Microsoft’s new “Rewrite” feature: A challenge to academic integrity?

Microsoft has just announced a new feature in Word: “Rewrite”. Microsoft shared details of the feature in this blog post last Friday.  The feature is designed to provide “sentence-level suggestions” to help users improve their writing. Microsoft reports that, “This feature is powered by cutting-edge, neural-network, machine learning models, which are trained on millions of sentences.” Zhang Li of Microsoft writes that the new feature:

Improves fluency: These suggestions aim to improve the flow of the wording, including mechanics like grammar and spelling.

Concise phrasing: The goal of these suggestions is to express an idea clearly, without extra words.
Paraphrased sentence: These suggestions offer synonyms for alternative wording.

Improves readability: The goal of these suggestions is to make the writing easier to read for people with different reading abilities. In general, suggestions will include shorter, simpler wording.”

Reading through the blog post comments, users are anticipating this will replace services such as Grammarly. People in the tech world are already calling it a “game changer”.

From an academic integrity perspective, it certainly could change the game. Drastically. Scholars such as Ann Rogerson and Grace McCarthy started publishing articles about the impact of paraphrasing software a few years ago. Their article “Using Internet based paraphrasing tools: Original work, patchwriting or facilitated plagiarism” prompts us to consider how paraphrasing software impacts our notion of writing, plagiarism and “originality”.

Microsoft reports that the new feature is currently only available in English and requires a subscription to Microsoft Office 365.

My prediction is that this new feature will change writing as much as spell check has, but in ways that are infinitely more complex. Spell check offers suggestions on individual words. Grammar check highlights possible grammar errors. A feature designed to re-write entire sentences has the potential to shift writing in significant new ways.

This may challenge our notions of “original writing” in ways we cannot yet predict. Educators and administrators will have to figure out how, if at all, this will impact our understanding of plagiarism, authorship and originality. Only time will if assisted and augmented writing will become the new normal.

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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, and the Educational Leader in Residence, Academic Integrity, University of Calgary, Canada. Opinions are my own and do not represent those of the University of Calgary.

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