Problems with Paraphrasing

Daniel Emery

The ability to paraphrase is a pivotal skill for writing and learning, but our tacit understanding of the complex purposes of paraphrasing is often clouded by its apparent simplicity. We may tell students that paraphrasing is simply “restating information from a source in your own words,” but choosing to include restatement from sources involves a much more significant set of questions about purpose, audience, writing task, and form. In this blog post, we’ll consider two potentially troublesome frames for teaching paraphrasing and finally offer a third one to help students consider paraphrasing strategically.

Troublesome frame #1: Paraphrase as (merely) plagiarism avoidance

Mountain reflected on Fishercap Lake.

Students often receive instruction about source use that emphasizes avoidance of plagiarism and the appearance of academic dishonesty. Unfortunately, in some contexts, the only advice on paraphrasing students receive is caution when putting things in their own words or avoiding using source text without attribution. This plagiarism avoidance focus may encourage students to tweak sentence structures and replace words with synonyms. Rather than selecting source material for particular uses and rhetorical effects, students using this frame merely play games with word choice and sentence structure to avoid the harmful consequence of academic misconduct.

In courses where student work is examined for textual matches using tools like Turnitin, the plagiarism avoidance mindset encourages students to think in terms of originality scores, which uncritically identify the presence of matching text without attempting to understand how or why source text is used. Consider a course in which students are instructed that an originality score must be below a certain threshold. In that case, their revision efforts may focus on synonyms and deletion (or using a text paraphrase tool like Quillbot) to achieve their target number rather than making choices in their writing that consider audience needs and expectations or the features of disciplinary writing.

Troublesome frame #2: Paraphrase as (merely) knowledge-telling

A related troublesome frame for paraphrasing emerges when we describe paraphrasing as capturing “ideas” from another author in our own words. The repetition of a content/form division obscures the multiple functions of paraphrasing in writing and may inadvertently encourage patchwriting. As Nisha Shanmugaraj, Joanna Wolfe, and Sophie Wodzak demonstrate, even advice from writing guides in print and online may encourage patchwriting by encouraging a sentence-by-sentence transcription of the author’s sentences, copying paragraph- and sentence-level features of the original while only varying word choice or word order.

In courses where advice on incorporating source materials is limited to specifying the number of sources used, students may select passages for paraphrase simply to illustrate that they have engaged with multiple sources. In research writing, this can lead to paragraphs that simply reiterate source contents without establishing a broader claim or developing relationships between paragraphs based on concepts or patterns of reasoning. In these instances, the paraphrase becomes an elaborated version of a summary.

A strategic frame: Paraphrase as knowledge transformation

Perhaps the most effective frame for considering paraphrasing follows Shi, Fazel, and Kowkabi’s application of the term “knowledge transforming” in relation to effective paraphrasing. Knowledge transformation implies that the writer repurposes the source material to serve a rhetorical purpose or aim related to the function and audience of a particular document. When students understand that source material can be used to provide context, examples or illustrations, evidence for generalizations and conclusions, or as the basis for counterarguments, paraphrasing allows them to modify source content to serve their own needs and purposes. Rather than restating the original source in new words, the student writer engages the source material to their own ends.

In courses that require writing, faculty can encourage a knowledge-transforming orientation to writing by creating assignments that mirror authentic writing contexts in their fields. When students understand their writing as purposeful (writing to do something, not merely say it to an examiner) and audience-directed (oriented to readers who want to understand and engage with them rather than merely to affirm that they have demonstrated comprehension for a grade), students will be encouraged to consider how source materials can be incorporated into the typical forms of disciplinary and workplace writing associated with the field.

Additional References

Howard, R.M. (2016). Plagiarism in higher education: An academic literacies issue? Handbook of Academic Integrity. Singapore: Springer. 499-501.

Ling, S., Fazel, I., and Kowkabi, N. (2018). Paraphrasing to transform knowledge in advanced graduate student writing. English for Specific Purposes 51, 31-44, doi:10.1016/j.esp.2018.03.001.

Shanmugaraj, N., Wolfe, J., and Wodzak, S. (2020). Rhetorically-grounded paraphrasing instruction: Knowledge telling versus transforming. Composition Forum 43.

Further Support

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