For 37 years, Dorothy Mikuska watched students struggle with the research paper process. As a former high school English teacher, when computers appeared in schools and homes, she knew there was a better way. Now the president of ePen&Inc, Mikuska teamed with business partner Ron Slatin to create PaperToolsPro, a web subscription service for students, professional writers and academic researchers that assists in managing the paper-writing process. In a time when cutting and pasting is easier than ever, and information on any topic under the sun abounds with just a couple of clicks, Mikuska discusses her views on plagiarism, the process of writing and the deeper thinking that can occur when the right software smooths the way to an easier method of research. She also shares her insights on collaboration, humanizing the teacher-learner experience—and what she believes is the essence of education.
Victor: Why did you create PaperToolsPro?
Dorothy: Computers provided an opportunity to improve writing by facilitating the revision process. Once students could easily access the Internet, the world of information came to their screens, but also the ease with which to copy-paste and commit plagiarism, intentional or unintentional.
I kept thinking that there was a way to harness technology to help students engage in the research process with ease, rigor, and integrity. When I retired, I had the time and opportunity to implement my ideas.
Victor: What does the name mean?
Dorothy: The name came from a brain-storming session with my partner, Ron Slatin. We wanted the name to indicate that the software was a tool for writing papers like a pro, thus PaperToolsPro.
Victor: What is it? Who created it?
Dorothy: PaperToolsPro is web-based software, accessible by subscription, for students and professional writers to:
- take notes as quotations or paraphrases with a descriptor, up to three keywords, and a citation
- generate a bibliography in MLA, APA, ACS, CBE, AAAS, and Chicago styles
- sort notes with a search query
- organize notes into an outline
- synthesize information with a notepad, called Ideas Page, to list questions to research and main ideas found
- transfer notes with citations easily into a draft on a word processing page
The software is a joint effort between me, owner of ePen&Inc., and my partner, Ron Slatin, a software programmer for 27 years at University of Arizona College of Medicine in Tucson and owner of M3Designs. I was the English teacher specialist, he the computer programmer.
Victor: What does it do? What are the benefits?
Dorothy: Students doing research tend to take incomplete notes—they forget to document a source or page number, or they think they are putting information in their own words, sentence structure, and voice, but actually only substitute a word with a synonym or delete a phrase, thereby sincerely believing that they have met the requirements of avoiding plagiarism when they have not.
They also tend to take notes indiscriminately and out of context without seeing the scaffold of information these notes should be creating.
There are many benefits to using PaperToolsPro for both students and teachers:
It saves students time by
- Taking notes online, a medium more comfortable to them than pen and note cards
- Typing notes into an electronic format that can be later manipulated into a draft
- Automatically appending a citation to every note
- Automatically generating bibliography entries—no more searching style sheets for correct formatting
- Quickly searching for sets of notes by establishing criteria for a search query
It improves the quality of student work by:
- Engaging students in what they are reading by having them transform the text into their own understanding of the information, connecting notes with at least one keyword
- Helping them give focus to their research by listing research questions and main ideas found in the Ideas Page
- Providing the option to collaborate with others working on the same project on the Ideas Page
- The assistance the software provides makes students realize that they can do the assignment and not plagiarize.
And it saves teachers time by:
- Reading students’ typed notes online rather than handwritten on note cards
- Checking student sources by clicking URL appended to each note taken from Internet source
- Minimizing time needed to teach and re-teach steps of research paper because the program requires students to complete the entire process of note taking, including assigning attribution with a citation to every note, before beginning another note.
I believe that it also improves teachers’ effectiveness by:
- Monitoring their students’ work by accessing their accounts to review their progress or by students attaching to their email the html copy of their notes with descriptors, keywords, and citations, bibliographies, or the entire project.
- Discussing a student’s progress by typing comments into the project’s notepad, the Ideas Page, thus creating a dialog between the teacher and student during the research process, not at the end when a grade becomes more important than the learning process
- Eliminating the physical burden of hauling home note cards or envelopes of sources printed out and drafts to grade; all is done online
Victor: Alright. How is it unique from other similar products or services? What companies do you see as in the same market?
Dorothy: The product most similar to PaperToolsPro is NoodleTools. Although NoodleTools was originally designed to create bibliography entries and later a notetaking tool was added, PaperToolsPro has a simplified format for entering bibliography data on one screen rather than several screens as with NoodleTools. Our focus is on the thinking process of connecting information uniquely through keywords and through the use of the Ideas Page.
There are other types of software that find already existing plagiarism in papers. Most well-known is Turnitin, which compares submitted student papers to extensive databases of Internet pages and to previously submitted student papers in order to find identical or similar passages. This software addresses the plagiarism problem after the final paper is handed in; PaperToolsPro helps prevent plagiarism during the research process. Although the philosophical differences between these two approaches are significant, together they could present a two-prong approach to eliminating plagiarism.
Victor: When was it developed? What is something interesting or relevant about its development history?
Dorothy: Ron and I began developing PaperToolsPro in the spring of 2003. Initially we sold it as downloadable software from our website and on a CD. In 2007 we developed the software to be web-based so it could be used on any platform from any computer. It is now even accessible on an iPad.
Every semester I am invited to give a presentation about plagiarism and my software to a graduate class of library science students at Dominican University. In addition to questions about the software, many of the students have asked about the working relationship between an English teacher and a computer geek—how we were able to communicate.
Coincidentally, Ron and I are cousins, so we know each other well and appreciate each other’s strengths. Research papers were not a prominent part of his education at Knox College, U of Iowa, or U of Chicago, so he forced me to clarify and justify everything I wanted in the software. It helped that at the same time his daughter working on her doctorate at Berkeley, encountered some of the issues we discussed daily. While Ron learned about bibliography formatting and other details about writing research papers, I had a crash course in understanding the workings of computers and programming by watching over his shoulder—proof that left brain and right brain people can creatively work together.
Victor: Haha! That’s great, Dorothy. Alright, so tell me: where did it originate? Where can you get it now?
Victor: How much does it cost? What are the options?
Dorothy: We offer several options to access the software as a full-year subscription:
- Individual subscription: $20
- Teacher subscription (for a teacher and up to 150 students): $75 + $1 per student
- School subscription: $200 + $1 per enrolled student
- Lifetime subscription: $55 one time fee without need to renew
The software is available also as a free demo subscription, which allows the full use of the software for one month to create a project with 10 note cards.
We are currently offering free teacher subscriptions, a $225 value, for those teachers who wish to pilot the software for a year without cost or obligation.
Victor: Where would I find some some examples of it in action?
Dorothy: Feel free to look at a file of a sample research project by going to www.PaperToolsPro.net and log in as
Under Existing Project Name, select “sample: guest”
You will see the Note Editor Page from which the program functions. Click Bibliography at the top to see a bibliography list the software created in MLA style; View All Notes at the bottom left of Note Edit Page to see all the notes (quotation, paraphrase, descriptor, keywords, citation, and active URL if note came from an online source).
Notice how Ideas Page is used.
Click View Outline to see the beginnings of an outline.
Because the software works through your browser, you can use all browser functions with PaperToolsPro: save, copy/paste, print…
Also feel free to start your own project and take notes by entering a new project name after you login and click Continue or click Project tab if you are already in a project.
Also from our homepage, you can view three short videos; Why use PaperToolsPro, How to use PaperToolsPro, and Taking your notes to a draft. Other listed resources are accessible as well.
Victor: Very nice! Who is it particularly tailored for? Who is it NOT for?
Dorothy: We had high school and college students in mind while designing the software. However, middle school students are taught the same research process as PaperToolsPro uses. I believe that students this age should be using it since bad habits and misconceptions about research and plagiarism begin here. We have had a number of PhD candidates using it to write their theses. Large research projects like these benefit from the organizational structure the program offers.
Victor: Okay, now for some of the headier questions: What are your thoughts on education these days?
Dorothy: Although I no longer teach high school students in a classroom, I do teach a staff development class at my former school so I am still pulled into the whirlwind of education. As Dickens stated, these are “the best of times and the worst of times.”
Compared to our understanding of the learning process when I started teaching and even the last years I taught, we know so much more about how learning occurs, how research can help teachers design curricula and lesson plans to make student learning occur more easily and in greater depth.
However, I worry about the direction of the support education is receiving. I am concerned about the emphasis on simplistic testing rather than on engaged in-depth learning; on the diminishing financial and social support for good education for all students; on the misconceptions of the value of technology as a dominant tool of education; on the replacement of online reading for paper copies.
A great deal of evidence exists showing how reading online has turned us—students and adults—into power browsers whose reading and thus thinking is becoming superficial.
As Nicholas Carr so aptly put it in his famous article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” “what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”
Or Bruce Friedman, a University of Michigan professor and regular blogger, admits, “I can’t read War and Peace anymore….Even a blog post of more than three or four paragraphs is too much to absorb. I skim it.”
This change in the way we read, learn, and think is a great concern to me.
Victor: Yes, and great quotes! What sort of formative experiences in your own education helped to inform your approach to creating PaperToolsPro?
Dorothy: While creating PaperToolsPro, I always had in my mind’s eye individual students who struggled, successfully or not, to do their best in writing research papers in the electronic age. When I was in high school, college, and graduate school, everything was done on 3 x 5 note cards and paper. I remember even writing my high school research papers in longhand and my college papers on a Royal portable manual typewriter.
These memories made me realize that the drudgery of the process took the joy out of the research. I wanted to change that for students, who usually begin each research paper with trepidation, followed by panic, and quite possibly end in disappointment. All learning, especially research papers, should be an exciting adventure in self-development.
Victor: How does PaperToolsPro address some of your concerns about education?
Dorothy: The nature of the Internet is to provide a plethora of information fast. Therefore, we read fast, as my quotations above state, browsing quickly by using the scroll bar more than our eyes and minds, clicking live links on the web page, perhaps checking our email, the stock market, sports scores, the weather, etc., talking or texting on the phone. Reading is fast and fragmented.
I believe PaperToolsPro serves an important role by forcing the reader to slow down, even stop to think, when taking a note.
Users must focus on a small passage, which is copy/pasted into a textbox. Then they put the quotation in their own words, sentence structure, voice in the textbox below the quotation.
This requires reflection, not automatic, robotic fast action. Because the two textboxes are contiguous, users can see if the paraphrase is indeed translated into their language and understanding. If not, more reflection, even interior dialog, makes the users understand what they read.
Assigning a descriptor requires them reflecting on the unique contents of that note; and selecting keywords from a list of already used keywords makes users think about how the new note is related to previous notes.
The Ideas Page has users regard the project as a whole in terms of the thesis. Entering bibliography data requires them to think about the author, the title, the publisher, the date, and other significant information about the source.
Ron and I had long and heated discussions whether the software should enter this source data automatically or make users do it. We chose the latter because we wanted to offer them every opportunity to deliberate on these issues, taking one last time to consider what was the source of the information and its appropriateness.
PaperToolsPro gives users focus and provides an environment to engage in complex mental connections derived from concentrated reading, something the Internet takes from us.
Victor: Another far-reaching question for you: What is your outlook on the future of education?
Dorothy: We are at a crossroads of education. I believe in the strength of all the great educators in classrooms all over the world who will make sure that their students will benefit from the best of times, not the worst of times in education.
Victor: What else can you tell educators and other leaders in and around education about the value of PaperToolsPro? What makes you say that?
Dorothy: Reading and writing is essentially thinking. The purpose of PaperToolsPro was not to provide textboxes for students to fill with words and buttons to click in order to automate the learning process.
We did not intend to make note taking easier with our software. Our intention was to facilitate complex thinking and reflection, which is hard but rewarding work. We wanted users to focus their efforts on higher order thinking—analysis, synthesis, and intelligent evaluation—and let technology take over the lower order thinking skills for them.
There is no need for a student to worry whether there is a period after the author’s first name in MLA style when creating a bibliography, or to create a citation for each note so its origin is documented by source and page if appropriate, or to remember every A needs a B in an outline. We don’t want to be punitive by catching plagiarism when the paper is completed.
Instead, we want to offer opportunities for teachers and students to discuss with each other what they know and have learned while doing the research. Isn’t such dialog the essence of education? It’s through such collaboration between student and teacher, who is also a learner, that education is humanized, even in the current environment that dehumanizes education into test scores and statistics.
Victor Rivero is the editor-in-chief of Edtech Digest. Write to: victor@VictorRivero.com