Plagiphrasing: Sloppy Sourcework

by Alfred J. Drake

"Plagiphrasing" is what Dr. Kathleen Turner [. . .] calls a student's serious -- but failed -- attempt to avoid plagiarism by changing just a few words from the original source. It occurs frequently when beginning writers are still a bit foggy on how to paraphrase a source well. For review, let's note the following: Plagiarism is deliberately copying someone else's written or spoken words and presenting them without acknowledgement of the source, as if they were your own words. Plagiarism is dishonest at best, and a serious academic offence. When it occurs outside the school setting, it is punishable under copyright laws. Paraphrasing is taking someone else's words and ideas and rephrasing them almost exclusively in your own words. A good paraphrase presents the essence of what someone else has written or said, but in no way does it present the wording -- or even the same sentence structure and organisation -- contained in the original. Paraphrases must still be properly acknowledged by attribution and/or accurate documentation. Often, beginning writers who are not yet experienced in research techniques lack the confidence to produce a good paraphrase or summary of what someone else has written or said. Knowing they cannot copy the original without plagiarising, such students change a few of the words and present what amounts to a bad paraphrase -- a plagiphrase -- of the original, and then document it. The documentation shows that such students are not trying to be dishonest. But they must still learn how to paraphrase well to avoid being inadvertent plagiarists.

An Example of Plagiphrasing. Here is how a student of ours recently began a research paper on the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil-tanker spill:

The Exxon Valdez oil tanker went aground at 12:04 A.m. on a drizzly Good Friday, March 24,1989. Its hull was torn open in eight places, sending eleven million gallons of crude oil into ocean waves that broke as high as two feet on the surface (Adler 59). A contingency plan mandated by law requires the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, located in Valdez, to respond to a spill within five hours. The response took up to twelve hours (Marshall 244). Nearly all the tanker's oil was released during those critical hours." That's interesting, and it is well written. It is also a plagiphrase from the two different sources: Adler, Jerry "Alaska after Exxon." Newsweek 18 Sept. 1989: 50-64. Marshall, Eliot. "Valdez: The Predicted Oil Spill." Science 7 Apr. 1989: 20+. (Note: The + sign in the Marshall citation means that the article begins on page 20 and is continued farther back in the issue, on an additional page or pages.) First, let's see what Adler actually wrote on Newsweek page 59. We quote: The Exxon Valdez went aground in the middle of a drizzly night in March. Its hull was ripped open in eight places, sending oil surging into the water in waves that broke as high as two feet on the surface (59).

Here's what Eliot Marshall wrote on page 244 of Science:

"A contingency plan mandated by law requires the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, whose terminal is at Valdez, to respond to a spill within 5 hours. The response took 10 to 12 hours.. Nearly all the oil was released in the first 12 hours.." (244).

Here is the student's paragraph again, this time with the duplicated words, phrases, and clauses in all capitals:

THE EXXON VALDEZ oil tanker WENT AGROUND at 12:04 A.M. on a DRIZZLY Good Friday, March 24,1989. ITS HULL WAS torn OPEN IN EIGHT PLACES~ SENDING eleven million gallons of crude oil into ocean WAVES THAT BROKE AS HIGH AS TWO FEET ON THE SURFACE (Adler 59). A CONTINGENCY PLAN MANDATED BY LAW REQUIRES THE ALYESKA PIPELINE SERVICE COMPANY, located in VALDEZ, TO RESPOND TO A SPILL WITHIN FIVE HOURS THE RESPONSE TOOK up to TWELVE HOURS (Marshall 244).

Even if you grant that the student could hardly have come up with substitutes for words like Valdez, hours, and Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, you must also grant that there are many other ways to say the weather was drizzly, the tanker had eight fractures, and so on. Trying to put these passages into her own words, this student unintentionally paraphrased badly -- plagiphrased. Our point is that although it takes time, effort, and resourcefulness to come up with a good paraphrase, anything less than a good paraphrase may disappoint your readers (including your teacher) and thus may also disappoint you.

What is a good way to paraphrase the Adler and Marshall information? Here's one possibility:

Exxon's tanker Valdez foundered in light rain and two-foot waves on March 24,1989. Some eleven million gallons of crude oil then escaped through eight tears in the ship's hull (Adler 59). By law Alyeska Pipeline Service Company of nearby Valdez is supposed to respond to such spills within five hours, but virtually all of the tanker's oil had leaked by the time a response was actually made, nearly twelve hours after the accident (Marshall 244).   Always do your best to use your sources fairly and accurately. Eventually you will find it easier to do so, and the ultimate beneficiaries will be your readers and -- while you're still a student, anyway -- your grades.