Paraphrasing Software: A New Source of Awkward Sentences and an Obstacle to Intellectual Growth
By Marianne Evola
"Awkward sentence." "Avoid jargon." "You are using the wrong citation." These were frequent comments that my mentor made on my papers and abstracts as I learned to write. These days, I still see these comments written on early drafts of my writing, but now I write the comments myself. I no longer need a mentor to serve as critic to my writing, I'm quite critical all on my own. That being said, even on finished drafts, I will find awkward sentences weeks after I submit an article. It is an ongoing intellectual struggle to write clear and interesting text. I will often initially write in my speaking voice but find the written words don't work because the nuance of tone and inflection is lost when the spoken words are transferred to the page. Basically, most academics learn that it is a struggle to produce clear and interesting writing. As you become more experienced, the struggle may occasionally lessen, but depending on the topic and/or your state of mind while writing, the magnitude of struggle only oscillates, it's never won. It is not a question of whether writing is easy or difficult. Rather, the only question academics should ask is whether they are able to persevere in the struggle to write.
That being said, technology has in some ways, alleviated some of the struggle. A thesaurus at my fingertips seems like a mystical gift when I am struggling to find the right word/s. As for spell check, I have mixed feelings about it. When I am struggling to meet a deadline, I love having spell and grammar checkers working for me. However, I am willing to admit that I was a better speller in the 6th grade than I am now. At that age I easily mastered my weekly spelling tests and effectively competed in Spelling Bees. Spelling was natural and easy for me. Now, I find that my grasp of the appropriate suffix is always lacking because it is much easier to let spell check do the work for me. I admit that the availability of the technology has contributed to intellectual laziness on my part. That being said, I have learned the hard way, repeatedly, that you cannot rely on these tools to do your intellectual work for you. They are not infallible editors and they do not catch all human error. You must proof read and edit your work to find awkward sentences, jargon and erroneous use of words.
As such, I am concerned about a new technology that is being used by student writers. There is now paraphrasing software that is being utilized by students to avoid plagiarism. In other words, the answer to plagiarism detection software, is not intellectual growth and accountability of young writers. Rather, it seems that the solution to the increased accountability imposed by plagiarism detection software is for many young writers to utilize software that will do their writing for them. Rather than engaging in the struggle to find their own words to describe phenomena, they instead plug existing text or jargon into paraphrasing software and the software spits out an alternative, albeit poor, paraphrase.
Since I admit that I utilize technological tools in my writing, such as the thesaurus and spell check, why am I opposed to a paraphrasing tool. First, writers have long had access to spell check and the thesaurus, in the form of bound dictionaries and thesauri. The tools have long been available and central to academic writing. In contrast, from my perspective, the harmful effects of paraphrasing software being utilized by young writers is more in line with the harmful effects of calculators being utilized by grade school arithmetic students. Students will not develop basic understanding mathematics if they do not work through math problems and dare I say it, show their work. I hated "showing my work" in grade school when I instinctively knew the answer to a problem. Similarly, students will not learn to write if they do not struggle with written expression. Arguably, struggling with words and writing is the textual equivalent of a basic math student showing their work. In other words, learning occurs during the process or struggle, not with the solution. If students do not struggle with writing, they will not learn to write. And, I am certain that little is learned from the poor product that is currently produced by paraphrasing software.
The reason that I utilize calculators as a comparative tool to paraphrasing software is not an assertion that I do not use calculators. Rather, it was a change in the permitted use of calculators in the classroom between my generation and the next that triggered the association. I remember helping my niece with her math homework. She was in grade school and I was astonished to see that the instructions on the assignment stated, "Use your calculator." She was not in an advanced math class. She was in an early stage of her training. In fact, when I was the same age, use of a calculator was defined as cheating. Obviously, something had changed in educational system between my generation and hers that permitted the introduction of the calculator at younger ages and with easier curriculum. But curriculum and education evolves, so why would I perceive this to be inappropriate?
At that time, I was a senior graduate student and I frequently worked with undergraduate assistants. They would often assist me as I calculated drugs doses and volumes for experiments. It was a simple formula that required a lot of number punching on a calculator. As part of their training, newer students would often punch the buttons and read me the results while I filled out the experiment forms. Too often, a student would read me an odd result and I would tell them, "That's not right". Their response was always the same, "That's what the calculator says." Then I would state that they had punched something wrong on the calculator and "Although I don't know what the right value is, I definitely know that the number you gave me is wrong." They seemed to lack what I have referred to as a math instinct or an awareness that that the result produced by a calculator had to be incorrect based on the desired input. Although this type of cognitive/learning theory is beyond my expertise, I'm guessing manually working through page after page of math problems in grade school and high school provided me with an instinct that they lacked.
Like the authors of the below references, I am concerned that paraphrasing software may similarly impair the development of writing skills. Early last week I came across my introduction to the existence of paraphrasing software while reading a report in Retraction Watch that described an article by Ann M. Rogerson. A few days later a colleague sent me a similar report from Inside Higher Ed by Carl Straumsheim. In both reports, they describe these tools being utilized by students trying to "beat" plagiarism detection software. To protect from plagiarism, students copy chunks of text into the tool, and it creates unique paraphrase that is not detected by plagiarism detection software. The problem is, the product produced by the paraphrase software is generally awkward, low quality writing and sometimes even gibberish. It is the "paraphrase" equivalent of students brainlessly utilizing an electronic thesaurus to change key words of a sentence without considering whether the replacement word is appropriate or has the correct nuance. It largely demonstrates that students do not understand the definition of plagiarism, nor do they understand how to appropriately paraphrase the content of literature that they are trying to incorporate into their own documents. Nor, sadly, do they seem interested in learning how to appropriately paraphrase literature into their own words and documents. They think that paraphrasing software is an effective shortcut to a finished product. They may not have considered whether that product will actually be of high quality.
Once again, faculty will be battling a technology that undermines the intellectual development of students while students demonstrate that they do not comprehend the purpose of classroom assignments. Students need to be reminded again and again that classroom assignments are created with the intention of promoting intellectual development. It is not a means to get a grade. Graduate students need to be reminded that an original research project is a manuscript that contains their unique thoughts and data. It cannot be created by paraphrasing tools and they are not making an intellectual contribution if they are not translating their thoughts into written words. The authors of the above articles played with these tools and largely commented on the low quality of the product. In addition, they provided guidance to faculty on how to detect if students are utilizing these tools. The author's evaluations did not suggest that they thought these tools were an effective means for students to cheat because of the low quality output. However, they did suggest that faculty discuss these tools with students and develop classroom policies on their use. Furthermore, they encourage faculty to assign more intense interactive projects that require students to have comprehensive understanding of a topic. The example that they provided was having students utilize written documents as a foundation for an oral presentation with a question and answer format.
Although their commentary about the laughable product that is produced by the paraphrasing tools is a relief, the relief is only temporary. If, and more likely when, the tools are improved it will be more difficult to detect when students utilize paraphrasing software. At that time, educators will face the challenge of motivating students to struggle with words and writing so that they grow intellectually and create their own manuscripts. Sadly, if students choose to avoid the struggle, they will not learn that writing is about more than communicating. Writing is about thinking and when you avoid the process, you never fully develop your thoughts and ideas. For those of us that have embraced the importance of the struggle, we have learned that writing is a major contributor to intellectual development and the evolution of ideas. Perhaps rather than discussing ways to detect the use of paraphrasing tools, it is more important for mentors to discuss that writing is a difficult endeavor. But, students will only mature as an academic if they choose to engage in the struggle.
Marianne Evola is the director of the Human Research Protection Program in the Office of the Vice President for Research. She is a monthly contributor to Scholarly Messenger.