Free Internet based paraphrasing tools: further threats to academic integrity

Paraphrasing tools or article ‘spinners’ are free Internet sites which use computer programs to change writing so it looks different to the original text. While it may look different to the source material, using the output from an online tool can be considered a form of plagiarism or cheating as it is not an individual’s work but the work of a machine. This study, published in the International Journal for Educational Integrity, shows that the machine outputs are of poor quality, cannot be trusted and there are ways of detecting their use. This blog can also be read on the Springer Open blog.

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Why do people use them?

Basically the tools are free, quick to use and easy to locate through simple Internet searches. Because of this, people who are time poor or who struggle with summarising the ideas of others may be tempted to use the tools to complete their work. Individuals who have to write in other languages may think the machine writes or translates better than they do. Others, including academics and researchers may think it is a quick way of rewriting already published materials.

Why is learning to paraphrase an important skill?

Paraphrasing shows how well someone understands other person’s ideas.

Paraphrasing is an important skill for everyone to develop. Paraphrasing shows how well someone understands other person’s ideas. It is also used to clarify meaning in conversations inside and outside of workplaces. Using online paraphrasing tools prevents people from learning and developing this important skill which may ultimately impact of their future careers.

About the study

This study took text from an existing publication and processed it through two online paraphrasing tools to examine the output. The output was further tested by seeing if a text matching machine could detect that the work was actually copied. The paraphrasing output was poor in terms of word choice and grammar while the text matching machine had difficulty in matching the output with the original work. There were some clues that can assist in detecting their use.

What sort of text do the online tools produce?

The online tools rely appear to rely on a couple of basic rules. They use synonyms – words or phrases that may be similar to the original word but may have slight differences in meaning depending on what is being written about. One of the tools in the test changed the phrase ‘employee performance reviews’ to ‘representative execution surveys’ – not an approach that would be encouraged when managing employees. They also leave basic works such as ‘to’, ‘the’, ‘and’, ‘that’ and ‘in’ (known as conjunctions), and appear to avoid changing words near punctuation or internet addresses (for example brackets, commas, colons or URLs).

Why are online paraphrasing tools a threat to academic integrity?

These tools are a significant threat to academic integrity.

These tools are a significant threat to academic integrity as they encourage students (and others) to copy work and rely on a computer generated output rather than writing themselves. This prevents students learning how to paraphrase other people’s thoughts and ideas and acknowledge the original source material.

How can we detect their use?

This study demonstrates how text matching software such as Turnitin® has difficulty in detecting the use of online paraphrasing tools. However, there are patterns and clues in the outputs of the tools that can assist in identifying work that is not original. Errors including word selection, phrasing and grammar can indicate that a machine may have changed the text.

What can we do to discourage their use?

Text matching software such as Turnitin® has difficulty in detecting the use of online paraphrasing tools.

Firstly we need to acknowledge their existence. This means having conversations with students and others about paraphrasing sites and demonstrating the poor output they generate and importance of developing individual paraphrasing skills. Secondly we need to support students in developing their paraphrasing skills through lectures, tutorials and support sessions. This will help build confidence in each person’s own abilities. Additionally, being consistent in speaking with students where there are concerns about the originality or acknowledgement practices used in submitted work.

In summary

Paraphrasing tools just like many internet facilities promise to make things easier. The reality is that the outputs have a large number of errors and do not help students learn. Being open with students about the problems that exist with online paraphrasing tools may encourage them to learn how to learn and develop their own paraphrasing skills.

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2 Comments

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Emma

Definitely agree with you! Instead of making things easier a lot of paraphrasing tools make it a lot harder. I’ve tried some of them just to see how do they work; this one is example of a paraphrasing tool: online paraphrasing machine. Some of them also change the sequence of words instead of just using synonyms.
These tools don’t worth the time you spend on them.

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