Patchwriting: A Cunning Kind of Plagiarism

  • Article's photo | Credit Teaching Hub
  • In today's information age, writers grapple with the line between citing sources and simply copying them. Patchwriting, the sneaky act of weaving source text into your own with minor changes, raises ethical concerns. Is it unintentional borrowing or a form of plagiarism? Let's untangle the debate surrounding patchwriting and how to navigate it in academic and journalistic writing.

What exactly is Patchwriting, and how can you steer clear of it?

Plagiarism is an intentional act of deception involving the use of someone else’s work or ideas, and passing it off as one’s own. Patchwriting, however, is a type of plagiarism which is characterized by the lack of deceptive intent.

Patchwriting can be understood as a form of textual borrowing where writers replicate portions of a source text in their own work. However, instead of directly quoting or summarizing the original material, they rearrange the words and phrases, sometimes substituting synonyms or altering the sentence structure. This process creates a patchwork of borrowed language woven into the writer's own narrative.

Rebecca Howard (1995, 1999) coined the term 'patchwriting' to describe the act of copying from source texts and then superficially modifying them. This includes deleting words, altering grammatical structures, or substituting synonyms in an attempt to disguise the borrowing (Howard, 1999, p. 17).

In essence, Patchwriting is the act of lifting phrases and sentences from a source, then making superficial changes to disguise it as your own writing. These changes might include:

  • Swapping synonyms: You replace some words with synonyms you find in a thesaurus, but the overall structure and meaning remain very close to the original.
  • Chopping and changing: You might delete a few words here and there, or alter the sentence structure slightly, but the core idea and wording stay firmly rooted in the source.

Let's imagine you're writing about the impact of social media on mental health. You find a great source that talks about the link between excessive social media use and feelings of inadequacy. Patchwriting this passage would involve taking that core concept and trying to rephrase it without significantly changing the meaning.

For instance, the original source might say, "Studies have shown that spending too much time on social media platforms can lead to increased feelings of envy and social comparison, which can negatively impact self-esteem." A patchwritten version might be: "Research suggests that social media use can contribute to feelings of inadequacy due to constant comparison with others."

See how it borrows heavily from the original source, just with a few word substitutions?

Consider also the following examples:

  1. Original Source Text:

    "Climate change poses a significant threat to global biodiversity, impacting ecosystems and species worldwide."

    Patchwritten Version:

    "The threat of climate change to global biodiversity is substantial, affecting ecosystems and species across the globe."

    In this example, the writer has rephrased the original sentence while retaining its core meaning and structure, resulting in a patchwritten rendition.

  2. Original Source Text:

    "The Industrial Revolution brought about sweeping economic and social transformations in the 18th century."

    Patchwritten Version:

    "The 18th century witnessed profound economic and social changes due to the advent of the Industrial Revolution."

    Here, the writer has paraphrased the original statement, altering some words and rearranging the sentence structure, but the essence remains unchanged.

Here's the problem with patchwriting:

  • It shows a lack of understanding: Patchwriting demonstrates that you haven't truly grasped the source material. You're simply mimicking the words on the page without engaging with the ideas critically.
  • It's a form of plagiarism: Even if you cite the source, patchwriting is still considered plagiarism because it fails to properly integrate the source's ideas into your own writing.
  • It weakens your argument: Effective academic writing involves critical analysis and synthesis of information. Patchwriting bypasses this process, resulting in a weaker argument that lacks your own unique voice.

So, how can you avoid patchwriting? Here are some tips:

  1. Read and understand your sources: Take the time to truly grasp the main points and arguments presented in your sources.
  2. Take notes in your own words: Summarize key ideas and quotes from the source, using your own vocabulary and sentence structure.
  3. Focus on critical analysis: Don't just regurgitate information; explain how the source's ideas connect to your overall argument.

By putting in the effort to understand and synthesize your sources, you can avoid the pitfalls of patchwriting and produce strong, original academic work.

The Necessity of Patchwriting?

Studies suggest patchwriting can emerge from a second-language learner's struggle to meet academic demands. Currie's (1998) research on "Diana," a student in a business course, exemplifies this. Despite early diligence, Diana faced failing grades. To improve, she began incorporating source material into her writing, essentially patchwriting. While concerning, this differed from typical plagiarism in key ways.

Firstly, unlike buying a pre-written essay, patchwriting demanded significant effort. Currie highlights the time and dedication Diana invested in "finding precisely those phrases" and weaving them into her work (1998, p. 9). This suggests a genuine desire to learn, not simply cheat.

Secondly, Diana perceived patchwriting as a legitimate strategy. Currie notes she saw it as a way to acquire specialized vocabulary, aligning with her teacher's encouragement (p. 10). This contrasts with the deceptive intent of plagiarism.

Patchwriting as a Learning Tool?

Patchwriting can offer a controlled environment for developing writing skills. By mimicking source material, writers can "flex their muscles" within a structured framework. This can be particularly helpful for second-language learners acquiring new vocabulary and sentence structures.

Patchwriting vs. Plagiarism: A Matter of Intent

Patchwriting and plagiarism are both forms of textual appropriation, but the key distinction lies in intent. Patchwriting often stems from a lack of confidence or knowledge, not a desire to deceive. It can be a natural byproduct of language acquisition in a new context.

Overall, patchwriting presents a complex issue. While not ideal, it can highlight the challenges second-language learners face. Recognizing this distinction between patchwriting and plagiarism can inform more effective teaching strategies to support these students' writing development.

Ethical Considerations

The prevalence of patchwriting in academic and professional spheres raises ethical concerns regarding attribution and intellectual integrity. While not always intentional, patchwriting can still constitute plagiarism if proper credit is not given to the original source. Moreover, it blurs the line between original thought and borrowed content, potentially misleading readers about the author's expertise and contribution to the discourse.

To mitigate the ethical dilemmas associated with patchwriting, writers must cultivate robust paraphrasing skills and adhere to strict citation guidelines. Additionally, fostering a culture of academic integrity through education and awareness can help combat the temptation to resort to patchwriting as a shortcut to originality.


Patchwriting serves as a reminder of the complex interplay between originality, imitation, and attribution in the realm of writing. While it may offer a convenient way to integrate external sources into one's work, it also poses significant ethical challenges that cannot be overlooked. By understanding the nuances of patchwriting and embracing a commitment to intellectual honesty, writers can navigate the murky waters of textual borrowing with integrity and transparency.

  • Share
  • References
    • Academic Writing and Plagiarism: A Linguistic Analysis, (Types of Plagiarism: Patchwriting, pp 5) By Diane Pecorari

Recommended Books to Flex Your Knowledge