Is It Plagiarism or Patchwriting? Toward a Nuanced Definition

  • Sandra JamiesonEmail author
Living reference work entry


Prior to the 1970s, student writers were advised to incorporate the ideas of the authors they read in one of two ways: summary or quotation. With increasing instruction in paraphrase as an acceptable method of reproducing the ideas of others came the recognition that sometimes when students produce something that looks like paraphrase, they are actually drawing too heavily on the words of the source rather than rendering the ideas in “original language.” The resulting text has been called patchwriting, cryptomnesia, unconscious plagiarism, and non-prototypical plagiarism, along with various subcategories including clause quilt, copy and paste, word string, pawn sacrifice, and cut and slide plagiarism. The term most commonly used in the USA is patchwriting, although the definition of that term is not fixed and neither is the classification of patchwriting as plagiarism. Some teachers and scholars argue that when patchwriting is accompanied by some form of citation, it should not be classified as plagiarism or as ethical or moral misconduct, but rather as misuse of sources. In some cases that distinction hangs on the concept of intent, which for many is connected with the question of the reading and writing skills of the students in question. Recent research into reading and citation has complicated beliefs about the role of textual difficulty and about student reading practices and source use, suggesting the need for more complex analysis and more nuanced terminology. This chapter describes the distinctions scholars have drawn between plagiarism and the misuse of sources most commonly referred to as patchwriting.


Source Text Academic Dishonesty Quotation Mark Pedagogical Response Community College Student 
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For most of the history of US writing instruction, student writers were advised to incorporate the ideas of the authors they read in one of two ways: summary or quotation. In the 1970s, instruction in paraphrase as an acceptable method of reproducing the ideas of others became more common, and following that came the recognition that sometimes when students produce something that looks like paraphrase, they are actually drawing too heavily on the words of the source rather than rendering the ideas in “original language.” The resulting text has been given many different names, although the most common term, especially in the USA, is that first used by Rebecca Moore Howard (1993): patchwriting. As scholarly understanding of the ways students engage with sources has developed since then, others have introduced their own terms and even subcategories. That an easily recognizable misuse of source material needs multiple definitions reflects the complex and evolving relationship scholars and the public have to source-based writing and to the concept of originality. It also reflects a number of binaries that have developed around this kind of source use and that are encoded in the definitions and the attitudes that underlie them.

While the binary of originality versus borrowing has a long history, with the latter scorned when excessive, the shift from identifying excessive borrowing as a textual crime by writers lacking originality to identifying it as a crime of authorship has in turn shifted focus to morals, engagement, and work ethic. When it is considered a textual issue, the proposed response has tended to be pedagogical, as was Howard’s (1993); however, once attention is moved to the writer – generally a student, but more recently scholars, politicians, and public figures – the response began focusing on catching and penalizing the patchwriter, generally with a charge of plagiarism. This leads attention to a third issue, intentionality. Patchwriting deemed “unintentional” frequently receives reduced penalty, or none at all; patchwriting judged to be an intentional attempt to deceive receives penalties developed for more obvious plagiarism. In the USA, the Council of Writing Program Administrators (WPA) places patchwriting accompanied by some form of citation into the former category, judging it not as ethical or moral misconduct, but rather as a misuse of sources (Council of Writing Program Administrators 2003). For many teachers and scholars, this issue of intent is connected to questions about students’ reading and writing skills; those unable to fully understand a text are unlikely to be able to render its content in their own words. Recent research into reading and citation has complicated beliefs about the role of textual difficulty and about student reading practices and source use (Horning 2010; Jamieson 2015; Jamieson and Howard 2013), suggesting the need for more complex analysis and more nuanced terminology not simply describing kinds of patchwriting but also degrees. In order to understand patchwriting and settle on a terminology and appropriate responses, it is necessary to tease out the various binaries embedded in the classifications and the agenda and attitudes about text and authorship they reveal.

Evolving Definitions of Textual Borrowing

While plagiarism and copyright violations have a long history, that of patchwriting is shorter and it is linked to the concept of paraphrase. Summary takes an extended passage of text and reduces it to key features or gist; paraphrase tends to work with a few sentences, which the writer puts into his or her own words to clarify a complex idea or incorporate information using specific terminology or details from the source. In some disciplines, paraphrase is unusual; in others it plays a significant role in the reproduction of textual ideas and information (Jamieson 2008). An understanding of the evolution of paraphrase enables an understanding of the coevolution of the term patchwriting, which many describe as failed paraphrase (Jamieson and Howard 2011; Jamieson 2013). One way to begin this understanding is to look at the ways student writers are taught to engage with source material.

In the third edition of the Writer’s Guide and Index to English (1959), Perrin and Dykema introduce students to the research report, guiding them through topic selection and focusing, source selection and evaluation, note-taking and creating notecards, drafting, and constructing bibliographies. Yet they only discuss two methods of reproducing source information: quotation and summary. The fourth edition, published in 1964 (with Wilma Ebbitt added to the list of authors), articulates the difference as “in quotation, use an author’s exact words and enclose them in quotation marks; in summarizing, do not use his own words” (1964, p. 431). Neither edition mentions paraphrase. Both editions instruct students to summarize material from sources onto notecards, and both include model summaries. This practice is seen in other texts of the period. The second edition of McCrimmon’s Writing with a Purpose (1957), for example, provides similar instructions about the creation of notecards, and offers summary and synopsis (“for novels, play, and stories”) along with quotation as appropriate methods of reproducing the author’s ideas, warning students to quote all copied words to avoid “unintentional plagiarism” (p. 293).

Terminology was not uniform, however, even if the instructions were. In the first edition of Rhetoric for Exposition (1961), Chittick and Stevick identify two forms of what they term summary: the “reduced quotation” (a quotation that includes ellipses) and the “paraphrase” (p. 205). They offer a model of each, but the model identified as paraphrase would be termed a summary today. In contrast, the fact that the model text Perrin and Dykema identify as a summary (Fig. 1) is roughly the same length as the passage in the source and remains close to its structure would lead most current readers to classify it as a paraphrase. In fact, though, in a more extreme definitional change, most readers since the turn of this century would classify this particular example as patchwriting at best and plagiarism at worst. At first there appears to be substantial refocusing. The original is two sentences and begins with “Louisiana,” while the reproduction is one sentence and begins with “Each year,” with the first sentence of the original moved to a parenthetical clause and the original text picked up after “annually” in line four. In addition to the revision of “annually” to “each year,” “leads the nation” becomes “national leader,” “collects [fees]” becomes “fees charged,” and “business” becomes “industry.” However, in spite of the warning not to use the author’s “own words” in a summary, of the 30 words and numbers in the sample source text, 18 words and two numbers are copied directly into the model summary.
Fig. 1

Sample summary from 1959 edition of Writer’s Guide and Index to English with copied words highlighted and substitution underscored

The 1965 edition includes a revised 27-word summary, with 19 copied words and two numbers and the same structure as the original (Fig. 2). While it could stand as an effective revision of the original text, it does not meet the definition of summary offered by the book or by today’s handbooks. That Perrin, Dykema, and Ebbitt did not find either of these sample “summaries” problematic points to a very different relationship to source use in the USA in the 1950s and 1960s. The fact that two of the texts do not even mention paraphrase and the one that does provides a very different definition than the one used today points to a fairly short history of paraphrase as a taught source integration method and an even shorter history of the form of cited patchwriting that appears to be an attempt at paraphrase.
Fig. 2

Sample summary from 1964 edition of Writer’s Guide and Index to English with copied words highlighted and substitution underscored

The Rise of Paraphrase

The apparent confusion about what constitutes appropriate textual borrowing and citation continued even after texts began discussing paraphrase in a way that seems more familiar to contemporary readers. Those definitions, and indeed the understanding of what was acceptable, had to be gleaned from discussions of what was not acceptable. For example, Berke’s Twenty Questions for the Writer (1972) exhorts students to avoid the “ugly practice” of plagiarism and, after a discussion of why authors must receive credit for their ideas, offers the following [italics in the original]: “another subtle and often unwitting form of plagiarism involves slightly changing someone else’s statement (substituting a different word here and there, shifting phrases, inverting clauses) and then presenting the passage as one’s own.” This, Berke asserts, is “not permissible.” Why? Because “a paraphrase in your own language and style still deserves to be credited.” The problem, in other words, occurs when one fails to provide a citation, not when one reproduces ideas in a source by “substituting a different word here and there, shifting phrases, inverting clauses” (p. 383). A student trying to gain a sense of how to paraphrase from this passage would assume that the substitutions and inversions are what define paraphrase. Twenty years later that same description is used to define patchwriting.

Berke expresses the accepted definition of her time; the final authority on such matters for US writing teachers, the Modern Language Association, concurred. The 1977 MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations (Gibaldi and Achtert 1977) contains an explanation and model that are as much at odds as they were in Perrin (Fig. 3).
Fig. 3

Example of undocumented plagiarism in MLA Handbook, 1977. P4–5. Copied words highlighted and substitution underscored

Of the 30 words in the sample reproduction, 19 are directly copied from the source, with three reversals (“the seasons and nature” becomes “nature and the seasons”) and four substitutions (“types and stages” replaces “kinds and phases” and “a” and “the” are interchanged). The problem with this passage according to the explanation above the sample, though, is that it is “given without documentation” (p. 4). As with Berke, the explanation does not indicate that there is any other problem with the example aside from its lack of documentation. The section preceding this example offers the standard advice about note-taking, including “you may paraphrase or summarize ideas when the original wording is not of prime importance” and reminding students to “distinguish between verbatim quotation and paraphrase” (p. 4) although it does not define paraphrase. One must assume, therefore, that the lack of quotation marks in the reproduction marks it as a paraphrase by MLA’s 1977 standards and that it would be acceptable if documented correctly.

Patchwriting as Failed Paraphrase

The texts discussed all warn student to avoid unintentional plagiarism by failing to include page references; however, the culture of the time was shifting from an emphasis on the text and avoidance of accidental plagiarism to a concern about cheating and intentional dishonesty. By the 1990s attention had shifted completely from text to author, and discussions of what constituted cheating and plagiarism focused not on accidental citation errors but on deliberate intention to deceive or other personality flaws of the student. This shift in focus began in the mid-1960s when psychology journals show increased interest in academic dishonesty and attempt to understand cheating behavior (see, e.g., Fakouri 1972; Hetherington and Feldman 1964; Knowlton and Hamerlynck 1967; Sherrill et al. 1971; White et al. 1967). Although the findings were far from universal, with as few as 24 participants in one study, by 1976 “dishonesty” was being presented as an epidemic by Time magazine (1976, Cheating in College). With apparent evidence that cheating arises from a flaw in the student, it is not surprising that patchwriting would be perceived similarly and the “gotcha” mentality of current plagiarism discussions undoubtedly has similar roots.

The concern with cheating continued through the 1970s and 1980s, and as it did, definitions of appropriate source use also tightened. By 1986 cheating was described as “endemic to education” in secondary schools and colleges (Haines et al. 1986). While many of the studies in question focused on data from a single institution and many included a disproportionate number of students from particular majors, what is most significant is the narrowness with which they define academic dishonesty, “ranging from the sophisticated distribution of term papers through so-called paper mills, to devising ways of carrying information into the classroom, to the not-so-sophisticated means of looking at someone else’s paper during an exam” (Haines et al. 1986, p. 342). Howard traces the parallel development of the definition of plagiarism as a form of cheating (1999) in which obvious cheating and the copying of short word strings exist on the same continuum. She cites Elizabeth Nuss’ 1984 list of “fourteen forms of academic dishonesty” of which one was “copying a few sentences without footnoting in a paper” (Nuss 1984, pp. 140–141, cited in Howard 1999, p. 21). She also notes the use of the term “‘quasi’ paraphrasing,” a form of indirect plagiarism (1999, p. 22).

Meanwhile, handbooks were beginning to incorporate paraphrase and with it warnings about the importance of using one’s own words. For example, in The Macmillan College Handbook (1987), Gerald Levin echoes Nuss when he notes that “some plagiarism is unintentional, arising from carelessness in note taking. In paraphrasing a passage from a source, the researcher may carry clauses and whole sentences into the rendering without quotation marks,” offering an example of this kind of plagiarism that is an uncited string of 17 consecutive copied words (1987, pp. 568–569). The third edition of Diana Hacker’s Bedford Handbook for Writers (1991) defines plagiarism as “(1) borrowing someone’s ideas, information, or language without documenting the source and (2) documenting the source but paraphrasing the source’s language too closely, without using quotation marks to indicate that words and phrases have been borrowed” (1991, p. 507). This definition sets out the distinction clearly, including what we now call patchwriting under the category of plagiarism by specifying that one should not paraphrase “the source’s language too closely” even when the source is documented (Hacker 1991, p. 507).

Miguel Roig and Jaclyn de Jacquant’s (2001) analysis of writing manuals from a variety of disciplines found that in spite of other disciplinary differences, by the end of the twentieth century, many included not just guidelines for how to paraphrase correctly but also, specifically, for how to do so without plagiarizing. Students were being advised that “to avoid plagiarism when paraphrasing, not only should the original words be changed, but also the sentence structure of the newly paraphrased text must be different from that of the original” (2001, p. 281). Inclusion of this definition in plagiarism policies has become standard in the USA, but as research into student source use expanded, questions about appropriate response continue.

Rethinking the Question of Intentionality

In the 1970s and 1980s, as social scientists were studying what led students to cheat and how faculty might respond, many in Writing Studies had begun to research the writing strategies and process of “nontraditional” or “underprepared” students. As with the study of cheating, the shift moved from a concern about text (originality, quality) to author, from Mina Shaughnessy’s study of error focused on the texts produced by “basic writers” (1977) to students who, Kantz reports, found it “easier to quote than to paraphrase” (1990, p. 75), suggesting that students would benefit from a focus on the teaching of reading (see Jamieson 2013).

The increasing understanding of student writers led many writing scholars to disagree with Hacker’s (1991) definition and return to McCrimmon’s (1957) classification of failed paraphrase as “unintentional plagiarism .” In this case, though, the explanation was not that the student forgot to include a page reference but that the student was unable to render the ideas in a text in his or her own words. And so began the debate about whether patchwriting should be classified as plagiarism at all and how teachers and administrators should respond. That debate was finally resolved for many in the USA by the Council of Writing Program Administrators (WPA) in 2003. Prior to that, at first the debate focused on intentionality (Hull and Rose 1989; Howard 1993, 1995, 1999; Pecorari 2001, 2003; Roig 1997, 1999, 2001), but with increased research the issue of intent seems too many (Howard 1999; Howard and Jamieson 2013; Howard et al. 2010; Jamieson 2013, 2015) to distract from the question of appropriate pedagogical response. Before being able to consider appropriate response, though, scholars had to classify what they were seeing and so developed a series of names for the phenomenon mostly commonly known as patchwriting.

A Bizarre Word Salad

The source use that Nuss named academic dishonesty in 1984 (pp. 140–141, cited in Howard 1999, p. 21) and that Levin (1987) named unintentional plagiarism (pp. 568–569) was also being traced in research, most notably Hull and Rose’s case study of a community college student they identify as Tanya (1989). The larger study involved videotaping and interviewing underprepared writers enrolled at a community college, a state college, and a university and then reading their source-based writing through the lens of the interviews (1989, p. 139). Considering the interviews and the text led them to a description of source misuse as an unintentional act that, they argued, should not be classified as cheating. Tanya identified herself as “not the kind of student that would copy” (1989, p. 147), yet as she worked to summarize an article, Hull and Rose observed her reproducing “sentences and parts of sentences.” But Tanya was rearranging them into a summary that was really “bits and pieces drawn from disparate parts of the original text,” as shown in Fig. 4, which they describe as a “patchwork approach to writing a summary” (p. 147).
Fig. 4

Hull and Rose’s example of the “bizarre word salad” produced by Tanya (From “Rethinking Remediation,” 1989, p. 147. Copied words highlighted)

Hull and Rose conclude that perhaps the “bizarre word salad” Tanya produced, “littered with many errors,” was in fact “something profoundly literate” in the effort it reveals to establish membership in the academic community by means of appropriating the language of those who are already members (p. 151). They proposed that just as new and especially underprepared students need to “try on” the language of the academy they write for so a “free-wheeling pedagogy of imitation” (p. 151) might help students like Tanya learn to use sources more effectively. Unfortunately, as they prepared the way for a full definition of patchwriting, they also associated it with weak writing skills and underprepared students, a stigma it has not yet shaken, leading to an often unstated belief that when strong writers patchwrite they do so intentionally (Jamieson 2015).


In 1986, 3 years before Hull and Rose published their description of Tanya’s “bizarre word salad,” Rebecca Moore Howard discovered what she initially identified as plagiarism in papers produced by one third of the students in a general education class at a “prestigious liberal arts college”(Howard 1999, p. xvii). She describes texts in which her students “borrowed” sentences and phrases and “patched” them together to create their own sentences “deleting what they consider irrelevant words and phrases…[changing] grammar and syntax, and substituting synonyms straight from Roget’s” (Howard 1993, p. 235). From this experience came the term patchwriting, which she defined as “copying from a source text and then deleting some words, altering grammatical structures, or plugging in one-for-one synonym substitutes” (1993, p. 233), redefined slightly 6 years later to read “copying from a source text and then deleting some words, altering grammatical structures, or plugging in one synonym for another” (Howard 1999, p. xvii). Note the focus on what the student does to the source while integrating it into his or her text, not on that text itself. Like Hull and Rose, Howard argues that such actions, while intentional in themselves, are not intentional plagiarism, observing that two of the students continued to patchwrite even after she pointed out the problem and asked them to revise the paper (Howard 1999, p. xviii). Howard provides several examples of patchwriting in her initial article (1993) and her book (1999); some of the patchwriting was cited and some not. One such example appears in Fig. 5.
Fig. 5

Howard’s example of patchwriting by student 3 (From “A Plagiarism Pentimento” 1989, p. 234. Copied text highlighted)

Unlike Hull and Rose’s students, Howard’s were not underprepared, and their misuse of sources might not have been so apparent if she had not been familiar with the source text. They knew she was familiar with that reading, suggesting that their misuse of the source, like that of Tanya, was not the result of an intention to deceive – a point that Howard stresses as she argues for a pedagogical response to this kind of writing. Although her examples of patchwriting closely resemble those offered as model summaries in writers’ handbooks from the 1950s and 1960s, by the time Howard’s students were writing in 1986, even cited cases of patchwriting were classified as plagiarism.

Cryptomnesia and Unconscious Plagiarism

While Howard was exploring her students’ use of sources, psychologists were studying a phenomenon in which texts ranging from song lyrics to the solution to problems are reproduced as if original without the person remembering previous exposure to them. Brown and Murphy (1989) term this “unconscious plagiarism or cryptomnesia” and distinguish it from source amnesia in which subjects remember information but not where they learned it. In cryptomnesia, they do not recall encountering the information previously (1989, p. 432). Miguel Roig (1997) focused on cryptomnesia and the use of single sources in student papers. In one study he asked students at two different institutions to identify which of the ten samples would be classified as plagiarism and found that a majority thought that copied material described as being like that provided in Figs. 15 in this chapter would be acceptable if cited. From this he concluded that “a large number of students may be committing inadvertent plagiarism,” predicting that “a situation is likely to arise where a relatively simple matter of academic dishonesty may translate into a more serious case of scientific misconduct” (1997, p. 121).

Roig (1999) next asked 215 college students enrolled in introductory courses in three disciplines at two private colleges to write a one-paragraph paraphrase of a two-sentence extract as if they were going to use the paraphrase in a college paper (1999, p. 975) and coded their texts for two forms of cryptomnesia: directly copied strings of four to eight words, and any combination of substitution, deletion, and manipulation in a sentence (both features that had been termed patchwriting by Howard). He found that 46 % of the paragraphs stuck too close to the source, reproducing “most or all of a sentence from the original paragraph with…[either] no revisions [or] minor revisions [such as]…one- or two-word substitutions in a sentence, and the addition or omission of up to two words” (1999, p. 976). When he also counted strings of five or more words, the number of participants who “plagiarized to some degree” increased to 68 % (1999, p. 978). These numbers suggest that inadvertent plagiarism extends far beyond the unprepared students Hull and Rose studied and the small sample at one institution encountered by Howard.

In a further study, Roig (2001) identified the writing he found as a subset of paraphrase “in which students correctly attribute their written material to the original author, but their writing is too close to the original…often reveal[ing] only minor modifications, such as some word substitutions, deletions, or both, or superficial structural changes, such as a rearrangement of subject and predicate” (2001, pp. 308–309). Writing in 2001 he notes that like the writing manuals he consulted, his own discipline failed to offer an agreed-upon definition of paraphrase, with the APA Publication Manual of 1994 differing from the “Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct” (APA 1992). The former identified paraphrase as “Summarizing a passage or rearranging the order of a sentence and changing some of the words” (APA 1992, p. 292, qtd. in Roig 2001, p. 320), while in the latter, “Principle 6.22 states, ‘Psychologists do not present substantial [italics added] [sic] portions or elements of another’s work or data as their own, even if the other work or data source is cited occasionally’ (APA 1992, p. 1609),” without defining “substantial” or “occasionally” (Roig 2001, pp. 320–321). He therefore based his coding categories on the most common definition he could find in college writing handbooks, which involved counts of word strings with reproduction of more than three consecutive words requiring quotation marks (2001, p. 309), which he notes is more in line with the plagiarism policies he studied (p. 321).

Non-prototypical Plagiarism in L2 Writers

Roig’s work highlights both the extent of patchwriting in the USA and the lack of agreement around the evolving definition of acceptable source use during the 1990s. Both as a result of this ambiguity, and in the context of the deeper analysis of cryptomnesia and unconscious plagiarism, he established an explanation for the lack of intentionality Howard (1993), and Hull and Rose (1989) claimed. This research also extended to second-language (L2) research in many nations, some drawing on US research and others on independent classification of non-prototypical plagiarism.

In 2003 Diane Pecorari reported on a study of 17 second-language postgraduate students in Sweden in which she both interviewed students and applied Howard’s definition to their texts, focusing on both text and author as had Hull and Rose (1989). Her conclusion: “The student writing was found to contain textual features which could be described as plagiarism, but the writers’ accounts of their work and the textual analysis strongly suggest absence of intention to plagiarize” (Pecorari 2003, p. 317). Pecorari cites second-language scholars who report a similar form of “unintentional, non-prototypical plagiarism” (2003, p. 318) in second-language (L2) writers from a range of national backgrounds and argues that attempts to classify this kind of writing as a form of plagiarism arising from cultural difference (a) are anecdotal and (b) fail to take into account examples such as those presented by Hull and Rose (1989) whose students had been raised in the USA. Instead, she adopts Howard’s argument that “Patchwriting, is an essential phase through which writers pass en route to a stage at which their own voices can emerge. As a developmental stage, rather than a form of deliberate deception” adding that “by focusing on the procedural, rather than the declarative knowledge required to use sources correctly, patchwriting explains students who have been warned about plagiarism but still misuse sources. Learning a skill is rarely a straight line from input to mastery. The novice academic writer must crawl before being able to walk” (2003, p. 320).

Misuse of Sources

Pecorari, therefore, joined Hull and Rose, Howard, and Roig in asserting that cited patchwriting is not intentional deception and echoed their call for a pedagogical response. The Council of Writing Program Administrators (WPA) agreed and in 2003 issued a best practices document, “Defining and Avoiding Plagiarism: The WPA Statement on Best Practices,” which states under the heading “What is Plagiarism?” that

Most current discussions of plagiarism fail to distinguish between:
  1. 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. 2.

    carelessly or inadequately citing ideas and words borrowed from another source.


Such discussions conflate plagiarism with the misuse of sources. (2003, p. 1)

In this definition, WPA clearly marks the “bizarre word salad” identified as patchwriting, cryptomnesia, unconscious plagiarism, and non-prototypical plagiarism as misuse of sources and not plagiarism.

Refocusing on the Text: Citation Project Research

While plagiarism detection services are quick to offer numbers of students who cheat and the language of the crisis permeates anecdotal reports of patchwriting and misuse of sources, until recently there was no data that reliably reported the frequency of patchwriting in naturalistically produced college papers in the USA. In 2010 Howard, Serviss, and Rodrigue published the results of a pilot study of student patchwriting on a single campus, which found that all of the students patchwrote at least once using Howard’s 1999 definition of patchwriting. That study was expanded to the Citation Project, which collected 800 pages of naturalistically produced researched writing by 174 first-year students at 16 institutions ranging from community colleges to research-heavy institutions (Jamieson and Howard 2011, 2013). Neither study gathered demographic information about the students nor pedagogical information about the classes in which they were enrolled: the focus was on the text produced by the students and the ways it incorporated source material. The definition of patchwriting employed in the Citation Project research echoed the shift from author to text, identifying patchwritten text as passages “partially restating a phrase, clause, or one or more sentences while staying close to the language or syntax of the source,” and by that definition, 91 of the 174 extracts studied included at least one instance of patchwriting in pages 2–6 (2013). If that number incorporated both of Roig’s definitions of patchwriting (1999; 2001) and included students who copied strings of eight or more words, the number of papers including patchwritten text rises to 98 of 174 (Jamieson 2015).

Jamieson and Howard observe that they “have come to think of patchwriting as an unsuccessful attempt at paraphrase, [noting that] in the papers they analyzed, students often toggle back and forth between paraphrase and patchwriting” (Jamieson and Howard 2011, n.p.). They found that 135 (77.6 %) of the coded extracts also included at least one incidence of paraphrase and 71 (40.8 %) include summary (2013, p. 123). The co-occurrence of paraphrase, summary, quotation, and patchwriting in these extracts, they note, suggests students who are able to incorporate sources correctly some of the time, but not all of the time. The textual evidence, they conclude, suggests that the student writers “were not writing well from their sources, but not that they were attempting to claim authorship of passages they did not themselves compose,” noting that “the difference between unsuccessful writing from sources and academic dishonesty is an important one” (2013, p. 126). Together and separately, Howard and Jamieson repeat Howard’s call for a pedagogical response, most notably in a chapter in A Guide to Composition Pedagogies (2013). Their research reflects a growing sense among writing teachers that patchwriting is not intentional, not plagiarism, and not effectively dealt with through punishment (Howard and Jamieson 2013). They join earlier handbook authors (McCrimmon 1957; Perrin and Dykema 1959; Chittick and Stevick 1961; Berke 1972) in a belief that the focus should be on the production of texts that accurately represent reading material rather than on punishing those who fail, a sentiment echoed by the WPA (2003), and scholars of reading and basic writing (Shaughnessy 1977; Kennedy 1985; Kantz 1990).

Patchwriting as Plagiarism

Not all scholars share the belief that patchwriting is part of the writing process and reflects failed writing rather than failed morality, and this lack of agreement coupled with the complexity of source engagement and the challenges of disciplinary difference means that there is still not one, uniformly accepted definition. In their analysis of writing manuals from a variety of disciplines, Roig and de Jacquant (2001) report that they did not find uniform agreement about just when a paraphrased text remains inappropriately close to the original, with the result that “the ‘light’ paraphrasing of others’ text, an innocuous writing practice to some, can have serious consequences and possibly result in disciplinary actions by the individual institutions and/or the academic disciplines involved” (p. 282). Writing of plagiarism in Europe, and particularly Germany, Debora Weber-Wulff (2014) takes up a similar concern, asserting that “if one wants plagiarism and academic misconduct to be addressed fairly and consistently there must be good definitions available that are more or less universally agreed upon” (2014, p. 3). Like Roig and de Jacquant (2001), she finds such definitions lacking and calls for a single definition; however, one that is more like Hacker’s (1991) definition of source use that is entirely focused on the writer. Debora Weber-Wulff (2014) considers all misuse of sources to be intentional – including patchwriting – and in need of penalty.

In her 2014 book, Weber-Wulff offers a summary of an “extended typography” of plagiarism proposed earlier by Weber-Wulff and Wohensdorf (2006) and discusses specific cases in Germany and attempts across Europe to document and penalize plagiarism as she defines it. Speaking of what she terms disguised plagiarism, she notes: “simply changing words around or inserting or deleting a phrase…does not result in original work, but an edited work, and thus it is still plagiarism” (2014, p. 8). She lists the following taxonomy of plagiarism identified in various European countries, most notably Germany, by herself or other scholars, describing all of them as intentional: copy and paste , [uncited] translation, disguised plagiarism (where words are substituted, deleted, or rearranged), shake and paste collections (an assemblage of copied phrases from a variety of sources “in no particular logical order” p. 9), clause quilts (which she describes as “a variation of paraphrasing plagiarism that has been called patchwriting by Rebecca Moore Howard,” p. 9), structural plagiarism (in which the structure, argument, sources, notes, “experimental setup, or even the research goal” is copied without attribution, p. 10), pawn sacrifice (where part of the text, such as a direct quotation, is cited, but the writer does not make it clear that the citation extends to larger paraphrased or summarized sections of the text), and cut and slide (similar to “pawn sacrifice” but reproducing one part of the source text in a fully cited footnote while incorporating other material into the text without additional citation). Her focus is not on appropriate pedagogies but effective strategies to catch such transgressions.

While Pecorari (2001, 2003, 2008) and many other European second-language scholars reject the definition of patchwriting as plagiarism, Weber-Wulff’s work highlights a rising trend in Europe and in the USA to render patchwriting (as plagiarism) a gatekeeper to completion of higher education and indeed in Germany, in particular, to higher office and public prominence. The existence of software programs designed to catch the kinds of patchwriting Weber-Wulff describes, including the VroniPlag Wiki (with which Weber-Wulff is directly associated) and other crowd-sourced endeavors on the one hand and commercial plagiarism detection software such as Turnitin on the other, indicates that the question of intentionality and the valorization of originality still influence the way many think about source use and the academic conversation. The rise of commercially produced and highly lucrative plagiarism detection services that focus on the author, discuss texts in terms of “originality,” and define patchwriting as intentional cheating will probably ensure that such attitudes remain and spread. The use of such software in US high schools and colleges, and as documented by Weber-Wulff (2014) in the majority of UK colleges and universities along with an increasing number across Europe (pp. 71–108), suggests that the debate about whether patchwriting is plagiarism will continue, even though the majority of Writing Studies scholars consider it to be simple misuse of sources calling for a purely pedagogical response.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Drew UniversityMadisonUSA

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