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 Poynter.org) 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.