Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Plagiarism, Patchwriting, and Undergraduate Students


Contributed by: Stacy Wittstock


Plagiarism has been in the news a lot lately, due to the recent discovery that Monica Crowley, one of President Trump’s appointments for a security post, had plagiarized a significant portion of a book she had published. (For more on this: http://money.cnn.com/interactive/news/kfile-monica-crowley-dissertation-plagiarism/)


What is plagiarism?
Plagiarism is most often conflated with the idea of “cheating.” And it’s true—outright plagiarism is a form of intellectual and academic dishonesty, akin to cheating on a test. However, the Council of Writing Program Administrators (CWPA) argue that intentionality plays an important role in cases of possible plagiarism.


  • CWPA defines plagiarism as: “In an instructional setting, plagiarism occurs when a writer deliberately uses someone else’s language, ideas, or other original (not common-knowledge) material without acknowledging its source.”
  • They go on to argue that: “Most current discussions of plagiarism fail to distinguish between: 1) submitting someone else’s text as one’s own or attempting to blur the line between one’s own ideas or words and those borrowed from another source, and 2) carelessly or inadequately citing ideas and words borrowed from another source” (CWPA).


How do students use sources?
This brings up the questions of how students actually use sources when writing in college, and what types of sources they use. The Citation Project (2011), and its primary researchers Rebecca Moore Howard, Sandra Jamieson, and Tricia Serviss, aimed to answer these questions: “The Citation Project is a multi-institution research project responding to educators’ concerns about plagiarism and the teaching of writing. Although much has been written on this topic and many have expressed concerns, little empirical data is available to describe what students are actually doing with their sources. At present, therefore, educators must make policy decisions and pedagogy based on anecdote, personal observation, media reports, and the claims of corporations that sell ‘solutions’” (“What is the Citation Project”).


Through their research, Howard, Jamieson, and Serviss distinguish between two major forms of source use: paraphrasing and patchwriting.


  • Paraphrasing:
    • “Restating a phrase, clause, or one or two sentences while using no more than 20% of the language of the source.  This 20% does not include accurate synonyms, articles, prepositions, proper names, technical terms, or other keywords. This 20% does include words whose morphology is changed (a change in verb tense, for example)” (“Terms and Definitions,” The Citation Project)
  • Patchwriting
    • “Restating a phrase, clause, or one or more sentences while staying close to the language or syntax of the source” (“Terms and Definitions,” The Citation Project)
  • For more, here is a link to the results of the Citation Project: http://site.citationproject.net/results/phase-i-data/


So what does this tell us?
In the Citation Project pilot study, Howard, Rodrigue, and Serviss argue that “Instead of focusing on students’ citation of sources, educators should attend to the more fundamental question of how well students understand their sources and whether they are able to write about them without appropriating language from the source” (2010, p. 177). They argue that the instances of misuse of sources were more indicative of students’ inability to comprehend, and therefore accurately paraphrase or summarize, the sources they were using, than straight intentional “cheating.”


Suggestions for Pedagogy
  • When grading student writing, consider intentionality when you suspect poor source use:
    • Is there a citation but no quotation marks?
    • Did the student intentionally copy without citation, or do they appear to be trying to paraphrase with little success?
    • Or did they intentionally poach the Wikipedia page on “Poaching” (true story!)
  • If you have time (or the ability to design your own activities for class time), consider building in a reading comprehension workshop
    • Some students may have high reading comprehension skills in one field, but low skills in another.
    • Some may have very little experience with peer-reviewed, scholarly writing.


Additional Resources

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