‘Patchwriting’ is more common than plagiarism, just as dishonest

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.

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  • http://twitter.com/MsFriendlyFire Agatha A

    Gosh I love this… on a discussion board with working print journalists, I was met with criticism for calling patchwriting just plain old lazy writing. A tabloid had quoted one of my statements in a NYTimes Arts blog without giving the Times credit, and thus to readers it looked like I was directly interviewed by said reporter for People. When I pointed it out one journalist had responded that I was “getting too defensive”, and that reporters don’t have time to fact-check everything if they are on a budget. WTF? What happened to writing skills and independent thinking? Glad there are others who noticed this issue that using other’s writing skills for personal credit and gain is just plain wrong.

  • Work Avoidance Log

    Nope.
    First, your thesis is objectively, demonstrably wrong.
    The proof is your comment itself, Teenygozer, which crackles with passion, anger, condesension, hyperbole, sarcasm and a steaming pile of god bless america bitchiness–in other words, creativity. Could a random anybody write a graf that grabs the reader’s shoulders as forcefully and gives them as good of a shake as yours does? Could the next person who crosses your field of vision be as entertaining and as convincing as you were? You already know the answer, without consulting probability or the law of averages–you just have to read five random comments on any website in the known universe (oh, who are we kidding? Any five random pieces of writing of any kind, anywhere) to know that the answer is No.
    Writing is a craft, and like other crafts (cheesemaking, spot-welding, landscape design, running for president), some of its practitioners are judged by the larger community to be more successful than others when measured against a broad set of widely accepted and glacially-evolving touchstones. They might owe their edge to education, perseverence, changing values, charisma, luck or that intangible quality that’s sometimes called “being born with it”–or some combination of those. We humans are constantly judging each other in every field of endeavor and scoring a few of us winners, a slightly larger number of us losers, and the overwhelming mass of us indifferent. Those judgments are never unanimous, but at least they are sometimes later proved wrong.

    Second, if you really believe “nobody’s ideas are the least bit unique,” you need to explain why we’re not still throwing sticks at big animals when we need to eat; why your non-existent health insurance won’t reimburse the cost of those leeches the doc attached to your stomach to cure that case of the black plague you picked up because you didn’t observe the sabbath in June of 1983; why aspiring filmmakers still study “Citizen Kane” and aspiring radio personalities still listen to airchecks of The Real Don Steele; and while you’re at it, please prove that “Chinatown” = “The Two Jakes”–or, if you prefer, “Weekend at Bernie’s” = “Weekend at Bernie’s 2.”

    Hint: “nobody’s ideas are the least bit unique” and “We all build on culture; always do, always will” do not even remotely mean the same thing.

    Third: “By your reasoning, the fact that he made everything he stole better,
    made it memorable, doesn’t matter. He stole. He’s a thief. He’s not
    original at all” is not my reasoning, it’s your reasoning. It’s the opposite of my reasoning. My reasoning is that by “building on” an earlier idea, a writer “will give the [earlier] idea life or doom it, often independent of the intrinsic
    value of the idea itself. And since the alchemy each writer performs on
    the idea is unique, one idea + multiple writers = multiple ideas!” Except for your calling Shakespeare a thief, your indictment of him supports my argument, not yours. Shakespeare’s “R&J” and “Hamlet”–not their antecedents–are the versions of those stories that high school drama classes will be staging until the earth slams into the sun. That means Will wins that particular multi-century sweepstakes (as for that *gantlet* of “microscopic scrutiny:” don’t look now, but I think the Bard is surviving just fine) and that alone is reason to study the works, whether or not they are “original.”

    Fourth: there is no evidence of any chill on creativity. Just this past weekend, TLC (“The Learning Channel”) ran a marathon of episodes of “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.” Does that sound like creativity climate change to you?

    Finally, free advice is worth every quid you pay for it, but here’s some: if you’re going to argue that “nobody’s ideas are the least bit unique” and that writers don’t perform alchemy, you probaby should come up with a better negative example than William Shakespeare.

    Mention “Carrot Top” and you’re guaranteed to get a laugh, which is why The Log uses him as a negative example of absolutely everything.

    (Oh, and “Speshul little snowflakes?” The Log recommends you see a licensed therapist for help with your low self-esteem issues.)

    Back to work:

  • http://twitter.com/MitchellPowers Mitchell Powers

    “Designed amid a rushing stream,” difficult design process for Wright.

  • Anonymous

    You wrote: And since the alchemy each writer performs on the idea is unique,

    Writers are not speshul little snowflakes and they don’t perform alchemy, and nobody’s ideas are the least bit unique. We all build on culture; always do, always will. I’ve seen Shakespeare held up as some sort of shining beacon of originality that we all must aspire to in other discussions that echo this one, but he couldn’t survive today’s gauntlet of microscopic scrutiny; his theft is too obvious. Romeo and Juliet is a complete rip-off of a then-popular (but really crappy) “Tragical” poem crossed with a short story written by some other guy; Shakespeare cribbed plot and lines from both. Hamlet is based on a centuries-old legend that was written down by one writer in the 13th century and subsequently popularized by another writer in the 16th century. Shakespeare wasn’t the second, he was the THIRD GUY who went there! By your reasoning, the fact that he made everything he stole better, made it memorable, doesn’t matter. He stole. He’s a thief. He’s not original at all.

    We have to stop worshiping at the altar of Intellectual Property. This minute examination of every word is having a chilling effect on creativity.

  • J. Alleman

    Plagiarism is wrong. In this day and age, I’m not so sure “patchwriting” is clearly wrong if the work is credited properly, especially if there is something new in the re-cast piece. “Self-plagiarism” (a la Jonah Lehrer) warrants further discussion. I worry that the creation of all these new, ever finer concepts to protect written intellectual property is another node in the complex network of semantics around the long-term and ultimately wasted energy we’re expending to coddle old school journalism. We are in a new world. Information is created, shared, supplemented, redistributed, criticized, re-shared, and re-criticized within seconds of a journalist, or anyone for that matter, making it live. It’s time to let go of the old journalism business model. It’s dead. Everyone is a content provider and analyst now. Information is fleeting and cheap. Everything we write is not “intellectual property” just because we uttered it with our fingertips. Let’s not further commodify public discussion. If your thoughts are well researched, well expressed, and valuable, they’ll live. If they aren’t, and many of them aren’t, they’ll die. The rest of the world is engaged in intellectual Darwinism. You’re ideas are not automatically better because you are a real journalist. But working in journalism means you have more resources than the average person to make your ideas fitter for the environment. Let’s get over ourselves. It’s a competitive intellectual environment. Compete. Think. Research. Write. Take heart when your ideas generate discussion, even in the form of well-credited “patchwriting.”

  • Mark Bernhardt

    A quote is a quote. If the interviewee gives the same phrases to more than one interviewer, the phrase will be common among them. That’s news. Anyone can “do” news (e.g., the scrolling ticker at the bottom of the TV screen). The journalist chooses salient points and then tells the story that frames the quotes (e.g., what happens above the scrolling ticker). Interviewer and interviewee may not necessarily agree on what are the key points, and that’s one way in which the story may differ from one journalist to another.

  • Anonymous

    steal my ideas, use them, repeat them, call them your own….

    I say these things for humanity… not for personal gain.

  • Work Avoidance Log

    ‘Scuse me, Chief, but “once it is made public, it is free to do with as you will” is *not* “free speech.” There aren’t enough column-inches on the whole internet to list all the people, organizations and governments worldwide working overtime in 2012 to squelch free speech, but almost none of them cite plagiarism or “patchwriting” as a justification.

    We give them aid and comfort when we confuse the “free” in “free speech” with the “free” in “information wants to be free;” it’s the latter that The Log believes you mean.

    The Log has no quarrel with your altruistic instinct–you’re right, it *is* better that ideas circulate widely, and that they be available to humanity. But we’re not talking about ideas here. We’re talking about the *expression* of those ideas, which is not the same thing. That expression–let’s call it “writing”–will give the idea life or doom it, often independent of the intrinsic value of the idea itself. And since the alchemy each writer performs on the idea is unique, one idea + multiple writers = multiple ideas! No record exists of any period in which people complained that there were too many ideas loose in the world.

    Credit where credit is due: more than a courtesy–an ethical requirement. Even better: cancel Cut & Paste, torpedo Tweet and ReTweet, forgo Forwarding–write.

    Back to work:

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000598150026 Mar McFadden

    “Patchwriting” is plagiarism. The ideas are not the writer’s, certainly the words are not. It is one thing to know that Wright’s ephemera is kept somewhere and quite another to simply pull out entire blocks of another person’s work. There is no need to paraphrase if the facts remain the same.

    This is just lazy plagiarism.

  • Anonymous

    Amen!

  • Anonymous

    And this all leads to TV’s talking heads to interviewing other reporters for substance, albeit at least one-generation removed from the actual source.

    Some will do anything to save time, and with so many newspapers and electronic media outlets joining together with joint-publication agreements – the line is blurred even further.

    So how’s anyone to really know now – whether it’s simple cheating on the job by reporters, or sheer lazy-*ss reporting?

  • Anonymous

    once it is made public, it is free to do with as you will, free speech.

    once it is made public, and it can not be used, makes all those ideas dead end.

    better to have the ideas circulating in as many associations as possible.

    writers should write for the public.. like I do.

    what I write belongs to humanity… no credit need be given.

  • http://www.facebook.com/john.briggs.92317 John Briggs

    This is an unsettling reminder of the risks of hurried re-writing, which is common in the newsroom when we deal with police news releases and other prepared statements from politicians, non-profits, et al. It does lead both to bad writing and too often to the uncritical regurgitation of self-serving announcements. Thanks

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Roy-Peter-Clark/100000896693218 Roy Peter Clark

    Thanks for calling attention to patch-writing, Kelly, which was not a word or concept on my radar screen. I once came across a college guide on avoiding plagiarism — I would cite it, but I’ve lost it — that argued that plagiarism comes in three flavors: whole cloth, the mosaic, and the apt phrase. The mosaic is closest to patch-writing. It takes the parts of an existing story, moves the parts around, with a little paraphrasing. I know this will sound off the wall, but one way I overcome “the anxiety of influence” (Harold Bloom’s apt phrase, I think), is to STOP READING. Especially if I’m writing a book, there comes a time when I stop reading texts on the same subject. I find if I draft early, even crudely, I will create original language and can use the research to fill gaps later.

  • Gina Stepp

    True. Also, interviewees often use the same or very similar phrasing across interviews. Many times they have specific points they want to bring out and even though interviewers ask different questions the point will be worked in. So I wouldn’t be completely surprised for two interviewers to have similar wording in their quoted text.

  • http://www.rightscase.com/ Kay Sieverding

    One problem is that you want to go on-line and get background but some publications don’t want you to cite other publications.