Tuesday, February 7, 2012


A surprising number of college students are devoted to what they call “rewording”: the practice of taking a passage from someone else’s writing and, uh, rewording it, without attribution. More surprising is that many such students see nothing wrong with this practice. More surprising still is that some of their professors see nothing wrong with it either and even encourage it. I suspect that the Dunning-Kruger effect is at work here: such professors must lack the competence to understand that what they’re encouraging is in fact plagiarism.

There are many authoritative explanations in print of paraphrase, plagiarism, and the inappropriateness of rewording without attribution. Here’s an excerpt from a helpful online explanation, from the Writing Center at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill:

What About Paraphrasing?

Paraphrasing means taking another person’s ideas and putting those ideas in your own words. Paraphrasing does NOT mean changing a word or two in someone else’s sentence, changing the sentence structure while maintaining the original words, or changing a few words to synonyms. If you are tempted to rearrange a sentence in any of these ways, you are writing too close to the original. That’s plagiarizing, not paraphrasing.

Paraphrasing is a fine way to use another person’s ideas to support your argument as long as you attribute the material to the author and cite the source in the text at the end of the sentence. In order to make sure you are paraphrasing in the first place, take notes from your reading with the book closed. Doing so will make it easier to put the ideas in your own words. When you are unsure if you are writing too close to the original, check with your instructor BEFORE you turn in the paper for a grade. So, just to be clear—do you need to cite when you paraphrase? Yes, you do!

Plagiarism (The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)
When I talk with students about these matters, I always point out that no matter what they’ve been told, “rewording” without attribution is plagiarism, though perhaps in a hapless and unsophisticated form. Imagine getting an F for a paper or a course without even realizing that you’re engaging in academic misconduct. That’s the Dunning-Kruger effect with a vengeance. Yipes.

Related posts
“Local Norms” and “‘organic’ attribution” (writing without quotation marks)
Old and unimproved (“How to e-mail a professor,” “reworded”)

[My knowledge of “rewording” comes from many conversations over many years with students who have studied in many different institutions. My syllabi and other course materials make clear that “rewording” is a no-no.]

comments: 2

Geo-B said...

I’ve been shocked at how many college students are solidly committed to what’s termed “rewording,” that is, using another’s words and, kind of, slightly changing the wording, without giving credit to the original author. Even more shocking, most don’t even consider this ethically questionable. On the next level, instructors support this and likewise see no problem with the practice. It’s possible that the Dunning-Kruger effect falls into play here: teachers themselves apparently don’t understand the complex issues of referencing and plagiarism.

Michael Leddy said...

George, you took the words right out of my mouth. :)