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What Is Plagiarism?

The term “plagiarism” is often used to refer to a fairly narrow set of activities, which can be captured in any rudimentary dictionary definition. However, the process of engaging and incorporating the ideas and words of others is far from simple. For this reason, standard definitions of plagiarism are of little use to teachers. They give us a basic understanding of the legal meaning of the term so that we can develop penalties for the kinds of dishonesty that it are easy to identify, but if we limit our understanding to legalistic definitions, we are forced to ignore the more nuanced–and much more frequent–misuse of sources that may be the product of ignorance, carelessness, or a failure to understand the source. In other words, the traditional dictionary definition of the term “plagiarism” is of use to those whose task is judiciary or commercial, but less so to those whose task is pedagogical.

For this reason, teachers and scholars of writing have developed a best practices document that goes beyond plagiarism and is not tied to questions of intentionality. Researchers involved in the Citation Project have also developed a definition of “patchwriting” that draws on Howard’s 1993 definition, but goes beyond it to reflect what happens in one of the most common source-use errors. Patchwriting is not “theft” and therefore not plagiarism. When we separate acts of plagiarism from misuse of sources such as patchwriting, we can develop appropriate sanctions for the former and teach students to avoid the latter. A thorough understanding of the ways writers misuse sources allows teachers to help students navigate the complex academic conversations they enter when they write information-rich papers. Such an understanding will allow scholars to develop newer more nuanced definitions of misuse of sources that exist side-by-side with but separate from definitions of plagiarism.

Definition Of “Patchwriting”

Restating a phrase, clause, or one or more sentences while staying close to the language or syntax of the source.