was a “random sample essay paper” I composed from a variety of sources, the full text of which is posted below. The scan matching results were 13%, 24%, and 43%, respectively. (These results may have been slightly different during the presentation, as they’ve been rescanned several times since.)

The results this time around were not only disappointing, but perplexing.

In the first document of random questions it matched “Who is the current Prime Minister of Germany?” with “Who is the current prime minister of Russia?” and “What do you think of this new testing format?” with “What Do You Think of This New Duo?” and “How many windows are there in the Pentagon?” with “How many windows are there in the White House?”

In the press release it matched nearly all of the description of Stratford Ecological Center, the beneficiary organization of the event, with their website. This was to be expected, as it was copied directly from there. But it also matched “to 10 p.m” with “10 a.m” and a few other finely detailed phrases.

The last report was the most surprising. As you can see, I plagiarized nearly everything. However, I was somewhat sophisticated. The first line was copied verbatim from the Freakonomics blog. SafeAssign didn’t catch that. The second line is a slightly different version of the first sentence of Rev. Martin Luther King Junior’s “I Have a Dream” speech. SafeAssign didn’t catch that either. The lorem ipsum paragraph was easy; it found that. It didn’t find any match to Neil Armstrong’s famous quote. Perhaps that’s because I added two letters to turn “mankind” into “humankind.” Next is a Shakespeare sonnet (#116) that I had edited in a few places. It missed this entirely. Then there’s the old typing practice line, the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog, that I had edited. SafeAssign didn’t touch that. “Life is only what you make it…” and “Have you ever been touched by youth…” are original compositions, so I wasn’t expecting any matches there. But “Frankly, my dear…” is one of the most oft-quoted sentences from a movie (Gone with the Wind.) That also didn’t produce any matches, despite the fact that there is a Wikipedia page by that title.

So one of the faculty present took the random sample essay paper and forwarded it to a colleague at another institution who has access to TurnItIn, a competitor to SafeAssign. TurnItIn didn’t do much better. It caught the Freakonomics blog quote and correctly matched it. It found Lorem ipsum. And, interestingly, it matched the Shakespeare sonnet and revealed where I had changed it. It failed to match anything else, and gave the paper a score of 52% on a similarity index.

I had been accustomed to telling faculty that they have to read SafeAssign reports with a grain of salt due to it matching quotes and other material that a student has properly cited and attributed. Now I need to caution that SafeAssign is not as reliable as I had once thought. It can produce a false negative just as easily as a false positive…


This is a random sample essay paper…

One of the cool features we’ve added to the new blog is the “Surprise Me” button that allows you to randomly sample our archive of blog posts.

I am pleased to join you today in what will be remembered as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipisicing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

That’s one small step for man; one giant leap for humankind.

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit stumbling blocks. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration discovers,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no no no! it is an ever-fixed sign
That looks on tempests and is stirred, never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come and go:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks and months,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

The speedy quick chocolate brown fox ski jumped right over the pathetically lazy dog.

Life is only what you make it, and in time, how you take it.

Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.

Have you ever been touched by youth, and stopped to listen a while, and shown that child an interest in themselves and where they’d been?
Have you ever been so surprised by the depth of their lives, you’re awestruck by their tenderness, their willingness to bless?
If so, we’ve shared a timeless jewel, to make us feel as fools; grown up lives and the bigness there can be so vain and bare.
If not, I’ll ask you once my friend, think what the master said: Suffer the kids to come to him, and try to be like them.