Grammarly Spell Checker: A Review

Let’s be honest. We’ve all written something in error—either accidentally or negligently. Spell checkers and autocorrecters have become integrated into our digital lives, and not always for the better.

grammarlyRecently, Nik Baron at Grammarly, a spell checker company, reached out to me and gave me a two-week paid subscription to Grammarly to test and review it.

My first order of business was to read other reviews. I wanted to see what others had to say and find some interesting features to look for. Unfortunately, I was not met with positive reviews by grammar sites: “Grammarly doesn’t do all it claims to do” (Grammarist) and “$140 will buy a lot of well-written and edited books. Caveat scriptor.” (The Economist).

Test One: Pre-written Paper
My first test was uploading a pre-written paper. It was one I wrote and submitted to a college class about 10 years ago. This paper was reviewed by me several times prior to submission for mechanics (grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc.); but since it was just a reflection piece on a project, it was not necessary to have pristine mechanics like one would have on a term paper. Nevertheless, prior to running it by Grammarly’s checker, I thought it was pretty good.

After running it through the checker, I’m embarrassed to say I turned it in! My paper had a score of 78/100, with 16 “critical issues”. Right off the bat, 9 of them were now (10 years and two degrees later) obvious mistakes. These were mostly comma or hyphenated word errors. Whoops.  But there were still 7 of them that I didn’t really agree on.

Some of these critical issues were instances in which I purposefully broke style convention to make a point or word choice. In the instances of word choice, the checker wanted to exchange “aforementioned items” to “items above” or “items mentioned earlier” or “items as mentioned above”. Personally, I think “aforementioned items” is less wordy. Perhaps it thought I used too many syllables? It also did not like the phrase “their own strange group” and wanted me to delete “own”. Perhaps in the phrase it sounds okay, “their strange group”, but it sounds odd to me in the full sentence, “I thought they were their strange group that did not fit anywhere.”

Despite having a few issues with the uploaded document, I still wanted to like Grammarly. It found many punctuation mistakes that Microsoft Word did not. Unfortunately, when I downloaded my edited version, it opened in Microsoft Word with a bunch of comment bubbles, some indicating what I deleted, others just indicating deletions that I didn’t make. It seems like a waste of time to edit a document and then have to go through again and accept all the comment bubbles.

Test Two: Plagiarism
One of the comments in the reviews I mentioned above was that the plagiarism checker did not catch plagiarized statements. Or, if they did, it was from a published book. So, for my second test, I tested the plagiarism checker by thinking like a tech-savvy student. I copy and pasted the first paragraph from the To Kill a Mockingbird Wikipedia page.

To Kill a Mockingbird is a novel by Harper Lee published in 1960. It was immediately successful, winning the Pulitzer Prize, and has become a classic of modern American literature. The plot and characters are loosely based on the author’s observations of her family and neighbors, as well as on an event that occurred near her hometown in 1936, when she was 10 years old.

The software detected that the work was “unoriginal” and gave me a link…to Wikispaces. I guess the Wikipedia page has some un-cited plagiarism. Grammarly also gave me the MLA, APA, and Chicago style citations that I could use instead of rewording the unoriginal work. Neat.

But you know, tech-savvy students aren’t dumb enough to just copy and paste word for word…they use synonyms! Unfortunately, this is still plagiarism. I ran the same sentence with a few word order changes and synonyms that either Microsoft Word recommended or the first synonym that came to mind. I did not change any punctuation or check for grammar. This was the new paragraph:

To Kill a Mockingbird is a book published by Harper Lee in 1960. It was instantaneously popular, winning the Pulitzer Prize, and has become a standard in modern American literature. The story line and characters are roughly based on the author’s own observations of her family and neighbors, as well as on an incident that transpired near her hometown in 1936, when she was ten years old.

Grammarly found the second half of the paragraph to be plagiarized from “The story line…” to “ten years old”. It did not, however, recognize the first half as being plagiarized, even though the YouTube source contained it.

Grammarly’s website claims that its plagiarism checker “finds unoriginal text by checking against a database of over 8 billion webpages.” Huh…only webpages? A few teachers do require book sources now and then.

I grabbed the nearest book, Origin by Jessica Khoury, and randomly opened to a page. I typed a few sentences into the checker from page 83.

I watch his every move with fascination. Questions surge to my lips, batter at my teeth. I want to know everything about him. Where does he sleep? What does he eat? Has he been to a city? Does he have friends? But I feel unusually shy and don’t know what to say.

What do you know…Grammarly didn’t catch it. It just recommends changing “his” to “him”. Umm, no. A possessive pronoun is correct here, not an object pronoun.

Summary
Test one: FAIL. Test two: FAIL. I see no reason to continue testing, based upon my results corroborating The Economist and Grammarist reviews. If you’ve installed the browser add-on or the Microsoft Word plugin for Grammarly and would like to leave a review in the comments, please do so.

Unfortunately, Grammarly’s checker isn’t fool-proof. You still need to know what you’re doing and be ready to defy yet another spelling/grammar checker. It may be helpful for students and teachers, but I do not see the value of paying for Grammarly’s spell checker when Google and Microsoft are free and are already decent spell checkers.

Plagiarism and Essay Writing Sites

For many schools in Michigan, today was the first day back to school. So many students will go to school in the morning and feel behind by the time they return home in the afternoon. They wonder, how can I be behind on the first day of school?  

Don’t feel like the only choice is homework assistance and essay writing sites. Those sites are not there to help you—they encourage you to plagiarize someone else’s work, leading to suspensions and expulsions.

Why You Shouldn’t Use Essay Writing Sites
In a very particular order…

  1. Plagiarism. We’ll revisit that concept momentarily.
  2. You don’t learn what you were assigned to do (and no, the teacher didn’t assign an essay to keep you busy!)
  3. You don’t practice your writing/handwriting/grammar/punctuation skills (thus the essay you would write would stink and then you’ll have to pay lots of money to for practice ACT/SAT courses because you can’t write).
  4. You’ll be unable to get the job you actually want because you can’t write a grant to fund your cure for cancer (feel free to substitute the required writing component for any/every profession and/or job).
  5. It’s probably not originally and you’ll get caught by Turnitin.com.  For $35, you really think their giving you an original?  Would you write a 5-page, original essay, with 7 citations for $35?
  6. The writer probably was paid next to nothing and the website took all the money (sweatshops for essays!)
  7. The writer probably isn’t that good of a writer, if you’re a good writer, would you be working for an essay writing service?
  8. It doesn’t actually save you money because you spent money (you spent money on the essay, possibly even your private education, and you’ll be kicked out for plagiarism).

A Quick Review of Plagiarism
What is the definition of “to plagiarize”? The Merriam-Webster dictionary’s quick definition is: “to use the words or ideas of another person as if they were your own words or ideas”. Their full definition is broken down into both the transitive and intransitive forms.

transitive verb
:  to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own :  use (another’s production) without crediting the source
intransitive verb
:  to commit literary theft :  present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source

So…according to the full definition, plagiarism is taking someone else’s words without their permission and passing them off as your own.

But let’s split hairs…

What if you paid your friend to write it. Or, what if you bought the essay? Technically, you had it “ghostwritten” and they gave permission, right? You paid them…aren’t the words yours now? (Hint: No, not in an academic setting.)

What does plagiarism look like?
The University of Illinois Springfield has a detailed guide (with examples) explaining all about plagiarism.  But let’s just look at their headings…

    • Using a direct quotation without quotation marks or a citation
    • Paraphrasing or changing an author’s words or style without citation
    • Insufficiently acknowledging sources or providing a partial citation
    • Failing to cite sources for information considered non-common
    • Using an essay from course for another without instructor permission
    • Failing to attach all group members’ names to a group project
    • Using someone else to heavily edit or re-write your essay

In that last section they specifically give the examples, “If you purchase an essay from the internet, a writer (including a TA or GA), or another student, you are plagiarizing.” and “If you pay your roommate, friend, brother, sister, mom, TA/GA, or anyone else to write your paper, you are plagiarizing.”

Essay Writing Sites to Avoid
Okay, so you finally understand.  Don’t buy that research paper. Spend the time and do it.  If necessary, spend that money you would have spent on a paper on a good tutor to help you with your paper. Now the question is, which homework help and essay writing sites should you avoid?

Below is a non-comprehensive list of sites found through a few Google searches. There are no links to these sites because Teaching & Technology does not advocate the use of these sites and will not add to their Google Page Rank by linking to them. Add any more you find to the comments section or email me.

  • DoneResearchPaper.com
  • EssayTigers.com
  • BestEssays.com
  • SuperiorPapers.com
  • RushEssays.com
  • EssayOnTime.com
  • EssayInTime.com
  • NinjaEssays.com
  • SleekWriters.org
  • Essay-Company.com
  • EssayPenguins.com
  • CoolCustomEssay.com
  • EssayEdge.com
  • EssaysCapital.com
  • BuyEssayOnline.org
  • FreshEssays.com
  • EssayJedi.com
  • EssayShark.com/
  • iessaywriter.com
  • EssayAcademia.com
  • Zessay.com
  • EssayShop.org
  • AcademicEssayWriters.com
  • MyPaperGeek.com
  • PremiereEssay.com
  • EssayPlanet.org
  • ClassyEssayWriter.com
  • Bid4Papers.com
  • WriteEssay.net

I’m only on the 3rd page of a Google search that resulted in 27,800,000 results. I think I’ll stop. Many of these sites sounds disreputable and those that sound like honest companies…they many in fact be.  However, if you turn in a paper that you purchased and don’t acknowledge the other writer, in an academic setting, it is plagiarism.

 

 

 

NPR: Turnitin And The Debate Over Anti-Plagiarism Software

Transcript available at NPR.org.

I highly recommend you listen to the whole bit or read the transcript.  It brings up the issue that while Turnitin is a tool, some teachers use it more like a “scalpel” (with “care and discretion”) while others use it more like a “hammer” (as in a gavel).

Some students and teachers noticed that when drafts were required to be submitted to Turnitin, but not final drafts, there was less plagiarism as students were able to learn from their mistakes and avoid accidental plagiarism.  No one really wins when teachers are the zero-tolerance thought police with a one-way ticket to an academic integrity review board meeting in which the teachers were lobbying for expulsion.

It really is better to not turn in a paper than turn in someone else’s work. As Emma Zaballos, a student at American University, said in the interview, “A zero will ruin your GPA but it won’t get you thrown out of school.”

Source: LA Johnson/NPR

Source: LA Johnson/NPR

turnitin-data-02_custom-a93c7b4c6186d8b730b45a5387b8bad0f9ac63c1-s40-c85

Source: LA Johnson/NPR

“Is It Plagiarism or Collaboration?”

pla·gia·rism (noun): the act of using another person’s words or ideas without giving credit to that person

col·lab·o·ra·tion (noun): a form of the intransitive verb collaborate: to work with another person or group in order to achieve or do something

What is the difference between plagiarism and collaboration? According to the dictionary definitions, the difference seems almost black and white. Plagiarism is intellectual theft; one person takes and uses another person’s words or ideas without permission. Collaboration is not theft because a person gives permission to use their words and ideas.

However, what happens when one person claims plagiarism and the other claims collaboration? Or, more importantly, how can someone distinguish between plagiarism and collaboration? An article published on MindShift, “Is it Plagiarism or Collaboration” by Jennifer Carey, begins to explore these questions.

Technology has made it easier to plagiarize. Just a quick Google search, CTRL+X and CTRL+Z and poof! instant paper. And that isn’t even mentioning the access to “essay writing” sites that will write the paper for you…simply add your name to it (they guarantee it’s original!) and poof! instant paper. However, technology has made catching plagiarizers easy and efficient. Sites like turnitin.com allow submitted papers to be indexed as well as checked against a database of known published documents for similarities.

The interesting thing is that most projects in the “real world” are collaborative rather than solely individualistic. Students need to learn how to work collaboratively with one another and not just break up a large project into parts so that each person does only a small part, individually and one person makes the PowerPoint. Students need to learn (and practice!) the difference between collaboration and plagiarism.

Technology has enabled group projects to be more collaborative. Documents can stay in a central location on cloud storage sites Google Drive or Dropbox and teachers are able to see the log of who does what and when each student logged in. This reduces the chance that the work will be plagiarism because students are giving permission for their thoughts and ideas to be used in the collective document.

Can something be both collaborative and plagiarized? The group could take words from someone without giving attribution. A student’s tutor could nearly do the project for the student but only the student’s name appears on the project.

Is there a zero tolerance approach to plagiarism or is there degrees of acceptance before it crosses the line? Technology has brought this question forward and, in my opinion, it is not one that is going to be answered soon.

Turnitin.com – How good is it at identifying plagarism?

Would you submit your paper to Turnitin.com?

It sounds like a useful tool for aiding teachers, professors, and college admissions staff in identifying essays that have been plagiarized.  According to the website, Turnitin.com (“Turn it in”), “Ensures original work by checking submitted papers against 17+ billion web pages, 200+ million student papers and leading library databases and publications.”

Turnitin.com is a useful tool, when used correctly.  Let me say that caveat again, when used correctly.  The website searched thousands of databases and will identify phrases, sentences, and paragraphs that appear verbatim elsewhere. And there is bound to be phrases and even sentences that could be identified as plagiarized because they are commonly written together.  “The boy walked the dog to the park,” is a sentence of my own creation.  But if someone turned in a creative writing piece with the same sentence, it could potentially be flagged as plagiarized.  The fact of the matter is, I could submit a three page essay to Turnitin.com and because of these common phrases, the resulting percent given by Turnitin.com for how much of my paper is plagiarized could be as high as 30%.  [This actually is the average percent I’ve received on work that I wrote myself.]

Turnitin.com emphasizes that it only identifies potential issues and it is up to the teachers, professors, and admissions staff to look at what was flagged and make a judgement call.  If multiple sentences in a row or paragraphs have been plagiarized, then there is an issue.  But those grading the papers (or the ones writing them) should expect a 0% plagiarism score.  TurnitIn.com’s blog Words & Ideas wrote:

There is a very distinct difference between what Turnitin flags as matching text (aka: similarity index) and plagiarism. Turnitin will highlight ANY matching material in a paper—even if it is properly quoted and cited. Just because it appears as unoriginal does not mean it is plagiarized; it just means that the material matches something in the Turnitin databases.  We leave it to the instructors to look at a paper and the originality report to make the determination of whether or not something is plagiarism, and to what extent—intentional plagiarism, unintentional plagiarism, improper/lack of citation, or mere coincidence. Best practices from instructors suggest that Turnitin OriginalityCheck be used as a teaching tool to address citation and academic honesty, not only as a punitive tool.

As I somewhat mentioned, admissions staff are now able to use Turnitin.com to identify plagiarized admissions essays.  This helps admissions staff make well-informed decisions about candidates when there are more applications than spots available.  A recent article in the Los Angeles Times details how admissions staff members have used Turnitin.com.

The student’s admissions essay for Boston University’s MBA program was about persevering in the business world. “I have worked for organizations in which the culture has been open and nurturing, and for others that have been elitist. In the latter case, arrogance becomes pervasive, straining external partnerships.”

Another applicant’s essay for UCLA’s Anderson School of Management was about his father. He “worked for organizations in which the culture has been open and nurturing, and for others that have been elitist. In the latter case, arrogance becomes pervasive, straining external partnerships.”

Sound familiar? The Boston University student’s essay was written in 2003 and had been posted at businessweek.com. The UCLA applicant was rejected this year — for plagiarism.

So should you force your students to use Turnitin.com?  With the exception of a district-wide or school-wide policy, the choice is yours.  But be sure to educate your students before you have them upload their paper to Turnitin.com.  The last thing you want is angry parents (or students) complaining about how the paper is original yet it came up 20% plagiarized.  Some parents make not accept this from their child and punish them because they don’t understand what Turnitin.com does and doesn’t do.  And of course, DO NOT punish students simply based on the numerical score.  Review the paper and the flags yourself.  Plagiarism is taken very seriously so be sure you have your evidence before you accuse someone of plagiarizing.

 

Would you submit your paper to Turnitin.com?

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