Monday, September 22, 2014


I'd like to write a few posts about "unintentional plagiarism", or what Rebecca Howard has called "patchwriting". My aim in raising this issue is to hear the views of my readers about it, so please don't hold back in the comments. Let me know what you think.

I've seen it come up in a few places, most recently in reading Diane Pecorari's Academic Writing and Plagiarism (Continuum, 2008). She cites Howard's Standing in the Shadow of Giants (Ablex, 1999) for her definition.

[Patchwriting is] copying from a source text and deleting some words, altering grammatical structures, or plugging in one synonym for another. (Howard 1999, p. xviii, quoted by Pecorari 2008, p. 5)

Now, the thing that concerns me—in fact, bothers me a little—is the emerging consensus among writing instructors,* at least those working with undergraduates and foreign graduate students, that patchwriting is "virtually inevitable as writers learn to produce texts within a new discourse community" (Pecorari, p. 5). They rightly think it should be corrected, and even punished (with lower grades), but they urge us not to conflate it with "prototypical plagiarism", by which they mean the use of a source without proper citation and with the intention to deceive. My view, which I think is shared by many others, is that a lot would be gained if the question of intention was simply ignored. The question should be a strictly factual one.

Consider the example Pecorari provides:

In a study of the course of the progress of second-language writer through a business course, [P. Currie] found that the student, Diana, worked diligently in the early weeks of the course to raise the level of her writing assignments, but was at real risk of not receiving the grade she needed to stay in her program. Eventually Diana hit upon the strategy of repeating words and phrases from her sources; in other words, she began to patchwrite. From then on her teacher's feedback was more positive. (Pecorari, p. 9)

The question I want to raise goes, in a sense, to the response of the teacher. By giving the student more positive feedback (and presumably a higher grade) for submitting work that demonstrates greater writing ability than the student actually possesses (Diana would not be able to write as well without relying on her sources) is she really doing the right thing?

Pecorari emphasizes that Diana did not consider what she was doing "cheating" and that patchwriting is hard work in a way that plagiarism is not. (She mentions buying an essay from someone else; presumably straight copy-paste plagiarism is just as "easy".) But it does not seem to me that these considerations in any way mitigate the problem that plagiarism actually represents. After all, Diana is going to great efforts to appear to be, at the very least, a better writer (in English) than she actually is, and probably also a better thinker and a more knowledgeable person. She is constructing an illusion of her academic competence.

I'm reminded of Kierkegaard's remark, inspired by Talleyrand, that people have language, not to conceal their thoughts from each other, but to conceal the fact that they don't have any thoughts. My worry is quite simply this: by not pushing back on patchwriting as severely as we do plagiarism in general we are training people to "fake it until they make it". In the realm of scholarship, this actually implies faking it even after you make it (i.e., tenure). It will leave writers alienated from their thoughts, having too long practiced reproducing a semblance of scholarly prose, rather than a representation of their own thinking in prose. Indeed, there's a growing suspicion, both inside and outside the academy, that much, perhaps most, scholarly rewriting** is an elaborate put-on. Perhaps this is because we have come to accept patchwriting as a developmental stage?

When I say we should push back on it as severely as plagiarism, I'm not saying there can't be questions of degree, or a space for clemency. What I am saying is that we should treat it, precisely, as fakery.* We should not grant that patchwriters work "without an intention to deceive". They're coming off as smarter and more articulate than they really are. Consider an analogy. A student at the conservatory playing a digital piano figures out (at great effort) how to program in certain difficult passages of the music she's practicing for an upcoming exam. During the examination she shifts back and forth between live and playback, not wholly seamlessly, but well enough that it sounds like she's just in the early stages of mastery. Would it not be more honest, and more teachable, for her to struggle through those difficult passages, rather than glossing over her incompetence by pre-programming them?

These are my initial thoughts. I'm looking forward to hearing what others think. I'll put some examples on the table this week.

*Update: I may be overdrawing my disagreement with patchwriting theorists. "Patchwriting is often a failed attempt at paraphrasing, Howard said. Rather than copying a statement word for word, the writer is rearranging phrases and changing tenses, but is relying too heavily on the vocabulary and syntax of the source material. It’s a form of intellectual dishonesty that indicates that the writer is not actually thinking for herself. ... At the very least, patchwriting is bad writing, she said." (Kelly McBride at These are all attitudes I would endorse. I guess my issue with the concept of patchwriting is that it gives plagiarists a word that's not as loaded for something that's just as bad. I think we should just call it plagiarism, because that is actually what it is.

**What a weird slip! I meant simply that people are suspecting that scholarly writing is more often than not pretending to be something it's not, not that its "rewriting" (whatever that might mean) is some kind of pretence.


Jonathan said...

There are two issues: plagiarizing ideas and plagiarizing sentences and paragraphs. Patchwriting consists of plagiarizing sentences and paragraphs with just enough changes to conceal the plagiarism. Legitimate paraphrase is summarizing ideas, quoting actual words in quotations marks where appropriate, and citing the source. The argument here is that patch writing might be a first step in learning to paraphrase. You simply start taking out words and putting your own in. I don't really buy that argument because the first step in paraphrasing is saying it in your own words.

Andrew Gelman said...


I'm confused by your statement that you don't want to focus on intent. Isn't intent crucial here? It seems so to me, given that you talk about "fakery."

Let me put it another way. Suppose that student, in her assignment wrote, "Smith (1958) put it well when she wrote that 'the time is now' to 'throw off the yoke of an excessive tax burden'--that is, to repeal the Law of 1953 . . ."

That is, if patchwriting is a useful tool (or if it is going to exist anyway, given the easy of copy-and-paste), why not bring it inside the tent, as it were? Indeed, instructors could even require patchwriting, which could be a good way to flush out the sources, more effective than requiring a reference list.

This may make no sense at all. But, hey, you asked for comments!

Thomas said...

@Jonathan: The mistake that patchwriting theorists make, I think, is to sympathise with the "problem" of representing a source, i.e., another text, rather than the problem of representing an idea, whether one you attribute to the source or your ideas about the source. Even paraphrase has to be (when it is done right) the act of representing your understanding of the source, not, as it were, what you see when you look at the words on the page. The thing that's missing here is an insistence on not thinking that the "problem" is just the relationship between one physical object and another (the two texts). The real problem is "imaginary", and not in the pejorative sense.

@Andrew: Interestingly, I'm going to say almost exactly the opposite of what I just said to Jonathan. The issue is not intent but the relationship between the two physical objects. When we say one text is a plagiary of another we mean that they're too physically similar to be explained, not by chance (because the two texts are and should be intentionally brought together), but by imagination. That is, if text A really represents what the author of text A imagined text B to mean then it could not be put in words so similar. I don't think we should ever encourage patchwriting; we should always demand that students say what they mean. The art they are supposed to learn is the art of writing down their justified, true beliefs—not the art of producing one text out of another.

Thomas said...

(I'm grateful for the comments)

Presskorn said...

Against the proponents of patchwriting I would say: It is quite unclear exactly what the student is supposed to learn from patchwriting. The pragmatic position concerning patchwriting is thus undermined even by the lights of its own pragmatism.

The students might learn some of the same things that could be learned from, say, Graff & Birkenstein, i.e. templates of argumentative structures. But while Graff & Birkenstein's templates are (what a logician would) "open sentences" with random Xs and Ys filling in the content, patchwriting would treats some of these Xs and Ys as given non-variables. Nevertheless, some of same skills might be learned from such exercises. But in that case, the students should just be given Graff & Birkenstein exercises - not because it would be harder or more honest (pragmatism in this sense wouldn’t really care about such things anyway), but because that would be where the real learning was.

Of course, the gains might also be thought as “emotional” in the sense that it increases student confidence etc. But again I have a hard time seeing that upside. I might have a too crude theory of emotion, but: Exactly how would my self-confidence be increased by, knowingly, passing parts of others people’s texts off as my own? In my experience, this sort of practice in fact fosters lack of self-confidence.

((But, of course, it is all a matter of degree. If we define patchwriting sufficiently loose (i.e. sufficiently “postmodern”), then ALL texts are patchwriting.))

Thomas said...

@Presskorn: I agree. Pecorari wants us to "distinguish between patchwriting and deceptive plagiarism ... one writer sets out to deceive, the other does not." But as I've been trying to say, the patchwriter does try to deceive us about he writing skills and vocabulary. She pretends to know the meaning and use of words she does not understand. Such pretense cannot be a recommended pedagogical strategy.

I'll have a reading of Howard's seminal paper (linked in the post) soon.

Jonathan said...

Sometimes I think it is deceptive even to use a quote you don't understand. Imagine I use a block quote, "as x claims," and then quote a dense paragraph I don't grasp. Does my using it imply that I understand it, at least on some level relevant to my argument?

Thomas said...

In that case, at least, the issue is right there on the surface of the page. It's obvious to the reader that you could have produced your text without understanding your source. Block quoting a difficult idea is much easier than paraphrasing it.

In one sense, yes, you are implicitly claiming to understand the source, but in the case of patchwriting you are claiming to written the words themselves. It's only when we compare your text to the source (as in the case of Frank Fischer) that we realise that you may as well have been block quoting every other paragraph.

Andrew Gelman said...


I have more on the topic in a future blog post but for now let me just say that (a) yes, blockquoting is easier than paraphrasing, and (b) not coincidentally, blocquoting is, in my opinion, often better than paraphrasing. In my blog I blockquote a lot. Sometimes when blog entries are turned into magazine or journal articles, the editors push me to paraphrase. The resulting paraphrases are often awkward and leave attributions much less clear. Of course when I blockquote I acknowledge it (I may be a political scientist but I'm no Frank Fischer; I may be a statistician but I'm no Ed Wegman). I think acknowledged blockquotes are great, and I could well imagine that teaching patchwriting (with full acknowledgments) as a first step toward writing-on-one's-own could make a lot of sense.

Thomas said...

Blockquoting is a good idea when you want to react to something someone else has written. You quote the passage and then write as much or more in your own words about the quote. A lot the quotes on your blog play this role. (Many of the other longer quotes are essentially "guest posts" by people who email you, where the rest of the post is you essentially writing the first comment to the guest post.

There are a few instances (can't think of one off-hand) where I would have preferred you to paraphrase because I really wanted to read what you think happened, not just what someone else wrote (which I may even already have read in the original setting, or easily could, and probably will.) Even where you (and I) trust the source, it can be useful to have someone's else's reading to check one's own interpretation against. The block quote sheds no new light on what the source might have meant.

Frank Fischer's books would have gotten no praise if he had replaced his plagiarisms with honest block quotations. They would just seem unfinished or inexpert. (In that sense the "sloppiness" argument is bullshit.) Just as Stapel would not have been published if he had just honestly said that he made up his data. Just as Weick's Alps story would not have had the same impact as a properly cited poem.

In each case the real contribution required them to do work (interpreting Foucault, collecting data, tracking down the basis of the story) they found a way to avoid doing. To simply be open about having taken "the easy way" doesn't cut it, to my mind.

Andrew Gelman said...

OK, one more thing. I read the post more carefully and I agree that "patchwriting," as defined, is indeed just a variety of plagiarism. In my first read, I'd taken patchwriting to mean something different, more of a mix of quotation and writing but with full sourcing, which I do think could be useful. I will elaborate on blog (post scheduled for early Nov). It's funny how I reacted so strongly without clearly reading what I reacted to. People do that to me all the time so it's funny to see myself doing it.