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I am an astronomy professor who recently started using Blackboard's SafeAssign tool to check for plagiarism in student submissions. I've encountered a persistent issue with one of my students, whose submitted PDF files consistently fail to be processed by SafeAssign. The error message displayed is:

SafeAssign Submission

Unprocessed Attachments

Essay.pdf

We are unable to process this file. If this is a supported file type, please try again later.

Despite these files appearing normal (i.e., readable in Blackboard and when downloaded), they cannot be processed by plagiarism checking sites without manual OCR, and even then, the hyperlinks are missing. This discrepancy is notable, especially considering the student’s poor performance on exams relative to their online submissions. I suspect this might be a deliberate attempt to evade plagiarism detection, but I am looking for insights before making any direct accusations.

Has anyone experienced similar issues? Could this be a known student tactic, or possibly a technical glitch with Blackboard/SafeAssign?

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    help.blackboard.com/SafeAssign/Instructor/FAQ Discusses that using ‘Print to PDF’ results in the content not being in text, so unprocessable. Might instead instruct them to submit the actual word processing file.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Apr 27 at 0:57
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    it could be a deliberate attempt to evade plagiarism, but it could also just be a solitary student whose answers are in a slightly different format for some random tech reason. Honestly, I am a little concerned by your reliance on automatic tools, and quick assumption of cheating after the tool fails.
    – Taw
    Commented Apr 27 at 3:31
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    And is there any reason you have ruled out the possibility that safeassign has a bug? With the student id or the order of the student in the roster for example?
    – Taw
    Commented Apr 27 at 3:35
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    "I suspect this might be a deliberate attempt to evade plagiarism detection, but I am looking for insights before making any direct accusations." Is not, by default, an assumption of cheating. Furthermore, you rely on computers and the internet which relies on computers and this site which relies on computers, thus to publish here a non-specific concern of a professor's reliance on automatic tools seems to be maybe disingenuous. Continuing, he did not say that he had ruled out the possibility that safeassign had a bug. Try to read attentively, and as stated, be nice.
    – Line Item
    Commented Apr 27 at 4:29
  • What's the result when you do manually OCR the assignment and give it to the similarity checker? Commented Apr 29 at 19:16

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The official Blackboard FAQ contains the following text under the Question "What are SafeAssign's supported file types?":

SafeAssign can only process PDFs if the PDF contains machine-readable true text. If the PDF was prepared from "Print to PDF" or scanned from an imaging device without external optical character recognition (OCR), such as a scanner or cell phone app, then the PDF contains a bitmap or vector "picture" of text. This is not readable as text and SafeAssign currently does not perform OCR. If you can't select the text with your mouse or keyboard in a PDF reader, then there is no true text in the PDF.

To prevent this issue: make sure to export the document from your word processor using the "Export to PDF" option and avoid the "PDF Printer" option from the print menu. Also, don't use the option to 'outline' fonts sometimes found in advanced applications because it replaces the text with vector graphics of the same shape which aren't machine-readable.

So, I would emphasize in class broadly, and likely a specific message to the person with the issue, how to make a SafeAssign-readable PDF.

Attributing malice to this seems unwarranted. Now, if the student persists in the behavior then I would insist on them submitting a readable file in some other format listed in the FAQ.

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