Patchwriting


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We all know that plagiarism is wrong, and that in the academic world, it is akin to stealing. Document content that doesn’t belong to you is the proverbial rule of thumb professors offer. If you are not sure whether or not to cite something, cite it. The problem is that even content that is cited can be dangerously close to plagiarism, and it has a name: patchwriting.  

Patchwriting exists in two forms, one of which is better termed “patchwork paraphrasing” because it concerns what amounts to poor paraphrasing, a situation where the writer swaps out a few words and calls it good. Paraphrasing, when done well, is when someone else’s ideas are put into new language and original sentence structure. A good paraphrase contains the original’s idea, perhaps a key term or two, but that’s it. 

The other form of patchwriting concerns using too much content from sources. I’ve seen my fair share of papers in which paragraph after paragraph is comprised mostly of content from research, and in-text citations abound like bumper-to-bumper traffic. Because the content is cited, some believe that nothing could be wrong. However, even with appropriate in-text citations, a paper that is a patchwork of what others have written seems more like reporting than developing the paper-writer’s own ideas on a topic. The problem is even worse if most of the content is quoted. Patchwriting is not new, but it seems more and more common. Why is that?

Well, one theory is that learners are often scared to death of plagiarizing because the concept is often taught by way of one plagiarism horror story after another in which the sordid details of destroyed careers and academic expulsions are recounted with sensationalism fitting a tabloid. No wonder students put so many citations in their papers–they don’t want the finger of plagiarism pointing at them. 

Students, of course, need to be taught about plagiarism, but more importantly they need to be taught sound college-level research writing skills, which includes how to paraphrase effectively and how to cite appropriately. 

One sure-fire way to avoid patchwriting is to make sure that your voice is not only heard, but it is also dominant. In fact, a good rule of thumb is to make sure that 70-80% of your paper is your own thinking–that is, your ideas, your analysis, your commentary, your interpretation, indeed, your words–and 20-30% of the paper comes from sources in the form of summaries, paraphrases, and quotes. 

These percentages are approximations, of course, but they can serve as a good general guide to follow as you integrate content from research into a paper of your own. To be sure, the operative words in that last sentence are “a paper of your own,” because you need to be the author of your own paper and it is your voice that needs to be heard loud and clear on the page. One test you can conduct on your end is to look closely at a paragraph and highlight all the content that originates from a source. If the paragraph is mostly paraphrases and direct quotes, then about all you will see is highlighting, which is telling you that more work is needed. 

Many don’t consider patchwriting plagiarism because inexperienced writers don’t intend to plagiarize. At the same time, however, it’s hard to consider a paper in which the lion’s share of the content comes from sources as original work. Certainly, one challenge that many college students face when paraphrasing is that they don’t understand what they are reading because of the complexity of the ideas, the highly specialized language, or just plain slothfulness.

Whatever the cause, patchwriting is an issue that, to use the common vernacular, is trending, but perhaps with awareness and good research writing skills, we can change that.

Until next week–

Kurtis Clements

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