In other words... – Is it possible to cheat plagiarism tracking software?

Internet-based paraphrasing tools are text-processing software tools that rewrite the input text by replacing specific words and phrases with synonyms. They are available online free of charge or for a fee. Technically, they rely on the same approaches as machine translation tools and are similar to the so-called article spinning tools, used in search engine optimization to avoid duplicate content detection. The quality of the output text may vary depending on the software used and it is usually necessary to do additional manual editing in order to make the text usable. Correct paraphrasing accompanied with the appropriate acknowledgment of sources is a standard procedure in academic and scholarly writing. However, there are disputable forms of paraphrasing and the practice is particularly problematic when used as an attempt to conceal plagiarism or self-plagiarism.

In a paper published in the International Journal for Educational Integrity, Ann M. Rogerson and Grace McCarthy of the University of Wollongong in Australia draw attention to the challenges associated with a rather new practice in academic writing – software-assisted paraphrasing (Rogerson and McCarthy 2017). Although the study is primarily focused on the context of academic integrity, its findings and conclusions are also highly relevant for journal editors, reviewers and publishers.

The authors of the study took an excerpt from an already published paper and processed it through two online paraphrasing tools. The two output texts were further processed by Turnitin® to check whether it could detect that they were not original. Although they were grammatically poor and the synonyms used by the paraphrasing software failed to convey the original meaning, Turnitin® had difficulty in matching them with the original text, though it was stored in its database. At the same time, in both output texts similarities were evident by a manual comparison of the source and outputs. The results of the study suggest that internet-based paraphrasing tools, as well as manual paraphrasing, may diminish the efficiency of plagiarism tracking. The authors also draw attention to some clues that may reveal (automated) paraphrasing, such as inappropriate terminology, phrases that make no sense (the so-called ‘word salads’) and a reliance on older references. However, additional manual editing could eliminate these clues and help trick a reviewer.

It would be interesting to test other plagiarism tracking tools using the same or similar methodology. It is also reasonable to expect that the developers of plagiarism tracking tools will eventually find a way to deal with this challenge and that the new versions of their tools will be able to detect the results of automated paraphrasing with greater success.

Although there is no direct evidence suggesting that Serbian authors use online paraphrasing tools, it is reasonable to assume that at least some of them are aware of their availability. It is also highly probable that some international authors who submit their manuscripts to Serbian journals that publish full-text papers in English rely on these tools. It is, therefore, very important for local editors, reviewers and publishers to be aware of their existence and operation. Incorrect and illogical terminology and poor grammar are undoubtedly a sign of the author’s poor language skills but they may also reveal an intention to mask plagiarism or self-plagiarism and trick the editors and reviewers.




Rogerson, Ann M., and Grace McCarthy. 2017. ‘Using Internet Based Paraphrasing Tools: Original Work, Patchwriting or Facilitated Plagiarism?’ International Journal for Educational Integrity 13 (1): 2.

Further reading:

Roig, Miguel. 2001. ‘Plagiarism and Paraphrasing Criteria of College and University Professors’. Ethics & Behavior 11 (3): 307–23.

Pecorari, Diane. 2003. ‘Good and Original: Plagiarism and Patchwriting in Academic Second-Language Writing’. Journal of Second Language Writing 12 (4): 317–45.

Keck, Casey. 2006. ‘The Use of Paraphrase in Summary Writing: A Comparison of L1 and L2 Writers’. Journal of Second Language Writing 15 (4): 261–78.

Pecorari, Diane. 2010. Academic Writing and Plagiarism: A Linguistic Analysis. A&C Black.



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