The Columbia Spectator writer fired for plagiarizing from The New York Times earlier this month was actually employing a dishonest writing technique that is common on college campuses and among journalists.

It’s called "patchwriting." And it’s not quite plagiarism, but it’s not original writing either.

A 2008 study directed by Rebecca Moore Howard, professor of writing and rhetoric at Syracuse University, suggests that much of the writing by college students is intellectually dishonest, but falls short of actual plagiarism. She is preparing to publish her findings in a book.

What is patchwriting & how common is it?

Patchwriting is often a failed attempt at paraphrasing, Howard said. Rather than copying a statement word for word, the writer is rearranging phrases and changing tenses, but is relying too heavily on the vocabulary and syntax of the source material. It’s a form of intellectual dishonesty that indicates that the writer is not actually thinking for herself.

In her study, called the Citation Project, Howard and her colleagues wanted to see exactly how students were using sources in their papers. Their theory is that if professors know what the weaknesses are, they can teach students to make better use of their sources.

Howard and her partners coded 174 composition papers written by students enrolled at 16 different colleges, ranging from community colleges to Ivy League universities. Howard concluded that 17 percent of writing in the average college term paper is patchwriting. She didn't find much plagiarism at all.

I first heard Howard describe patchwriting at a conference on writing integrity earlier this year at Poynter. And when I looked closely at her examples, I realized that journalists utilize patchwriting as well.

Howard speculates that most of the time, writers employ patchwriting because they don’t have enough time to craft original thoughts, or they don’t have enough time to understand their source material beyond the surface conclusions.

At the very least, patchwriting is bad writing, she said. And that might be the strongest reason that newsroom editors would object to it, although I concede that not all editors would object. Some would be just fine with this type of writing. College professors don’t like it because it indicates an absence of true critical thinking and understanding behind the writing.

After all, we teach college students to write not because we expect them to become writers, but because writing is the evidence that they are mastering intellectual concepts.

What we expect of journalists is different. I’ve consulted with dozens of editors while they examine potential cases of plagiarism. Based on those consultations, I believe most editors would deem patchwriting problematic, but not plagiarism.

Patchwriting case study

The quote lifting was what doomed the Spectator writer. Here are the three paragraphs (thank you Ivygateblog.com for originally publishing this) from the Spectator, as compared to three paragraphs of the original article in The New York Times.

Spectator:

“Frank Lloyd Wright was notorious for saving everything, from his personal correspondence to scribbles on Plaza Hotel napkins. Since Wright’s death in 1959, these relics have been locked in storage.”

New York Times:

“The Modernist architect Frank Lloyd Wright wasn’t a hoarder. But he did save just about everything — whether a doodle on a Plaza Hotel cocktail napkin of an imagined city on Ellis Island, his earliest pencil sketch of the spiraling Guggenheim Museum or a model of Broadacre City, his utopian metropolis. Since Wright’s death in 1959 those relics have been locked in storage at his former headquarters —Taliesin, in Spring Green, Wis., and Taliesin West, in Scottsdale, Ariz.”

Spectator:

“Among the University’s future collection are the famous original drawings for Wright’s Fallingwater, a home designed amid a rushing stream in Pennsylvania, and the Robie House, a Prairie-style building on the campus of the University of Chicago.”

New York Times:

“Among the gems in that material are drawings for Wright’s Fallingwater, a home cantilevered over a stream in Mill Run, Pa.; the Robie House, a Prairie-style building on the University of Chicago campus; Unity Temple, a Unitarian Universalist church in Oak Park, Ill.; and Taliesin West.”

Spectator:

“ ‘While Wright is typically thought of as a lonely genius, you move him into the Museum of Modern Art, and he’s dialoguing with Le Corbusier in the company of Mies van der Rohe, Alvar Aalto, and Louis Kahn,’ said Barry Bergdoll, chief curator of architecture and design at the MoMA.”

New York Times:

“While Wright is typically thought of as ‘a lonely genius,’ Mr. Bergdoll said, ‘you move him into the Museum of Modern Art, and he’s dialoguing with Le Corbusier in the company of Mies van der Rohe, Alvar Aalto and Louis Kahn.’”

The quote-lifting is clear deception. The Spectator writer implied that she got that exact quote from the museum curator in an interview herself. That type of deception is not tolerated in professional journalism, but it happens often and people don’t always get fired for it. It’s also the easiest problem to solve. The writer could simply have said, “...MoMA chief curator Barry Bergdoll told the New York Times." Or, she could have actually called the museum curator and done her own interview.

But the other two paragraphs pose a more classic problem. In both of them, New York Times writer Robin Pogrebin has used her editorial judgment to pull out a few items from a broader group, like a “doodle on a Plaza Hotel cocktail napkin,” or the drawing of “the Robie House, a Prairie-style building on the University of Chicago campus.”

Sarah Darville, editor in chief of the Spectator, said what she found heart-breaking about the whole incident was that the writer had done a decent job reporting the story. She had interviewed the curator, as well as a librarian and other sources. But the side-by-side comparison made it clear that the writer was inappropriately using the New York Times piece as a crutch.

"I don't think there's any way that's close to being OK," Darville said. "There's no need for it. To me it's still pretty clear cut and it's completely unacceptable. You didn't have to start the story that way."

Unless the Spectator writer was prepared to duplicate Pogrebin's reporting and select different items, her only choice was to copy it whole cloth (and cite it) or rearrange it slightly (and also cite it).

Why is the rearranging without citation dishonest? It was the original writer’s skill and expertise that led to the selection of those specific items. Stealing the selection is stealing the intellectual work of that writer.

The problem for journalism

But we do that all the time in journalism, I suspect we do it now even more than we used to. Because now, if you look at all the work that populates the marketplace of ideas, it is written by reporters, bloggers, aggregators, commentators, curmudgeons and both professional and amateur opiners. A greater portion of that material is absent any original reporting and instead built upon the work of others.

Much of that is valuable, original thinking. But a good chunk of it is merely the rearranged work of other writers. It’s patchwriting. This could be a rewritten press release, or a re-written story about a player trade in the sporting world. We get away with this in journalism because many of the facts that we write about quickly become generally accepted as truth and therefore do not need attribution.

Many will rationalize journalistic patchwriting by arguing that the audience isn’t expecting journalists to develop intellectual mastery of a topic. Journalism at its most basic level is about meeting an information need. But journalism is also often about telling a story, conducting an investigation, or explaining something complicated. In these cases, patchwriting is more problematic.

In today's ecosystem, some new types of journalism (that weren’t around 10 years ago) repackage information that’s already out there and get it to a new audience. This very column is an example. There are very few facts here that haven't been reported elsewhere.

The litmus test is new value or new ideas. Writing that brings new value to the audience, maybe even writing that merely attempts to bring new value to the audience, is likely to be intellectually honest. And writing that doesn’t do that, that merely rehashes the work of others, that’s patchwriting.

I’m hoping this distinction will help journalists working in a variety of platforms separate good original work from content that’s merely repurposed, but brings no new journalistic or audience value.

For journalism to continue to serve democracy, a portion of it has to serve a democratic function. It can’t just be about repackaging material to gobble up audience.

The opportunity for journalism

Perhaps the best way to do this – and to avoid patchwriting – is to approach each assignment with a clear idea of the new value it should bring to the audience. If editors and writers did this, I suspect a lot of the repetitive dishonest writing would fall away.

This can be done in a short aggregated column, in a news brief and in a news story that’s already been written 50 times by other journalists. It starts by asking this question: What can we provide to our audience that’s different than what’s already been published? Maybe it’s opinion or expertise. Or maybe it’s asking new questions, or introducing new material into the body of knowledge.

Whatever the answer is, that will be the foundation of originality. That should make it easier to attribute the rest of the information. It’s as if the writer is in a conversation with the rest of the world. In a real conversation, you might point out that this person made point A, and this person made point B and lots of people made points C, D and E. But you won’t claim them as your own, unless they really are your own.

That’s easier to do when you have a clear understanding of what your own original idea is.