Audrey Wick is an English professor and Cengage Faculty Partner
Maintaining academic integrity in higher education is an ongoing challenge. Instructors must be vigilant when it comes to standards in their courses, no matter the modality or subject. When it comes to written work, however, we need to practice extra vigilance to curb plagiarism, especially when digital tools make it easier than ever. One digital cheating trend for which instructors need to remain aware involves the use of text spinners.
What is a text spinner?
Text spinners go by many names: word spinners, article spinners, language tools. There are free versions of these online that college students are using to cheat. Text spinners automatically paraphrase existing content so that it appears original. Marketers originally designed these for social media use and for search engine optimization. They could “spin” text to alter it in such a way that it would appear to be digitally new when the content was not.
To avoid detection by plagiarism checking software, students have started using text spinners to “recycle” prior content. They may spin a friend’s essay or an essay they have stolen online. They may even rework a piece of their own writing for a second submission in a new class.
What does text spinning look like?
Based on the text-spun papers I have encountered, I have identified the following hallmarks:
Arbitrary noun substitutions
A text-spun paper may not make sense because the tool uses synonyms to substitute the original wording. A fellow Humanities professor shared a really outrageous example: a text spun analysis of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech where a reference to the author was text-spun from “King” to “prince” and “ruler.” Seeing “Martin Luther Prince” was a big red flag in the paper. His “I Have a Dream” speech became spun as the “I Have a Fantasy” speech. A Social Sciences professor had something similar where a student referred to the American Civil War as the American Goodwill War. Outrageous and ridiculous examples abound.
Discipline vocabulary substitutions
A text-spun paper often uses vocabulary in ways that were not taught in class. One paper on poetry I received identified the genre with synonyms like “verse” but then substituted words more oddly, like “stories” and “wordings” and “prose” that didn’t apply to the topic. Substitutions may be nonsensical. That same paper, which should have referenced “poetry lines,” instead used the spun phrase “poetry traces.”
Use of filler phrasing
A text-spun paper is often littered with extra phrases to pad the writing: “be that as it may,” “of which it is stating,” “null and void,” “in and about them,” “quite frequently” and “not exclusively.” Interjecting extra words into the writing is one attempt to avoid being flagged by a plagiarism checker, but checkers are getting better at uncovering this. Instructors will often notice this fluff upon a first reading of a paper.
Changes within quoted material
A text-spun paper won’t discriminate between what is shown as the student’s writing and what is included in quotation marks as coming from another writer. So, if there are changes in quoted material that not only don’t make sense but also that don’t show an understanding of how to properly handle the words of others, the use of a text spinner may be the reason.
Use of British English conventions
A text-spun paper may include phrasing more popular in British English than American English. For example, the use of “whilst” for “while,” the use of “proper” in phrases to add emphasis, or typing differences like punctuation placed outside of quotation marks. While the presence of such conventions is not cause for alarm on their own, they can indicate a suspect submission if the voice is not true to the student, especially across assignments.
Lack of consistency
A text-spun paper may use a certain phrase in one section of the paper, but won’t use it consistently throughout for reference. One case I have seen involved the use of a title in a literary analysis paper. The title of a primary source was capitalized and punctuated differently in different parts of the paper. While this might be sloppy writing in some cases, it also may be evidence of a text spinner when seen in combination with other factors.
Every student has a writing voice, and text spinners suppress it. Ultimately, when the voice of a paper simply doesn’t sound right, a closer look at why may alert instructors to some of these factors. Of course, trends change, and so too may these characteristics as software and student patterns do. Still, this list provides a starting point for areas of concern that instructors can address.
Why are text spinners dangerous?
With text spinning, students aren’t producing original work. Their own voices are altered (or nonexistent). They are not displaying an understanding of concepts. They are attempting to game assignment submission through deceptive software use. Instructors must uphold integrity in their classrooms. Ignoring text spinning undermines the legions of hardworking college students who are producing original work.
How should we address text spinning?
Institutions can review their current cheating policies and honor codes to prohibit the use of text spinners. Academic integrity is an important component of any higher education course. Instructors should make sure to address class policies against unoriginal work, especially as they relate to written assignments. Upholding standards and being vigilant when it comes to maintaining them in the course ensures that quality higher education can occur.
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