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The proliferation of online tools allowing students to paraphrase academic work for their own assignments is facilitating plagiarism, according to the author of new research in the area.

Plagiarism-checking software is often unable to detect the use of such websites, according to a new study, "Using Internet-Based Paraphrasing Tools: Original Work, Patchwriting or Facilitated Plagiarism?"

Ann Rogerson, co-author of the paper and senior lecturer in the Faculty of Business at the University of Wollongong, in Australia, warned that the ability to go undetected may lead to more intentional plagiarism among students.

“It could breed it, especially if students use that approach and get away with it,” she told Times Higher Education. “If they’ve used the tool and got through an assessment task … that encourages them to keep on doing it.”

Her study, published in the International Journal for Educational Integrity, was aimed at highlighting “the existence, development, use and detection of use” of these tools and to demonstrate their “dangers."

It concluded that the proliferation of these tools was of “great concern” but that “of greater concern is that tools contracted to identify original source materials cannot necessarily be used … to identify where writing has been repurposed.”

In her study, Rogerson took an excerpt from an existing publication and ran it through two internet-paraphrasing tools to test their quality. The originality of the output was assessed by running it through Turnitin.

She concluded that the outputs were more indicative of “patchwriting” -- a superficial form of paraphrasing where words are simply replaced with synonyms. However, while the result of the first tool was “mainly intelligible,” some of the results of the second tool could be classified as “word salads,” unintelligible and random collections of words and phrases.

Rogerson said it was worrying that students were not only using these tools but that they were submitting assignments without checking for unintelligible sentences.

“They’re just totally trusting the output of the internet tool,” she said. “It’s where the internet can be a little bit dangerous. You rely on it to convert a temperature or a distance, so [they] think, ‘If I can do it with this, I can trust this as well.’”

With technologies like Turnitin not yet fully capable of detecting the use of these tools, it is vital for academics to be proactive in addressing the issues with students, she added. But integrity on the part of students is also required.

“If I find something that’s suspicious or [I] have concerns with, I’ll discuss it with the student. It’s about confronting the issue,” she said. At the same time, “we all talk of academic integrity [in terms of] people doing the wrong thing, [so] you need to make a conscious decision as an individual, whether you’re going to cheat or whether you’re going to learn.”

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