This post is part of an ongoing series addressing factors that may lead to academic dishonesty and strategies for combating it. We invite you to review previous installments in our series: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4
Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York.
-William Shakespeare, Richard III, Act I, Scene 1
Presently is the colder time of year of our discontent made brilliant summer by this sun of York.
-The above text after having been run through the “Basic Spin” function at spinbot.com
As technologies that claim to detect plagiarism become more advanced, so too do technologies that are designed to evade them. A recent op-ed from Inside Higher Education highlights one such method of evasion: so-called “text spinners,” which rewrite text so that it will not register as plagiarized when run through Turnitin and similar checkers. The citation at the beginning of this post is an example of the most basic type of spinner, one that replaces select words with synonyms. Such spinners may be free to use, as in this case. More advanced spinners, aided by developments in AI writing software, rewrite text on a deeper level, rendering it all but impossible for software such as Turnitin to flag it. Some tools can even generate full paragraphs based on a bullet-point list. These more advanced tools frequently require payment.
How can faculty and instructors respond to the problem posed by text spinners? If you are using plagiarism-checking software primarily as a tool for enforcement – to “catch perpetrators in the act” – the existence of text spinners may well prove a formidable obstacle. But at the same time, knowing of their existence can help you to rethink your pedagogy so as to reduce the chances that students will resort to text spinners in the first place. Here are some tips for shoring up your pedagogy to make it “spinner-resistant”.
- Acknowledge that these tools exist. If your students know that you are aware of text spinners, they may be more hesitant to use them.
- Demonstrate the results. Text spinners, particularly those that are relatively unsophisticated, sometimes produce results ranging from the strained to the ludicrous. By showing your students how spinners can garble text, you may help to undercut their appeal.
- Rethink how you use plagiarism-checking software. As Elizabeth Steere notes in the op-ed cited above, many students turn to text spinners out of fear: they are convinced that a low originality score on Turnitin will lead to accusations of plagiarism, and so they apply spinners even to passages that have been correctly cited. If you are using Turnitin or similar software, consider treating it as a teaching tool. For example, you might have your students run early drafts through the software, then discuss what their originality score is and what it means (are they citing sources incorrectly? Is the software flagging passages wrongly? Both?) This can help reduce students’ worries that they are being judged based solely on a machine-generated score.
- Scaffold writing assignments. Scaffolding is a powerful tool to reduce the chances not only of text-spinner use specifically but of plagiarism (whether intentional or unintentional) more generally. If possible, you might consider giving your students smaller assignments – an outline, a thesis paragraph, a rough draft, etc. – rather than simply assigning a major paper and leaving them to fend for themselves. Not only does the scaffolding method build confidence among your students, but by familiarizing you with how they write, it can help make it easier for you to notice any odd features of their final drafts that may indicate dishonest behavior.
The “arms race” between plagiarism checkers and plagiarism facilitators is unlikely to end anytime soon. Rather than trusting solely in technology, therefore, it is helpful to consider how you may thwart the problem at its source. Enforcement can only be one part of the picture; thoughtful pedagogy must complete it.
If you have any questions, please feel free to contact ATS or drop by our office hours (virtual and in-person; no appointment required). You are also welcome to attend one of our workshops.
(Cover photo by Josh Frenette on Unsplash)