Solving the Patchwriting Problem, Part 2: What IS the Patchwriting Problem?

Hands manipulating a magic cube

By Karen Hollingsworth Gardiner

In a previous post, “What is Patchwriting?” I included an early definition by Rebecca Moore Howard, who has continued to research and write about this issue for over twenty-five years. Her interest in plagiarism and student citation practices led her to conduct the seminal 2010-2013 Citation Project, a study of the citation practices of 174 first-year students from 16 colleges and universities across the US. Sandra Jamieson (Director of the Writing across the Curriculum Program and Professor of English at Drew University) was co-investigator of the project, which looked at the types of sources first-year students use in researched or source-based writing, the number of times each source is cited, how (and how frequently) students use the sources (copied, quoted, patchwritten, paraphrased, or summarized), and how thoroughly they research.

Their analysis was eye-opening. For instance, their data revealed that 70% of citations were to information no deeper than the first two pages of a source text, with almost 50% going no deeper than page one.

The study also revealed that patchwriting occurred at least once in half of the papers examined, and that paraphrasing was the most common method of source usage in student writing (accounting for almost 50% of all citations). However, roughly a third of those attempts at paraphrasing were failed attempts or patchwriting. (It is important to note that this was a citation project, which only looked at examples of student citations; failure to cite was not studied, so these numbers represent only the instances where students cited or attempted to cite their sources, not including incidents where students may be have used or misused sources but did not cite them.)

Patchwriting remains a problem, so much so that a recent Merriam-Webster blog post, Patchwriting: Paraphrasing in a Cut-and-Paste World, addressed it as one of the “words we’re watching.”

And, it’s a problem that Howard and Jamieson continue to separate from outright plagiarism. Recently, The Citation Project revised its definition to reflect intentionality. “Patchwriting is not ‘theft,’” the researchers argue, “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.”


Dr. Karen Hollingsworth Gardiner is a professor of English and the coordinator of Academic Integrity Initiatives in the College of Arts and Sciences. This series was written in memory of Jesse Cosper, a GTA in Dr. Gardiner’s fall 2018 EN 532 course. Before his untimely death, Jesse was planning to write a Teaching Hub post on patchwriting.