Why most plagiarism checkers can’t cope with shady academic writings

By Lesley J. Vos

Research papers
Image credit: Depositphotos

In the relatively short time since COVID-19 changed the world landscape, the education sector has faced their everlasting challenge with renewed vigor:

Supporting academic integrity in the world of distance learning, e-courses, and the Internet of Things.

With so many students cheating in college— 54 percent of them believe that it’s necessary to do if you want to stay competitive—it becomes even more challenging to control integrity in online education. Students spy for test answers on Google, copy assignments from others, hire essay mills to do the job, and aren’t afraid of modern technology such as plagiarism checking software because they know how to cheat it too.

Indeed, most plagiarism checkers still can’t cope with shady academic writings. The question is, how is it possible in the era of high tech and artificial intelligence?

What is wrong with most plag check software today?

Sure enough, plagiarism checking principles have changed over time. With fingerprinting and string matching as two fundamental systems of plagiarism detection, modern software is also based on other approaches:

  • Citation plagiarism detection: Based on the idea that plagiarized works will more than likely have the same citations as the original, the algorithm marks them as duplicated.
  • VSM (Vector Space Model): The algorithm finds and compares the same words and types of words in documents, marking those with the most overlaps as duplicated.

The most sophisticated plagiarism checkers also use a detection system such as stylometry, aka cognitive fingerprints: They compare writing styles in documents, trying to understand if it was the same person who wrote them.

All this looks encouraging, but the problem is that such algorithms still use wrong principles of work and are weak enough for modern, tech-savvy students to cheat them. The software scans indexed web-pages and available online documents for similarities, but the catch is that students know how to avoid them.

How students fool the most accurate software

The first and foremost fact that goes beyond academics’ comprehension is that some plagiarism detection software representatives “teach” students how to cheat their tool. There are tons of questions on how to cheat plagiarism software in online communities like Quora, where plag check tool developers recommend synonymization as a method of beating them.

Plus, there are tons of videos on YouTube from students sharing tips on cheating plag checkers with their peers. More than that, numerous essay mills on the market promote academic integrity violations by writing blog posts on cheating anti-plagiarism tools with different techniques.

YouTube plagiarism checker bypassing
YouTube features plenty of videos on how to bypass plagiarism checkers

With all that, students see nothing wrong in poor paraphrasing, synonymization, Latin-to-Cyrillic letters substitution, and other writing schemes, which become even more comfortable to pull on distance or online learning. Here go some most common tricks they use to fool plag check software:

  • Word rearrangements: Trying to cheat a so-called “five-word rule”—it’s when five consecutive words are identical to someone else’s writing—students change the word order in original sentences so the plag checker can’t see any duplications. However, most plagiarism checking software can detect this trick today.
  • Changes in sentence structure: Students change active to passive voice, manipulate the words in sentences, mix the parts of the compound and complex sentences, etc.
  • Paraphrasing: Although it’s okay to paraphrase original ideas when referring to them in works, most students do it wrong by merely placing additional conjunctions or -ly adverbs so that plagiarism checkers couldn’t see any duplications.
  • Synonymization: It’s the most popular trick when students replace the words from the source work with synonyms for their writings to look original. This one is hard for software but easy for teachers to recognize because such synonymized writings often look and sound unnatural.
  • Latin-to-Cyrillic letters: Since plag checkers work with the Latin alphabet, students use the “find and replace” function in Word docs to change some symbols to same-looking letters from the Cyrillic alphabet. (For example, letters “o,” “e,” or “a” look the same in both cases.) So, such texts look fine when read by people, and software can’t see them as duplications because it doesn’t recognize Cyrillic letters there.
  • Invisible letters: Students place dots, numbers, letters, or any other symbols to blank spaces between the words, coloring them in white. Invisible to readers, these symbols are recognizable for plagiarism detectors: When a tool “sees” them, it can’t compare such texts to any from its database. It will see such writings as one long, unique word.
  • Ghostwriting: To save time and nerves but spend money and praise their laziness, some students hire ghostwriters (essay mills, freelancers, friends, etc.) who could come up with creative blog names, topic ideas, outlines, and so on to complete writing assignments for them. These texts are unique and written from scratch, so plagiarism checkers won’t consider them duplicates.

Is ghostwriting the new plagiarism these days?

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

When Ed Dante shared his The Shadow Scholar back in 2010, the community got shocked: Teachers write college essays and term papers for students! Back then, a few media outlets published the comments from several college professors and administrators on this phenomenon, and they reassured that such practice wasn’t widespread.

They were wrong.

Academic ghostwriting business, aka essay mills, has been flourishing for years. And it’s quite lucrative because many students are ready to pay, and many writers, including those with degrees in academia, are prepared to ghostwrite. They create 100 percent original works that bypass plagiarism checking software: Unlike traditional plagiarism, ghostwriting is too challenging to detect.

All this makes it even more tempting for students to cheat, especially in today’s era of online courses and distance learning. So, for educators, it’s a must to care enough, promote integrity, and investigate the sudden growth of writing skills and erudition in some students.

How can they do that? Here go a few ideas:

  • Emphasize the importance of honesty and other pillars of academic integrity during class meetings.
  • Reinforce the importance of integrity when presenting assignments during a semester.
  • Promote honesty in written assignments by teaching students how to research, write papers, use references in their works, and so on. Teachers can prepare new tasks each semester, provide specific guidelines for the topics and formats of their writings, ask students to submit essay outlines first, discuss areas of difficulty, monitor students’ progress, and offer support.
  • Talk about plagiarism and its consequences with students, confront them directly if suspecting them of cheating, and deal with the problem immediately.
  • Take part in the annual International Days of Action against contract cheating. Last year, 132 institutions participated in the event with social media activities, webinars, contests, etc. to promote integrity in academia.

Otherwise, academic ghostwriting and attempts to cheat plagiarism detection tools will stay unabated, despite the high tech and principles of honesty and authenticity we have today.

About the author

lesley j vosLesley Vos is a seasoned content writer and contributor to publications on business, marketing, and edtech. Feel free to read more about Lesley or check her Twitter @LesleyVos for more works of hers.

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