Disclosure: I am a paid blogger and consultant for Turnitin, a competitor in this space.
Users of Microsoft Word have long been able to check their work for plagiarism and similarity issues. However, up until now, that’s required the use of third-party services and plugins.
A part of their Microsoft Editor package, the new similarity detection tool will use Microsoft’s Bing search engine to detect duplicate text and automatically add citations and change formats to help give the appropriate attribution.
In addition to the similarity checker, Microsoft Editor will also help make rewrite suggestions and include recommendations for improving clarity, grammar and inclusiveness.
While the move is not a direct shot at Turnitin, PlagScan, UniCheck and other academic anti-plagiarism tools, it is a shot across the bow at Grammarly, which has offered similar functionality for Word for years.
Though the other grammar checking tools have been available since April, the similarity detection tool began rolling out this week with a full release anticipated next month.
However, a question lingers: Is it too little too late or is Microsoft’s offering a potential game-changer?
How it Works
Using the similarity checker tools is very straightforward. While working in Microsoft Word, the user pulls up the Microsoft Editor pane and then scrolls to the similarity report.
Microsoft achieves this by using the Bing search engine to check the text in the background. It is continuously scanning the document for duplication and making a note of sections that may have plagiarism or citation issues.
When it finds such sections, it makes suggestions on how to fix them. It will automatically add the citation, using the format selected by the user, and reformat longer passages of text as blockquotes.
To be clear, all of these changes are optional. However, these recommendations will be particularly useful for students as they often complain that they don’t fully understand citation rules.
Still, it’s unclear just how exciting this announcement will turn out to be. After all, students and other writers have similar tools for years. What’s changing is that, for the first time, they’ll be an integral part of Microsoft Word itself.
Reasons to Get Excited
In January, Google announced the launch of Originality Reports, its plagiarism detection tool for Google Drive.
The response to that was relatively muted. Though it is a useful addition to the G Suite, all it does is mark suspicious passages for the user to edit or remove. In essence, it was a product comparable to where plagiarism-detection tools were 20 years ago.
The plagiarism-detection space has mostly moved on. While such services still provide simple similarity detection, the focus has moved to authorship detection, such as Turnitin’s Authorship and UniCheck’s Emma system.
However, there’s a pair of crucial differences between Google’s implementation and Microsoft’s.
The first is that Google’s was targeted primarily at instructors where Microsoft’s is for students and authors. Instructors already have much more robust solutions available to them, and Google’s offering seemed antiquated even before it was released.
Second, Microsoft’s tool is bundled with other AI writing components. Microsoft Editor doesn’t merely highlight potentially problematic passages; it actively helps fix them. This includes placing longer passages in block quotes and automatically adding citations.
Though other tools, such as Grammarly, have provided this functionality for some time, this is the first time it will be baked into Microsoft Word directly. To make matters worse for Grammarly, while Grammarly Premium costs $140 per year, Microsoft Editor’s full functionality is free with a Microsoft 365 subscription, which is $83 per year and includes all Microsoft Office programs.
Even if Microsoft Editor only matches Grammarly’s capability, it will likely become a popular tool for writers of all types.
Reasons to Be Cautious
Judging from the feedback about the similarity checking feature, the big issue many have with it can be summarized in just one word: Bing.
Bing’s reputation as a search engine is not the greatest. It’s long been seen as an also-ran against Google.
The fears in this area are understandable. A plagiarism checker is only as good as its algorithm and its database. Bing has not earned much trust in either category. Whether this is a fair assessment or not remains to be seen, but the perception is genuine.
That said, it stands to reason that Bing would be up to the task of basic plagiarism detection. Content copied verbatim from the open internet would likely be detected easily by Bing.
Though Turnitin and other tools have more robust databases that include content not available on the open internet, that’s not a service Microsoft or others can provide without additional costs.
The other main concern is privacy. Several commenters expressed concern about having all of their writing passed through Bing for this check.
While that is certainly understandable, in an age where Google Docs and Microsoft Word online are both popular word processors, that doesn’t seem to be a common concern. Also, using any of the Microsoft Editor features, not just the similarity checker, require sending all of your writing to Microsoft’s servers.
In short, while there are concerns, it appears Microsoft is releasing a relatively capable plagiarism detection tool targeted at the correct audience.
Competitors certainly have good reason to be concerned.
Microsoft Editor is an apparent swipe at Grammarly and similar services. The feature suite it offers is almost identical, and it does so at a lower price while making it a core part of Word.
The similarity checking feature is simply part of that suite. That said, it is a compelling part and includes automatic citation and formatting to help authors correctly cite their work.
In the end, it’s appropriate that plagiarism detection would be bundled with grammar checking tools. Citation is part of the writing process, and as grammar tools move from being pure editors to assisting with writing, the addition of plagiarism detection makes sense.
Microsoft’s entrance into this space is a big deal. The owner of the most popular word processor is not only making AI writing tools available natively but throwing in plagiarism detection as well.
How this will impact writing, especially for students, remains to be seen. But it stands to reason that the Fall semester will likely see a lot of students struggling less with their writing and citation.