Rise of the research-bots: AI software that writes your papers for you

Critics warn new 'Manuscript Writer' program may be too good to be true, since automated content could run the risk of plagiarism

November 22, 2017
Robot typing on keyboard
Source: Alamy

A US software company claims to have created the program that researchers’ dreams (or nightmares) are made of: an automated assistant able to write up papers so that you don’t have to.

“Manuscript Writer”, newly released by sciNote, can save researchers time, and the tedium of pulling together their methodology and findings, by using artificial intelligence to draft papers, according to its creators.

“Do you ever get that feeling that you would like to have a magic spell to organise all your data,” a press release from the company reads, “and once it is organised, wouldn’t it be magnificent if there would be a software that could put together all relevant data from your projects, add some new references and present you with a manuscript draft you can build upon?”

An add-on to the company’s pre-existing Electronic Lab Notebook (ELN) program, Manuscript Writer works “by drawing upon data contained within the ELN and references that are accessible in open access journals”.

The outcome is an initial draft that the writer can “build upon”, although the discussion part of a research paper would be left up to the academic, since it is the “most creative and original part”, the company adds.

Sceptics have suggested the program may be too good to be true, since automated content could run the risk of plagiarism more than the trained human eye. Charles Seife, a faculty member at New York University’s Division of Medical Ethics, told the Retraction Watch blog that the program sounded “problematic”.

“The terms of service say explicitly that the draft will be generated not just from the data stored by the user but from ‘relevant keywords and open access references’,” he said. “Obviously, an AI isn’t capable of understanding and digesting prose the way a human is, so it’s hard for me to see how it’s going to be able to create any sort of derivative work based on open-access references that isn’t plagiaristic or incoherent (or most likely both).”

Daniele Fanelli, a fellow in quantitative methodology at the London School of Economics, said the industry would “undoubtedly” be seeing more AI tools such as Manuscript Writer in the coming years.

“This is where science is heading, together with all other creative human activities,” he told THE. “I don’t see any a priori ethical concerns with the use of such a tool, as long as researchers declare transparently that they used it.

“With regards to plagiarism or data fabrication, it might actually help both detection and prevention,” Dr Fanelli added. “However, downsides and abuses are not difficult to imagine, starting with the fact that it might reduce the incentive for young researchers to learn how to write and even to think deeply about a scientific problem.”

rachael.pells@timeshighereducation.com

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