Preventing Unintentional Plagiarism: A Method for Strengthening Paraphrasing Skills

By Walker, Angela L. | Journal of Instructional Psychology, December 2008 | Go to article overview
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Preventing Unintentional Plagiarism: A Method for Strengthening Paraphrasing Skills


Walker, Angela L., Journal of Instructional Psychology


Plagiarism may result from faulty cognitive processing and thereby be unintentional (Marsh, Landau, & Hicks, 1997). The current study tested the effectiveness of paraphrasing training designed to prevent unintentional plagiarism. Thirty-six students enrolled in research methods participated, one group received paraphrasing training; a control group did not. Both groups paraphrased a moderate and a difficult one-paragraph passage midway through the semester and a lengthier passage at the end. Results indicated no difference for the moderate paragraph; however, the training group performed better than the control on the difficult and lengthier passages. Interestingly, both groups reported similar levels of confidence in paraphrasing skills. Findings demonstrate the potential for paraphrasing training and provide direction for further development.

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In an early lecture on plagiarism, students appeared puzzled when reviewing examples of paraphrased and plagiarized work. Afterwards, one student stood and said, "Hi, my Name is 'X' and bravely admitted, "I didn't know it, but I've been plagiarizing my entire academic life"--inciting an animated conversation wherein students discussed their genuine confusion. Students indicated that identifying plagiarism was simple when a writer failed to provide citation; left the original unchanged, or modified the work by one or two words. When a writer made several minor changes, however, students believed the paraphrasing was accurate suggesting that when writing students may unintentionally plagiarize.

Given the growth of writing services and highly publicized cases of plagiarism, conceiving of students as plagiarizing unintentionally may border on the preposterous; however, research suggests otherwise (Roig, 1997, 1999, 2001). Students, for example, evaluated rewritten versions of an original paragraph and indicated whether the versions created by the researchers represented accurate paraphrasing or plagiarism (Roig, 1997). The plagiarized versions contained moderate and superficial alterations--substitutions of synonyms for original words, additions, and/ or deletions of one to four words, and reversal s of the sentence structure--close inspection of the modified versions revealed that the originals remained primarily intact with a few "patches" which Howard (1995) aptly defined as patchwriting. In the study, most participants correctly labeled the paraphrased items, but nearly half judged plagiarized versions as accurately paraphrased showing that students are unaware of the extent that they must change the material further indicating that students can plagiarize unintentionally (Roig).

In a separate study, Roig (1999) explored the possibility that unintentional plagiarism was related to the misunderstanding the definition of plagiarism as well as to readability. To test this possibility, students paraphrased both a simple and a complex paragraph. Results showed that students plagiarized more when tackling a complex paragraph than when facing a simple paragraph; providing data that students do in fact possess skills necessary for paraphrasing but students may be impeded from applying those skills when dealing with rigorous text (Roig).

Surprisingly, students are not the only writers guilty of committing unintentional plagiarism. Roig (2001) proposed that students struggle with paraphrasing because of modeling their professors' practices. Given the exact tasks as students in the Roig (1997) study, 44% of professors judged a plagiarized item as correct and one third lifted five-to-nine word strings. Roig argued that the errors result from a lack of agreement about the definition of plagiarism within the field.

Using the dual model of persuasion (see Chaiken, Wood, & Eagly, 1989), Marsh, Landau, and Hicks (1997) suggested that inadvertent plagiarism results from faulty cognitive processing. First, simply thinking about paraphrasing requires considerable cognitive energy and once the physical process of writing begins, people have little resources left to automatically engage in thoughtful, systematic processing to determine if they paraphrased sufficiently; as such people experience cryptoamnesia or are unaware of plagiarizing (Marsh, Landau, & Hicks).

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