Recently, at the end of a tutorial, a student asked Ann Rogerson a question she’d never heard before: Was it okay to use paraphrasing tools to write up assignments? Rogerson, a senior lecturer in the faculty of business at the University of Wollongong in Australia, was stumped — she’d never heard of these tools before.
It turns out, the student had learned of the tool from another student. For an assignment, the student had taken wording from a journal article and run it through a free online tool that automatically paraphrases text, so it evades plagiarism detection software.
Immediately, Rogerson remembered wording from a previous student submission that had always bugged her — in an assignment about employee performance reviews, the student had written awkward phrases such as “constructive employee execution” and “worker execution audits.” A lightbulb went off for Rogerson.
She immediately went to her computer, looked up the tools on Google, and easily found one. She typed in “employee performance reviews,” and the tool spit out “representative execution surveys.”
I had my answer about what the student in the previous session had done.
It was a troubling realization, she said:
I was shocked by both the ease of use and the poor quality of output. I was also disappointed that here was something else trying to undermine the student learning process while challenging academic integrity.
In a recent paper in the International Journal of Educational Integrity, Rogerson and her co-author Grace McCarthy, also at Wollongong, describe what they’ve learned about these online paraphrasing tools, and the dangers they pose. (For tips on how to recognize when someone has used the tools, see the sidebar below.)
Although the paper focuses on the use of the tools by students, we asked Rogerson if the tools have entered into academic publishing; “anything is possible,” she told us:
…however I have no experience or evidence whether professional academics are using the tools for their scholarly publishing. I have not observed any in the journal articles, book chapters and conference papers I have reviewed to date. As the tools are freely available, there is nothing to stop anyone using them. Some of their use may be masked by post-editing of the output to remove or address the errors that they generate. Post-edited paraphrase tool work would be more difficult to identify, particularly for those outside of a discipline/research area and unfamiliar with specific terminology, formulae or indicators.
As we’ve seen more retractions stemming from third-party manuscript companies which share material between different groups of authors, we asked if it’s possible these services are employing online paraphrasing tools:
It is certainly in the realms of possibility for some less reputable manuscript editing companies to be using the tools or the algorithms behind them particularly where they offer very quick turnaround times and multiple disclaimers…It comes down to motivation at the end of the day – if editing companies are more concerned about making money through manuscript editing they will look for more ‘cost efficient’ ways to produce their content. They are less concerned about academic rigour and more concerned about making money quickly. Genuine editing services offered by qualified editors takes time.
Miguel Roig at St. John’s University, who has written extensively about the problem of plagiarism, told us he is concerned about paraphrasing tools — which he suspects at least one of his students may have used in the past:
…I believe that, as with spell-checkers, [where] the lack of effort in looking up a correct spelling of words likely reduces the probability of retaining the correct spelling of words, the similar lack of mental effort required to come up with a good summary/paraphrase will similarly retard the acquisition of this most important of writing skills in inexperienced writers. After all, like many other skills, the ability to produce good paraphrases or summaries of others’ work takes practice with considerable mental effort. There are no short-cuts; you have to learn by doing.
Roig — who is also a member of the board of our parent non-profit organization — added that he wouldn’t be surprised if some third-party editing companies had used paraphrasing tools to some extent.
Debora Weber-Wulff, another plagiarism expert based at the University of Applied Sciences HTW Berlin in Germany, noted this newer crop of tools shows how difficult it is to quickly determine if a paper has been plagiarized. (Indeed, after Rogerson and McCarthy ran a section of their own work through two paraphrasing tools, the plagiarism detection software Turnitin recognized only a 50% and 30% match to the original). According to Weber-Wulff:
This is why dreams of finding the perfect plagiarism detection system are doomed to failure. The “other side”, if you will, will come up with better disguises. We have to find other ways of teaching and enforcing good academic practice.
Weber-Wulff added that she is confident paraphrasing tools have already worked their way into the academic literature:
Any time you see a paper published (probably in a predatory journal) where the sentences do not make sense, you can guess that something like this is happening…The tools are pitched to the individual, but of course can be used by [third-party] editing companies. I get all sorts of offers of such services all the time and they do use a variety of tools.
Rogerson is now trying to raise awareness of the problem for the next generation of professional authors:
I openly discuss their existence in class demonstrating how poor the tools actually are along with my encouraging student questions about originality, citations and acknowledgements when preparing for assignments. Confronting the issue is important therefore I work with students on how to learn and develop paraphrasing skills without using an online tool. Just because some online tools can easily and correctly convert temperature, distance and currency does not mean that Internet based text tools can be relied upon the same way. The only way of bringing it to light is to talk and write about it.
SIDEBAR: How to identify text modified by a paraphrasing tool
Over time, Rogerson has developed some clues that tip her off when text has been tweaked by paraphrasing tools. For instance, her suspicions rise when she sees “inappropriate terminology related to the subject context:”
…for example the tools in the experiment changed ‘plagiarism’ to ‘copyright infringement’, the other used ‘counterfeiting’…The change in terminology and meaning is a clue as the tools work around synonyms rather than semantic meaning.
And if Rogerson sees a citation near the inappropriate terminology, she’ll go to the original text and do a short test-run:
…I will source the citation and check the terminology in the original. Taking a few sentences or the abstract and running it through a tool can give insight whether a tool may have been involved in the alteration of terms and definitions.
Some other clues: A paper includes unusual strings of works — “word salads” — where the phrases don’t make sense; or a reliance on only older references, without anything related to more current thinking.
…it may be perfectly acceptable and expected to have some old references in some papers referring to seminal works, or when updating concepts or historical retrospectives. However if there is a reliance on older publications without any reference to current thinking or research (particularly where the references are not highly cited/regarded) it may be worth doing a little more digging.
To illustrate, we put the above quote into one of the many paraphrasing tools we found online. Here’s how it would read:
it might be splendidly worthy and anticipated that would have some old references in a few papers alluding to original works, or when refreshing ideas or authentic reviews. Nonetheless if there is a dependence on more seasoned distributions with no reference to momentum thinking or research (especially where the references are not exceedingly refered to/respected) it might be worth doing somewhat more burrowing.
Like Retraction Watch? Consider making a tax-deductible contribution to support our growth. You can also follow us on Twitter, like us on Facebook, add us to your RSS reader, sign up on our homepage for an email every time there’s a new post, or subscribe to our daily digest. Click here to review our Comments Policy. For a sneak peek at what we’re working on, click here.