The Ideas of Self-Plagiarism and Patchwriting Haven’t Been Emphasised Enough to Students

The very lesson learnt from my teaching experience is: never assume.
Never assume students are able to know/understand/do this or that.
Never assume they know how to write various types of essays.
Never assume that they understand the rationale behind academic conventions such as citation and referencing.
Never assume that they know what it means by “plagiarism”, “self-plagiarism” and “patchwriting” and avoid them.

Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

Especially when they care about the Turnitin similarity rate a lot, but don’t know what to do about that. They have been told a lot how not to plagiarise in college or university. Dealing with external sources is relatively straightforward: “when in doubt, cite and acknowledge.”

But what about dealing with their own works?

Recently, a number of students came to me crying (virtually) hours before the deadline, telling me they don’t know what to do when the similarity rate shot up to over 35%. They said they had used their previous assignments as a “reference” for my assignment, and thought it was okay. If it was just a point in a paragraph or a section, that would be fine; s/he would just need to come up with a new point and replace that part. However, the reason they were crying was that the old work spread out the whole essay — they were going to do it all over again, in less than 24 hours.

What has been discussed around colleagues regarding student issues seldom touches upon self-plagiarism and patchwriting.

Self-plagiarism is not much of an issue for first-year students when they don’t have previous writing to “refer to”; it occurs more frequently when they wrote good topics and want to keep them as they’re asked to write similar topics in a new subject again. This is more likely in discipline-specific EAP subjects, as we give them a broad topic to narrow down as their own topic, thinking they can “recycle” their works without us knowing it. (Un)fortunately, as soon as they have submitted their writing online, Turnitin can detect it; “resubmitting” same/similar works in another institution or subject then leads to a high similarity rate. No one can get away — it is still plagiarism.

Patchwriting may happen more frequently, when time is tight and students have to cut corners to hand in their works in time. It’s common to find different highlight colors out of the grading tool, showing exact/close matches of phrases from various sources. Some of these sources are actually essays from other institutions or essay repositories students can google. Sadly, however many times they are reminded to paraphrase – even It’s just changing the active voice into passive – they just won’t. And they would come and ask if 35% similarity rate is acceptable.

Hell no.

If they ask, I’d ask them to remove or paraphrase the overlapping parts, or come up with new arguments if they wish to keep the topic.

If they don’t and leave everything until the last minute, it’s impossible for me to help them. They will have to bear the consequences: it’s their grade, their subject and their study.

What’s interesting here is then how differently they perceive subtypes of plagiarism behaviour: it seems to them as long as similarity is kept below a certain number, they can get away from it.

They are supposed to be concerned about intellectual property and ethics in general. Essays submitted are the IP of the institutions, so it is not that they can reuse them elsewhere without acknowledgement. It’s also important to know recycling assignments isn’t equal to acknowledging them at all.

Acknowledging previous works involves “repurposing” processes including summarizing, paraphrasing and synthesizing similar ideas into one coherent argument. This is what one cannot do by simply reusing bits from her/his old assignments, let alone professionals and scholars, when citing their works, who can only summarise whole articles into one or two sentences, or even phrases incorporating into a particular clause.

So we may have to constantly go back to the basics, using citation and referencing for laying the ground work when the semester begins. Before everything else, whether we are teaching from genre to grammar, or the way round, issues of intellectual property and different kinds of plagiarisms should be emphasised, so that there are no “accidents”, “incidental”, “unknowingly copying” and so on.

And I think it’s also a kind of respect to their teachers: we “assume” students would come up with new ideas and critiques in their works. Resubmitting old works is simply perfunctory and not caring about the need for originality in every subject one takes. This shouldn’t be our assumption; students should take their works, their teachers and their studies seriously.

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