Online grammar checkers – Grammarly revisited

Way back in 2013, I was invited to write a review of the online grammar checker, Grammarly. I was paid by Grammarly directly to write this blog, with the only requirement being that I had to open with the phrase ‘I use Grammarly’s free online grammar check because…’ At the time, I found Grammarly to be a fairly useful tool, though I did raise several concerns including the academic implications of plagiarism checkers, and the danger of Grammarly becoming a crutch for weaker writers.

Now, six years on, I find cause to revisit my original review of Grammarly, and reiterate many of my original concerns as Grammarly continues to expand its reach.

The positives and the negatives

Back in 2013, I was quite impressed by Grammarly’s adaptive spell checking, and the range of tools to improve the quality of writing. I was also impressed by the inclusion of an MS Word plugin module, and various other useful features. However, Grammarly is certainly not cheap, and is still priced in the region of £20 for a month-by-month subscription. To put that price in perspective, that’s more than you pay for a subscription to  Microsoft Office 365!

While many users may (thankfully) be put off by the price, I remain deeply concerned about the way Grammarly is marketed, and the way it’s sold to enhance academic writing wit plagiarism detection, essay genre adaptation, and source citation. It even claims to be the ‘ultimate paper-checking-wingman’, and includes quotes from students who claim to have received better grades as a result.

Screenshot from Grammarly Premium, extolling the virtues of academic malpractice
Screenshot from Grammarly Premium, extolling its virtues as a way to avoid plagiarism.

My concern here is not so much that Grammarly may spot an unintentional mistake; much rather, that Grammarly in fact encourages mistakes, and can be used as a means to effectively ‘cheat’ the system by using it to help essays pass academic plagiarism checks.

The great plagiarism debate

Plagiarism is a massive issue in academia, and is only going to get worse as technology essay-writing tools become more sophisticated. We may even soon reach the point where AI are used to mass-produce academic essays instead of human beings.

In the past year, I’ve had to deal with several major cases of plagiarism that have emerged during my time as an Associate Lecturer at Lancaster University. In many cases, the students involved often seem quite stunned that they should be called before an academic malpractice committee – or even that plagiarism is a serious issue at all! Often, the students will have taken great chunks of content from the internet and pasted it into their essays, with little or no thought.

Where Grammarly comes into this of course is that it can be used to spot plagiarism and help writers adjust their content so that it’s no longer directly ‘plagiarised’ as such, and may therefore slip through our standard plagiarism checks. It may also help sufficiently alter the writing of text plagiarised in another language and then translated to English.

The thing is, in both of these cases, the content really still is plagiarised. In academia, as in professional writing, you should never claim someone else’s work as your own, and you should certainly never set out to deceive the reader into thinking that your plagiarised work is your own.  

By encouraging ‘plagiarism checks’ then, Grammarly is encouraging lazy writers, and bad academic practice. It’s also tacitly giving credence to the notion that plagiarism is somehow ok, and is just something that happens ‘by accident’. The fact is, in the vast majority of cases, these things are anything but accidental.

The academic crutch

Of course, this isn’t helped at all by the culture of amateurism that seems to have overtaken the internet. In one of the highest ranked reviews of Grammarly that I found, Bryan Collins, writing for Become A Writer Today, says:

Bloggers and content marketers find this very useful. It allows them to check if they have inadvertently copied text from their research sources and then forgotten to edit their content to make the text original.

This feature might also appeal to college students who are concerned about citing too heavily from their sources.

Bryan Collins

This comment is almost beyond belief. Here, the writer suggests that it’s quite ok to copy text from a source, and all the writer needs to do is adjust it a bit so it doesn’t look like the original!

And yet, in my mind at least, there is no way you can ‘inadvertently copy text’ from a research source without either aiming to 1) cite it directly (which is of course, perfectly fine), or 2) use it in some way to claim as your own. This latter option goes against everything academia is supposed to stand for, and the reviewer should be thoroughly ashamed of supporting the culture of copy-and-paste that is leading students to use software such as Grammarly a an academic crutch to support bad practice, instead of taking the time to learn the material, do some proper research and improve their academic writing.

After all, isn’t this what university’s supposed to be about?

Update, 25/11/20

Having spotted several adverts for Grammarly popping up on my free-TV services, I note how the company is increasingly pushing the idea of ‘doing the writing for you’. It’s not just that you write an email and it gives you suggestions, but rather, it gives so many suggestions that you might as well not have written the final outcome at all. As you will gather, I find this particularly problematic when it comes to learning and teaching, and the implications for academic integrity. Even more worrying still, is that Grammarly is now apparently marketing itself directly to people searching terms relating to plagiarism…

Bing search for term 'turnitin', showing a paid-for ad by Grammarly appearing as the top result.

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