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The Truth about Online Plagiarism Detection Tools and Software

Plagiarism Checker Tools vs Content Security, Licensing, and Privacy Practices


THE GOAL

The goal of this study was to answer these questions:



HOW WE SELECTED THE WEBSITES

1. We searched Google and Bing using the following search terms: 'plagiarism checkers,' 'plagiarism software,' 'free plagiarism checker tools', 'online plagiarism checkers,' 'plagiarism detection', 'plagiarism scanner', 'plagiarism test,' 'plagiarism analysis,' 'duplicate text search', 'plagiarism software for students and teachers.'

2. We visited several websites that featured reviews of online plagiarism tools and added them to the list.

3. We compiled a list of potential websites and tested the tools available without registration or payment. We removed those that didn't work.

4. The final result comprised 32 websites (a medium-sized statistical sample).


HOW WE TESTED THE WEBSITES

1. We visited each website and checked the following pages or sections (when applicable): Privacy Policy, Terms of Service, Frequently Asked Questions, Support Forums, Warnings, and Disclaimers.

2. We looked for information related to: data protection, licensing, scanning / storing / use of submitted content, liability limitations, and service location / governing law.

3. For each website, we performed a WHOIS search to compare the service country location presented on the website with the one published in the WHOIS database. In some cases, we visited social media websites or professional forums to try to confirm or deny the findings.


RESULTS

Below, we present our results in a table with the following columns: Site Name, Saving Content, Using Content, and Governing Country. We assigned a specific background color to each table cell: Green (positive), Red (negative), or Yellow (neutral).

Site Name - Name / domain of the website providing the plagiarism-checking service.

Saving Content - Does the tool save the submitted content in a database managed by the service? (YES - negative, NO - positive, UNKNOWN - neutral).

Using Content - Does the service provider give itself a right to use or publish the scanned content now or in the future? (YES - negative, NO - positive, UNKNOWN - neutral).

Governing Country - By the laws of what country is the service provider governed? (GREEN - country with a strong / healthy legal and regulatory system, RED - country with a weak legal culture / protection, YELLOW - unknown country).




The results show that 25% of online plagiarism scanners save checked content in their own, commercial databases, 28% claim not to save it, and for the remaining 44% it is not possible to determine whether they save submitted content or not.

At the same time, 13% of the plagiarism-detection services admit to using the submitted content for their own commercial or noncommercial purposes, 31% claim not to use it at all, and for the remaining 54% it was not possible to find out whether or not they used the content.

Finally, while 34% of the tested plagiarism-checking tools are based in a country with adequate laws against international copyright violations and intellectual theft, 25% are located in countries governed by weak legal protections, and for the remaining 41% it was not possible to determine what safeguards are in place against such white-collar crimes.


FINAL THOUGHTS

Students, teachers, authors / bloggers, website owners, and professionals use plagiarism-checking tools on a daily basis. Our research shows that using such tools could be very risky when it comes to protecting the submitted content from privacy or intellectual property violations. Most of the owners of the 'free' plagiarism tools are not straightforward about their legal locations, as well as how they manage, store, and use the checked content. Some providers publish submitted content as their own and give themselves a 'license' to use it without restrictions. It is like giving a real-estate appraisal company the right to use your home in exchange for a 'free' appraisal of the property.

There is a reason why they want a stream of new content. Online plagiarism checkers (both 'free' and paid) rely on a very limited number of sources to determine the originality of the text. In order to improve their effectiveness, hundreds of thousands of new pages are being added every day. The more advanced software relies upon this stored content, which only adds to the potential for misuse or outright theft.

On top of that, the Terms of Use and the Privacy Policies of most of the services we tested allow them to be edited or changed at any time, thus making it difficult to trust in their claims.

Finally, the content can be used as a feeder to 'article / content spinning software' that relies on original and unique text to produce paraphrased copies of content on the same subject. As a result, professional writers, students, and content creators who use plagiarism tools essentially shoot themselves in the foot by giving fresh material to the content spinning software.

Based upon our research, we recommend that writers avoid using online plagiarism checking applications. There is no reason to risk having your content stored, mismanaged, or stolen. Copy-pasting of random fragments of the sentences you want to check into a search engine input box works just as well as plagiarism-checking software, if not better. And it's safe.


DISCLAIMER / UPDATES

The provisions, assumptions, and final results of this study may not be fully accurate. The legal content and disclaimers published on the tested websites were not evaluated by a legal professional. The services subjected to the study are welcome to contact us with clarifications or updates. Last update: 2016.

* UPDATE - Message from Unplug (2016): "Unplag doesn't save any information/documents to its database and certainly doesn't use private content by default. Sharing access to user's files with Unplag is optional and can be manually switched ON(set to OFF by default in ALL accounts). User is free to choose whether he or she wants Unplag to store files in its database or not. Once user decides to share, the files will remain in Unplag's protected database, if not - they won't be saved. In both cases user's data is prevented from leaks thanks to 128-bit encryption applied by Unplag."

Online Plagiarism Detectors in the Academic Environment: Do They Honestly Work?



Plagiarism

It's often said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and that when it comes to writing there is nothing new under the sun. But most educators today, whether they are teaching middle schoolers or prospective MBAs, want to ensure that students are writing using their own words and ideas versus copying and pasting the words of others from online sources. Of course, plagiarism has been occurring since the beginning of time (Shakespeare 'borrowed' all of his plots from other sources). But the Internet has made it far easier to plagiarize than ever before.

Professors don't like to accuse their students of dishonesty and given the heavy course loads and large class sizes of most teachers, playing amateur sleuth to determine if a student committed plagiarism can be nearly impossible from a logistical perspective. That is why online plagiarism tracking tools are so attractive, given that they promise to allow teachers to screen for academic dishonesty with greater speed, accuracy, and ease.

Most plagiarism trackers compare student texts against websites on the World Wide Web, already-uploaded student papers (many teachers require all their students to upload assignments to the same plagiarism-tracking database), and existing publications. The detector can then provide the professor with an analysis of how original the document is, based upon the percentage of material that is found to be an exact match with existing sources.

There are, of course, several problems with this format. First of all, students may be correctly quoting large chunks of material and citing it correctly. This may be flagged as 'plagiarism' when it is really constitutes correct citation. Unless the professor has explicitly banned all forms of quotation from assignments, this is not useful. In fact, literary analysis papers that make use of large chunks of quoted authors that are very commonly used on class syllabuses like Dickens and Shakespeare may find that students are being accused of 'plagiarizing' these authors, even though the students are quoting them correctly. The issue is not student plagiarism, however, but merely that the students are using quotations from some of the most familiar literary works in the world, just like so many other students.

An even more insidious problem is the fact that students may also be accused of plagiarism by virtue of using common, banal phrases such as "when all is said and done," "met his Waterloo," etcetera. Of course, strong, effective writing should limit its use of cliches but using hackneyed phrases is not itself a form of plagiarism. Conversely, online plagiarism detection services cannot always detect closely paraphrased materials. Some students may copy and paste material, merely change the wording but not the content and do not cite the source, and pass under the detector's radar. And, of course, these computer services cannot determine if ideas were stolen from existing papers, they can only determine if words and phrases were reused.

There are also ethical issues with plagiarism software. The question arises as to why a teacher is depending upon technology to do his or her job, versus working with students to ensure that they know what constitutes plagiarism. Professors should not assume that students intuitively understand the concept of plagiarism. For many students, it is very confusing why quoting from Oedipus Rex is not plagiarism while quoting without a citation from the introductory essay on the play from their textbook is not. Students from foreign countries which have different concepts of originality than the United States may view copying as a form of respect (for example, reproducing the teacher's ideas from class lecture notes without citation and thus unintentionally engaging in acts of plagiarism). Especially for introductory writing courses, explaining to students what constitutes academic honesty and providing concrete examples is also essential.

Professors have a responsibility to create an environment that makes students not want to plagiarize. This includes working with students on assignments over time and getting to know students' writing styles. Understanding the capabilities and limits of the student is often a far more effective method of detecting potential academic dishonesty than using a computerized program.

A professor might wish to engage in a certain degree of soul-searching as to why so many student phrases are flagged by the detection software, correctly-cited or not. Commonly-given assignments are often more likely to produce positive results, simply because students resort to familiar maxims and quotations from 'tried and true' sources. The more unique the assignment, the more difficult it is for students to find works from which to cut and paste (if they want to be dishonest) and the less likely correctly-cited material will still result in a low originality score for students.

A final problem with using plagiarism-detection programs is that they inject an unfortunate degree of tension and suspicion into the relationship between professor and student. Making a long speech before every paper is due about how the assignment will be rigorously submitted to a detection database only makes students hostile to the professor, rather than more committed to obey the honor code.

Ultimately, professors must remember that their most important duty is not policing their students but teaching them. Plagiarism-detection programs may technically do their job but they do not really address critical weaknesses within the students' skill sets or the educational system as a whole.