Saturday, March 4, 2017

In your own words ...

The cat and mouse game of plagiarism detection is becoming increasingly difficult for schools and universities as the technology that assists cheating becomes increasingly sophisticated and hard to detect. Simple straight plagiarism generally gets caught by the widely used detection tools like Turnitin but these tools are relatively powerless against more advanced forms of cheating. The most effective method is a human solution like essay mills where students can earn money writing other students' essays and guaranteeing "originality". This is almost impossible to detect unless there are genuine examples of the students' writing to compare with. However a new grey area of plagiarism has come to light with the rise of automatic paraphrasing tools that can rephrase a text so that it will not be flagged as plagiarism in automatic checks.

Paraphrasing is one of the most important skills that students must learn. Summarising a text to capture the essence in your own words and of course providing a reference to the source is a skill that takes years to perfect. However many people are unsure of where the line is drawn between paraphrasing and copying; simply changing a few words to synonyms is not enough and in all cases the original text must be cited. A new study by Ann M. Rogerson and Grace McCarthyUsing Internet based paraphrasing tools: Original work, patchwriting or facilitated plagiarism?, examines how these paraphrasing tools, also known as essay spinning, can be used to evade plagiarism detection and the implications for both students and teachers.

There are many free paraphrasing/essay spinning tools, for example Paraphrasing Tool and GoParaphrase are both tested in the study, and all you do is paste in the text you want summarised and then click for the new text. The results are not impressive, often with many unusual synonyms and awkward turns of phrase but in many cases the text is sufficiently far from the original to avoid being detected in a plagiarism check. If you are willing to pay there are more sophisticated tools that no doubt produce more polished paraphrasing. The study showed that the resultant texts were not detected as plagiarism by standard anti-plagiarism tools. So how can we detect this practice and more importantly how can we prevent people from being tempted to use such tools in the first place?

One aspect that interests me is when paraphrasing is used by non-native English speakers who may be weak at paraphrasing on their own due to limited vocabulary and lack of linguistic fluency. The unusual vocabulary that the paraphrasing tools dig up could be seen by the teacher grading the essay as simply linguistic inexperience rather than signs of automatic paraphrasing. For native speakers this would hopefully start alarm bells ringing but it's not so easy for non-native speakers, most of whom will make similar errors when genuinely paraphrasing themselves.

Where a student is considered to lack the necessary linguistic skills, the errors or inaccuracies may be interpreted by assessors as a student having a poor understanding of academic writing conventions rather than recognising that a student may not have written the work themselves. Where an academic is working in an additional language, they may find the detection of the errors or inaccuracies more difficult to identify.

Another aspect is when the paraphrased text includes references. One amusing side effect of these tools is that even the references get paraphrased and the titles of cited articles get changed beyond recognition, as well as finding synonyms for the authors' surnames. However if you paraphrase a text and use the citations without acknowledging that you did not find these references yourself then that is also dishonest. Finding your own references to support your arguments is an integral part of academic writing.

Furthermore, students using an online paraphrasing system fail to demonstrate their understanding of the assessment task and hence fail to provide evidence of achieving learning outcomes. If they do not acknowledge the source of the text which they have put through the paraphrasing tool, they are also guilty of academic misconduct. On both counts, they would not merit a pass in the subject for which they submit such material.

What can educators do to prevent students from using these tools? The most obvious strategy is to discuss the issue regularly in class, showing that you are aware of these tools and pointing out the dangers. I suspect that many students are simply unaware that automatic paraphrasing is wrong. More support should be offered developing paraphrasing skills and why it they are so vital. Furthermore, the wider use of oral testing is recommended in the article since it is much harder for a student to take short cuts and the teacher can quickly gauge the student's understanding of the subject. Finally educators need to learn how to spot signs of machine translation and automatic paraphrasing and realise that their own professional judgement is still the most important element in assessing student work, even when anti-plagiarism tools are in place.

Of course this post is itself an example of paraphrasing to a certain extent. I hope I pass the test!

Rogerson AM, McCarthy G.(2017) Using Internet based paraphrasing tools: Original work, patchwriting or facilitated plagiarism? International Journal for Educational Integrity