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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Summer 2010
DOI: 10.5062/F4NC5Z42


A Reflection on Plagiarism, Patchwriting, and the Engineering Master's Thesis

Edward J. Eckel
Western Michigan University
Kalamazoo, Michigan

Copyright 2010, Edward J. Eckel. Used with permission.

How many times has a graduate student asked you questions such as the following: "How many words do I need to change so I'm not plagiarizing?" or "If my professor gives me his article or patent and tells me to go ahead and 'use it', do I need to cite it?" Such questions indicate a profound need for clarification of issues like plagiarism and attributing sources. This need is a result of a disconnect between expectations for graduate students in the sciences and technology, and how they are being educated to meet those expectations.

For example, a great deal has been written in recent years about graduate engineering plagiarism. The widely publicized 2006 incident of graduate level plagiarism at Ohio University's Russ College of Engineering and Technology provided fodder for the news media (including trade magazines such as ASEE Prism) to make assumptions about the prevalence of transgressive textual appropriation in engineering, using words and phrases such as "scandal," "cheating," and "a culture of dishonesty" (Anonymous 2008). My personal EndNote file on engineering plagiarism contains 52 article references right now, with most published after 1995. Researchers like Dr. Donald L. McCabe who have done extensive studies of the academic dishonesty of undergraduates and graduate students postulate that plagiarism arises from students going along with the problematic behavior of their peers (2001). He and his fellow researchers Dr. Linda Trevino and Dr. Kenneth Butterfield suggest that the best way to deal with a perceived increase in cheating and plagiarism is with stringent campus honor codes (McCabe 2003; McCabe, Trevino, & Butterfield 1999). The problem with looking at plagiarism through the lens of academic dishonesty is that it ignores the many different factors that govern how and why students (and academics) copy source text.

Early in my career as an engineering librarian, I also saw plagiarism in completely black and white terms. However, digging into the scholarly literature, I find ample evidence that there are other factors at work in student writing besides a lack of ethics or the intent to cheat. I would like to briefly highlight some of these factors.

Rebecca Moore Howard (1999) coined the term "patchwriting" to describe how novice writers in a discipline may incorporate bits and pieces of verbatim source text into their own writing, not to be deliberately deceptive, but because those writers do not understand their sources well enough to paraphrase them adequately. Other researchers have shown that patchwriting to some degree is a relatively common and useful strategy for English as a Second Language (ESL) students and scientists to learn the academic writing style of a discipline through imitation (Barks 2001; Flowerdew & Li 2007; Jones & Freeman 2003; Parkhurst 1990; St. John 1987). One Turkish physicist even admitted in a 2007 article for Nature that he regularly copied background source text in his published articles (Yilmaz 2007). There is evidence that those who patchwrite are not attempting to be deceptive (Pecorari 2003).

In addition, while quotation is a common feature of writing in the arts, humanities, and social sciences, it is not a characteristic feature of scientific or technical writing. Given this constraint, engineering and natural science students have few other options. They can either rewrite source texts in their own words (with proper attribution) or they will do what the patchwriting and ESL literature shows they will do, which is use the text strings illicitly. Allowing the use of attributed quotations in graduate science and engineering writing might be one way to handle this problem.

I believe that there is a great potential here for partnership between librarians and the graduate science and technology colleges in terms of educating students and faculty about what patchwriting is, how it differs from plagiarism, how to write for synthesis from sources, and how to properly attribute sources in scholarly writing. For example, the librarian could work with the graduate student association and the campus writing center to offer workshops on avoiding patchwriting and plagiarism. The important thing is not just to focus on "avoiding plagiarism." As Bouville (2008) states, "teaching students 'writing to avoid plagiarism' is like teaching 'walking to avoid falling'." Students need to be shown what patchwriting looks like and how it differs from paraphrasing. They need to practice different ways of incorporating source text, from verbatim copying to patchwriting to more complete paraphrasing, so they can experience the differences between them (Bianchi, Pazzaglia, & Facchinetti 2007; Jones & Freeman 2003). ESL students can even be given guidelines for incorporating generic text strings such as "the results indicated the following" into their writing (Barks 2001; Simpson-Vlach 2010). Judging by the types of questions I get from graduate students, it is no longer enough to assume that graduate students received this training when they were undergraduates or will learn it on their own. This would be a much more effective strategy for dealing with transgressive plagiarism than instituting honor codes and wringing our hands about the crisis of academic dishonesty. The big question for natural science and engineering graduate programs is how to ensure that their students make the leap from patchwriting to mature synthesis (Pecorari 2003).

Mistakes in source text use by graduate students, when relatively minor in degree, should be considered part of the learning process and not as research misconduct or academic dishonesty. Rather than focusing on punishment or ethics, we librarians and faculty members need to teach these students a more realistic view of the writing process, one that allows and encourages the reuse of generic strings of text and yet scrupulously attributes the ideas and distinctive written expressions of other authors. As Pennycook (1996) so eloquently states: "All language learning is to some extent a process of borrowing others' words and we need to be flexible, not dogmatic, about where we draw boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable textual borrowings."

My hope is that these thoughts serve as seed crystals for a larger conversation on source text use and reuse in the sciences and engineering.


Anonymous. 2008. Building a culture of honesty. Resource (American Society of Agricultural Engineers) 15(1), 19.

Barks, D. 2001. Textual borrowing strategies for graduate-level ESL writers. In Belcher, D. & Hirvela, A., editors. Linking Literacies: Perspectives on L2 Reading-Writing Connections. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. p. 246-267.

Bianchi, F., Pazzaglia, R., & Facchinetti, R. 2007. Student writing of research articles in a foreign language: metacognition and corpora. Language and Computers 62: 259-287.

Bouville, M. 2008. Plagiarism: words and ideas. Science and Engineering Ethics 14(3): 311-322.

Flowerdew, J., & Li, Y. 2007. Language re-use among Chinese apprentice scientists writing for publication. Applied Linguistics 28(3): 440-465.

Howard, R. M. 1999. Standing in the Shadow of Giants: Plagiarists, Authors, Collaborators. Stamford, CT: Ablex Pub.

Jones, A. A., & Freeman, T. E. 2003. Imitation, copying, and the use of models: report writing in an introductory physics course. IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication 46(3): 168-184.

McCabe, D. L. 2003. Faculty and academic integrity: the influence of current honor codes and past honor code experiences. Research in Higher Education 44(3): 367-385.

McCabe, D. L., Trevino, L. K., & Butterfield, K. D. 1999. Academic integrity in honor code and non-honor code environments - a qualitative investigation. Journal of Higher Education 70(2): 211-234.

McCabe, D. L., Trevino, L. K., & Butterfield, K. D. 2001. Cheating in academic institutions: a decade of research. Ethics & Behavior 11(3): 219-232.

Parkhurst, C. 1990. The composition process of science writers. English for Specific Purposes 9(2): 169-179.

Pecorari, D. 2003. Good and original: plagiarism and patchwriting in academic second-language writing. Journal of Second Language Writing 12(4): 317-345.

Pennycook, A. 1996. Borrowing others' words: text, ownership, memory, and plagiarism. TESOL Quarterly 30(2): 201-230.

Simpson-Vlach, R., & Ellis, N.C. 2010. An academic formulas list: new methods in phraseology research [Advance Access publication]. Applied Linguistics 1-26.

St. John, M.J. 1987. Writing processes of Spanish scientists publishing in English. English for Specific Purposes 6(2): 113-120.

Yilmaz, I. 2007. Plagiarism? No, we're just borrowing better English. Nature 449(7163): 658.

DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of ISTL, the Science and Technology Section, or the American Library Association.
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