patch writing, plagiarism, and reading comprehension


I have a thick folder in my file cabinet labelled “PLAGIARISM.” Our college has an academic honesty policy that states all instructors must keep copies of plagiarized essays and report plagiarism to their dean so the dean can keep track of all instances of plagiarism in a database. The penalties for plagiarism are to escalate with each recurrence.

Plagiarism is a serious academic offense for very good reasons, but sometimes students do not fully understand what constitutes plagiarism. Sometimes they know it is wrong and do it anyway, but sometimes they don’t really understand that what they are doing is not OK.

I’ve been following with interest the research and writing of a few university instructors who are interested in what they term “patch writing.” They feel (and I agree) that what we often think of as plagiarism is more accurately considered “patch writing”–poorly done paraphrasing.

The most interesting part to me is the researchers’ assertion that the real root cause of patchwriting and what we currently often call plagiarism is a lack of adequate reading comprehension. Because students are not reading at a sufficiently sophisticated level, they are unable to make sense of the academic sources we ask them to read, and as a result of that, they are not up to the task of paraphrasing. Instead, they merely copy, because they do not understand the original source.

The Citation Project website details the authors’ work and has some links to their published articles. If you are interested in this topic, I highly recommend the articles “Sentence-Mining: Uncovering the Amount of Reading and Reading Comprehension in College Writers’ Researched Writing” by Sandra Jamieson and Rebecca Moore Howard, and “Writing from Sources, Writing from Sentences” by Rebecca Moore Howard, Tricia Serviss, and Tanya K. Rodrigue.

So how can we help students avoid patchwriting and plagiarism? I think the best thing I’ve done for my students is teach them how to read an academic source. Too often, we expect that students will just “know” how to parse an academic journal article. We need them to use the articles, but we can’t just expect they will understand how to read them without a little guidance. I really like Rob Weir’s article at Inside Higher Ed–“It’s Not Harry Potter”–about teaching students how to read academic journal articles:

Very little of what I tell students takes them aback as much as when I tell them that it’s a waste of time to read some journal articles verbatim. I encourage them to skim, jot down a few potentially useful ideas, and then move on. In fact, I often tell them to read journal articles with the goal of retaining about as much of it as they would of a book they liked a month after they finished it. I remind them again to peruse the article with their purpose for reading in mind. How much will they need to participate in a class discussion? If it’s for a paper, what will they use? If it’s not much more than a line such as “Rob Weir argues that…” all they need is to find that argument and assess whether I have good reasons for making it….

Students are startled to consider that it’s often easier to find the writer’s theoretical and analytical points than to scan content. Quite a few students skip the abstract and pay little attention to the introduction. These, of course, are precisely where most journal writers lay out their theses, outline their main arguments, and make whatever new claims they purport to prove. Tell students that these are the parts of a journal article they should read most carefully.

Perhaps some of you think it’s heresy for me to suggest that students approach research journals so cavalierly. Let me remind you of the importance of audience. I need to read journals carefully and so do you, but most undergraduates do not. Some of them are akin to apprentices learning to approach a new tool for the first time, so let’s not scare them off. Quite a few aren’t even that — they’re mercenaries fulfilling an assignment and it’s our job to bring them back safely. If, in the process, we decode the secret of journals and students consult them more regularly, we’ll be the beneficiaries of our own good deeds.

I do not teach undergraduates anymore; I teach students who are upgrading their high school English (usually) before entering first-year courses. However, I am still expected to teach them how to do research. And research involves reading academic journal articles. So I feel an especial responsibility to guide them through the waters of reading and comprehending academic writing.

Here is a flow chart I have made to help students read and comprehend academic sources. You are welcome to use it!

How to read a research source effectively and efficiently

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