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.