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Exploring the gray area: Understanding paraphrasing as a potential path to plagiarism

Explore the nuanced world of paraphrasing, Bloom's Taxonomy, the role of AI writing tools, and strategies to avoid paraphrasing pitfalls in academic writing.

Nora Mawla
Nora Mawla
Freelance writer, marketer, & videographer
Audrey Campbell
Audrey Campbell
M.A. in Teaching; Senior Marketing Writer

In the labyrinthine world of academic writing, paraphrasing walks a thin line between being a useful tool and a potential pitfall, leading to plagiarism.

Often referred to as "patchwriting" or "mosaic plagiarism," the act of paraphrasing raises a fundamental question: What makes writing truly original in an era saturated with accessible information? Mark Twain's assertion that all ideas are merely reconfigurations of existing ones challenges us to consider the essence of originality.

This blog ventures into the complex dynamics of paraphrasing, disentangling its legitimate use from its problematic misuse. We'll delve into what constitutes effective paraphrasing that respects academic integrity and when it veers into the territory of plagiarism.

Unpacking the art of paraphrasing

Paraphrasing serves as a bridge, translating complex or specialized topics into accessible and simplified language. It is also a way for a student or researcher to synthesize what they have read, putting text into their own words to A) better understand the topic at hand and B) support their writing with a sound, meaningfully reworded example from an outside source.

The Office of Research Integrity within the US Department of Health & Human Services offers a compelling example, transforming a dense scientific explanation into a concise, digestible format. Below is the original content:

“Because the intracellular concentration of potassium ions is relatively high, potassium ions tend to diffuse out of the cell. This movement is driven by the concentration gradient for potassium ions. Similarly, the concentration gradient for sodium ions tends to promote their movement into the cell. However, the cell membrane is significantly more permeable to potassium ions than to sodium ions. As a result, potassium ions diffuse out of the cell faster than sodium ions enter the cytoplasm. The cell therefore experiences a net loss of positive charges, and as a result the interior of the cell membrane contains an excess of negative charges, primarily from negatively charged proteins” (Martini & Bartholomew, 1997, p. 204).

Here is an appropriate paraphrase of the above material:

“A textbook of anatomy and physiology (Martini & Bartholomew, 1997, p. 204) reports that the concentration of potassium ions inside of the cell is relatively high and, consequently, some potassium tends to escape out of the cell. Just the opposite occurs with sodium ions.”

The Office of Research Integrity also gives an example of an inappropriate version of paraphrasing from the original text:

“...This movement is triggered by the concentration gradient for potassium ions. Similarly, the concentration gradient for sodium ions tends to promote their movement into the cell. However, the cell membrane is much more permeable to potassium ions than it is to sodium ions. As a result, potassium ions diffuse out of the cell more rapidly than sodium ions enter the cytoplasm…” (Martini & Bartholomew, 1997, p. 204).

You’ll note that the above “rewritten” example is basically a copy of the original, save for a few superficial alterations, including word deletions, synonym swaps, and additions.

Because most of the words and structure of the original paragraph remain the same, this paragraph would technically be considered plagiarism, despite the writer crediting the original authors. As the Office of Research Integrity puts it: “[M]aking only cosmetic modifications to others’ writing misleads the reader as to who the true author of the original writing really is." In this scenario, a student could instead ask for support in learning how to more accurately paraphrase the information or alternatively, use a direct quote with a correctly cited source to make it clear that this is not their content.

Effective paraphrasing isn't just about avoiding plagiarism; it's about enhancing comprehension and adding value to the discourse.

The original thought conundrum

In the realm of academic discourse, Bloom's Taxonomy emerges as a crucial framework, offering a layered understanding of cognitive development. This taxonomy, a hierarchy starting from basic knowledge recall to the creation of new ideas, challenges us to consider the concept of 'original thought' in education.

As we go from 'Remembering' and 'Understanding' through to 'Applying', 'Analyzing', and 'Evaluating', we reach the peak - 'Creating'. This final stage is where originality is presumed to flourish. However, this presents a conundrum: in an age where information is ubiquitous and influences are numerous, can any thought claim absolute originality? This paradox is especially relevant in a digital era saturated with ideas, where the difference between inspiration and replication becomes increasingly blurred. Bloom’s Taxonomy, therefore, not only maps out cognitive skills but also invites a deeper reflection on the nature and possibility of truly original thought in our modern knowledge ecosystem.

What’s the difference between plagiarism and paraphrasing?

Plagiarism and paraphrasing, while seemingly similar, diverge significantly in intent and execution.

Plagiarism is the act of passing off someone else's work or ideas as one's own while paraphrasing, in contrast, aims to rearticulate ideas for clarity while maintaining the essence of the original work. Paraphrasing becomes problematic when it strays into the realm of plagiarism, often manifested in the failure to properly attribute sources, bring new insights to the table, or to uphold academic integrity.

To wholly uphold academic integrity is to commit to honesty, trust, fairness, respect, responsibility, and courage. It is a holistic concept that must be backed up by institutional policies, curriculum, teaching interventions, assessment design, and feedback loops that strengthen a student’s bond to learning.

In an earlier post, we explored the ways in which paraphrasing may become problematic. The following three examples are situations that may cause challenges around paraphrasing expectations:

  • When a student does not understand the purpose behind paraphrasing, they may not see the importance of attributing what they've paraphrased and therefore overlook doing so. Educators must take great care in building a culture of academic integrity and explaining to students how cited, well-paraphrased passages not only enhance their writing (and also provide variety in an essay that would otherwise be all quotations), they uphold integrity by recognizing an author’s original work.
  • When a student does not have the foundational literacy skills to paraphrase, it may lead them to unintentionally plagiarize. In a suspected case of academic misconduct, an educator must ascertain if it is a skill deficit or deliberate plagiarism. From there, strengthening a student’s literary comprehension skills and basic academic writing skills can help bolster their confidence and ability to paraphrase. Turnitin’s Draft Coach can also be used to help students write accurate citations in Microsoft® Word for the web and Google Docs™.
  • When a student knowingly and purposely uses short-cut solutions in place of their own skills, it’s a sign that action must be taken. Paraphrasing tools, also known as word spinners, alter existing text with the purpose of evading plagiarism detection software. This deeply impacts learning because they prevent students from understanding how to truly paraphrase.

Steering clear of paraphrasing pitfalls

Avoiding paraphrasing plagiarism is a nuanced skill, requiring a blend of accurate citation, original sentence structuring, and a deep understanding of the source material.

There are many ways to avoid paraphrasing plagiarism while still paraphrasing to summarize work and communicate topics more clearly and holistically. Ways to avoid plagiarizing include:

  • Correct citation of sources
  • Quoting and summarizing texts accurately
  • Writing with your own sentence structures
  • Understanding text and content clearly before paraphrasing

There is also a helpful paraphrasing strategy called the 4R’s: Read, Restate, Recheck, and Repair.

  • Read: Did you understand the passage?
  • Restate: Did you restate important points in your own words?
  • Recheck: Did you include all of the important details?
  • Repair: Did you correct any misinformation?

In addition to the above, the following sections delve into key elements to keep in mind and practical strategies to master this skill, ensuring that paraphrasing enriches, rather than diminishes, academic integrity.

The role of text spinners in paraphrasing plagiarism

Text spinners, or article spinners, present a new hurdle in the realm of paraphrasing plagiarism. These tools, designed to disguise copied content as original, exacerbate the issue by blurring the lines between legitimate paraphrasing and deceptive rewriting. “Simply put,” says Christine Lee, “when students use word spinners, they aren’t producing their own original work. Original work means that even when paraphrasing, students regenerate the ideas of another person into their own words and voice to express their own understanding of concepts.”

Educators need to understand the emerging trends in misconduct and academic integrity so that they can build awareness around them, educate students on their misuse, and mitigate any threats to an institution's reputation to ensure authentic student learning.

How to effectively teach paraphrasing

Educators bear the responsibility of guiding students through the maze of paraphrasing. This entails instilling respect for academic integrity, teaching proper citation techniques, and encouraging the development of independent thought.

To start, it is imperative to highlight examples of accurate paraphrasing and how it differs from quotations and summarizing.

As quoted in an earlier Turnitin post, according to the Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL):

  • Quotations must be identical to the original, using a narrow segment of the source. They must match the source document word for word and must be attributed to the original author.
  • Paraphrasing involves rewording a passage from source material into your own words. A paraphrase must also be attributed to the original source because there is no creation of new ideas. Paraphrased material is usually shorter than the original passage, taking a somewhat broader segment of the source and condensing it slightly.
  • Summarizing involves putting the main idea(s) into your own words, including only the main point(s). Once again, it is necessary to attribute summarized ideas to the original source because no new ideas have been introduced. Summaries are significantly shorter than the original and take a broad overview of the source material.

And while there are myriad ways for educators to approach and teach this highly important skill, the following are a few resources that can support thoughtful plagiarism education and practice:

  • Explain the course’s or institution’s policy on academic integrity clearly and early in the semester. Outline course and assignment expectations explicitly, including appropriate use and misuse of AI tools. By building a culture of integrity that is clearly defined, students can more deeply understand the value of accurate paraphrasing and citations, as well as understand the consequences of misconduct.
  • Dive into Turnitin’s Paraphrasing Pack, eleven out-of-the-box resources developed by veteran educators that are ready to be implemented in the classroom. It features everything from research strategies and student checklists for paraphrasing to lesson presentations and printable graphic organizers.
  • Explore all of the resources that support academic integrity in the age of AI, including valuable assets that help students to better understand how and when to use AI tools ethically.
  • Conduct a candid conversation with a student if their work appears to have similarities to other texts without proper paraphrasing or citation, or if inappropriate usage of AI tools is suspected. These dialogues often transform a moment of misconduct into an opportunity for learning by determining if there is a skill deficit that can be readily addressed. The data housed in the Similarity Report, including instances of synonym swapping, as well as Turnitin’s AI writing detection tool, can both serve as jumping off points for these essential conversations.

Maintaining academic integrity while paraphrasing

While building that culture of academic integrity and teaching skills is the first step, educators know that oftentimes it’s necessary to take another step, one that will confirm or refute that the student’s work is solely their own. It may be as simple as a remarkably sophisticated sentence structure or vocabulary choice, but educators tend to recognize when a student misrepresents something that is not their work, as their own.

That next step is as simple as reviewing Turnitin’s newly enhanced Similarity Report, which has a streamlined workflow to show both the Similarity Score and the AI writing score. While AI continues to evolve, so too does the students’ use of AI tools. Turnitin’s AI writing score may indicate the use of AI paraphrasing tools to modify AI-generated content. Educators have no “extra clicks” as AI paraphrasing detection is built seamlessly into the existing workflow that educators already use and trust. As before, this score is to inform the educator of the likelihood that the student tried to use AI paraphrasing tools as a shortcut; whether intentional plagiarism or not is determined by the educator and the student during formative discussions surrounding their work. Then, next steps to help a student to revise can be taken.

Check out this infographic that defines the key differences between human- powered paraphrasing and AI paraphrasing tools, as well as the role an AI paraphrasing detector can play in this process.

In sum: How to skillfully paraphrase and avoid plagiarism

The skill of paraphrasing is foundational in academic writing, serving as a safeguard against the pitfalls of plagiarism and academic misconduct. When a student fails to master this skill, they risk inadvertently crossing the line from legitimate use of sources to plagiarism, a serious breach of academic integrity.

Effective paraphrasing involves more than just altering a few words; it requires a deep understanding of the original text and the ability to express its essence in a new, original form while maintaining the core message. This process must be coupled with accurate citations and the appropriate use of quotes to credit the original authors.

Without these critical components, a student's work can easily fall into the realm of academic dishonesty. Thus, learning to paraphrase correctly is not just about avoiding plagiarism; it's about respecting the intellectual labor of others, upholding the values of academic integrity, and contributing genuinely to the scholarly conversation.