Keyboard in Purple

On Writing

Spun Up

1 Mar , 2018  

I read a student essay, recently, that I would swear was written by someone for whom English was a second (or distant third) language. The conspicuous overuse of a thesaurus was one red flag.  The more I thought about it, the more certain I was that it was written on Fiverr and spun through an article spinner so as to pass muster with Turnitin, which it did. Grammarly, too – although Grammarly had a number of other nits to pick with it, including its lack of full sentences. I’d about convinced myself that it was just a case of poor writing, despite my nagging sense that it sounded like something Ivan Mor Smirnoff would try to pass off as original content – until I read Jonathan Bailey’s article: “A Brief History of Article Spinning.” In it, Bailey notes:

The rise of plagiarism detection services such as Turnitin have caused many students to try and find ways to fool them. Some of them have turned to article spinning as a way to quickly “rewrite” a piece and escape detection.

Purveyors of article spinning technology have been all-too-happy to meed (sic) that demand. Often referring to the technology as “Automatic Paraphrasing” they offer up spinning tools to students for just this purpose.

Teachers may not be fooled, especially when it comes to quotations and works cited. But what about those store-bought essays from Fiverr? What if a C is good enough, so long as the work isn’t flagged for academic dishonesty?

If you’re not familiar with article spinning, I give you an example a hastily penned opinion piece on spinners, and a spun variant using a free tool that came up with a quick Google search. Italicized text is not included in the experiment:

Original

The following is my original “essay” on article spinning software, composed online in the text box of a “Free Article Spinner.” Without selecting any additional options, I “spun” the essay. The second section contains the result. Not only are these little programs the bane of writers, they provide additional challenges to teachers everywhere. What value is there in automated plagiarism checkers when they can be fairly easily defeated by such software? How can professors address the issue?

Article spinners are unethical and ought to be banned in all countries where copyright is valued.

Article spinners algorithmically change original, copyrighted, human-written text in order to pass automated plagiarism checks. This is not good enough. If anything, it creates a “derivative work” from the original text, without even citing the source. Generally, paraphrasing is not sufficient to escape an allegation of plagiarism. It is simply an effective way to escape automated detection algorithms.

Furthermore, article spinners encourage laziness and a reliance on the work of others while packaging that reliance as a sort of clever efficiency. Humans who use article spinners are well aware of their motives, which usually come down to increasing traffic or revenue while doing as little work as possible.

Finally, article spinners produce work that is likely to be “spun” again, or possibly paraphrased, or even cited by more ethical authors who do not recognize it for what it truly is. Eventually, language will be reduced to poor writing and nonsensical babble.

I have little respect for bloggers and others who use article spinners to steal the work of writers. Make no mistake: Writing is hard work. Those who use article spinners understand this, and they are seeking to circumvent the need to do any work at all, for themselves. It is tantamount to stealing, and they delude themselves to argue otherwise.

Spun Variant

I’ll confess to a bit of surprise: this “Free Article Spinner” did a better job of paraphrasing the original than some college students seem capable of doing. There are a few grammatical “glitches,” but the result is less jarring than expected. If anything, this strengthens my conviction that their use is unethical; not only can they be used by bloggers, but they may be a boon to students who are unconcerned with academic honesty. See below – I ran the previous section of text through the “Free Article Spinner” and this is the unedited result:

Text rewriters are dishonest and should be prohibited in all nations where copyright is esteemed.

Text rewriters algorithmically change unique, copyrighted, human-composed content so as to pass computerized counterfeiting checks. This isn’t sufficient. On the off chance that anything, it makes a “subsidiary work” from the first content, without refering to the source. By and large, summarizing isn’t adequate to get away from an affirmation of literary theft. It is basically a powerful method to escape computerized recognition calculations.

Moreover, text rewriters support sluggishness and a dependence on crafted by others while bundling that dependence as a kind of shrewd effectiveness. People who utilize text rewriters are very much aware of their intentions, which ordinarily boil down to expanding activity or income while doing as meager work as could be expected under the circumstances.

At long last, text rewriters create work that is probably going to be “spun” once more, or perhaps summarized, or even refered to by more moral writers who don’t remember it for what it really is. In the long run, dialect will be diminished to poor written work and absurd jibber jabber.

I have little regard for bloggers and other people who utilize text rewriters to take crafted by journalists. No doubt about it: Writing is diligent work. The individuals who utilize text rewriters comprehend this, and they are trying to go around the need to do any work whatsoever, for themselves. It is commensurate to taking, and they trick themselves to contend something else.

Traps Abound

I’m fairly sure I could bury bits in the original that would be passed through the spinner intact. It’s probably more work than it’s worth. But beware, if using this technology in an attempt to fool anyone: The technology, itself, can still be fooled into giving you away. And Bailey adds a cautionary tale for the unwary student – this Reddit thread, where a teacher mocked a student who unwittingly submitted in a paper on George Orwell’s 1984 that morphed the famous “Big Brother is watching you” into “Enormous Sibling is viewing you.” If only all the indications of unoriginal and machine-generated content were so obvious!

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4 Responses

  1. Anklebuster says:

    As a writer, I abhor Article Spinners. As a programmer who remembers the original Eliza (we’ve had THAT conversation), I am fascinated by them.

    During the dawn of the Splog, I used to see countless ads for Article Spinners. (Didn’t they have another name for the category, back then?) Of course, I had to investigate. I used to play with trial versions and concluded that they were so bad, only desperate keyword stuffers would use them.

    From the programmer’s perspective, I always loved reading articles about finite state machines, language parsers and the like. It’s a bit over my head, but the little diagrams breaking down sentences help my imagination conceive what must be little bots running around in the computer, lugging nouns and connectors hither and yon, trying desperately to avoid the gaping bit bucket.

    Spin that.

    LOL.

    Anyhow, two incongruous thoughts:

    1. Monkeys + typewriters + TIME = Shakespeare? Article Spinner daisy chained into a loop + 1 million iterations = ORIGINALLY submitted article?

    2. Self-descriptive sentence (from the spun snippet, above): In the long run, dialect will be diminished to poor written work and absurd jibber jabber.

    Cheers,

    Mitch

    • Muahahahah… I took you up on your challenge to “spin that” and got: “From the software engineer’s viewpoint, I generally adored perusing articles about limited state machines, dialect parsers and so forth. It’s somewhat finished my head, yet the little graphs separating sentences enable my creative energy to imagine what must be little bots circling in the PC, carrying things and connectors here and far off, attempting frantically to dodge the vast piece can.” Finished your head and threw it into the piece can, I did.

      I agree with your incongruous thoughts, especially number 1, which I find alarming.

  2. Charlice says:

    Oh! Holly, I never knew that spinning is rampant in the academic world too. Thought that it’s only among peeps in the internet marketing world.

    For someone who can’t write a decent essay without a thesaurus then that person doesn’t have any business in academics. But you know, some people just want to hold the cert so nothing you can do about it!

    • If someone can’t write a decent essay without a thesaurus, they absolutely DO belong in school — but if they can’t do it without committing academic dishonesty, by using an article spinner, maybe they don’t deserve to be attending college or university just yet. And if they can’t use a dictionary or thesaurus WELL – or they don’t know the basics of simple grammar and punctuation – then they need to take or repeat the level one courses.

      We have to get past this mentality where school is where people go to take tests to prove they know stuff. School is where you go to LEARN stuff, and tests are just a way to make sure you’re actually learning stuff. If you already knew the stuff, why are you (or your parents or some scholarship fund) paying for you to just prove you know it? That seems stupid, and yet that’s where “teaching to the test” has gotten us. Kids are under so much pressure to do well on TESTS, they forget that it’s about the fun of LEARNING. (I think a lot of parents forget this, too, and just add to the pressure that makes kids hate school.)

      Peeps in the Internet marketing world come in three flavors, in my experience: The snake-oil salesmen who abuse eager, naive people by letting them think if they pay $47 or $97 or $497 (depending on how audacious the snake-oil salesman is) that they will learn all the SECRETS to successful marketing (no one bothers to ask if they have a product, and often the “product” they suggest ends up being some book cooked up in an hour or so that THEY can then sell to the unsuspecting); sincere people who have some real marketing and life experience and a genuine desire to see hopeful young bloggers succeed with some realistic measure of success (Ileane Smith comes to mind, first and foremost); and a dwindling group of bloggers who have been led to believe they can actually make a living doing nothing much, and are willing to work harder than your average fast food worker to get there. Odds are, the poor bloggers will eventually end up slinging burgers, but I hesitate to kill their dreams by saying so… (Lord knows, writers fall into similar categories – the successful ones, I think, stay out of this virtual fire triangle and quietly work hard, submit, get published and paid, rinse, and repeat. It’s a slog. More people want to have BEEN published and paid than actually want to WRITE.

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