Friday, 23 September 2016

Why paraphrasing is important in academic writing

Each new semester brings the need to explain some of the same things to a new group of students.

One thing about that repetition is that (a) it makes you start to think about what is really important, and (b) you get better at explaining the reasons.

Over time I feel that my explanations are getting clearer, and that I become more focused on picking off the really key aspects of work that will add the most value for both the student, for myself, for the institution, and for the business sector as a whole.

However, there are some things that still need to be hammered home for all of us, and one of those is "Don't steal other people's stuff".

Students often copy original author words verbatim, and think that by including a citation, it absolves them of theft.

Not so. If we haven't flagged by using double-quote marks that we are using the original author's exact words, the writer's own skull-sweat, we are still stealing: citation or no citation.

What we have to do is either (a) show that we clearly understand exactly what the original author was saying by putting it in our own words and citing the author as the owner of the original ideas, or (b) put double-quote marks around those words and citing them, including a page number.

There is no third option.

When we are writing for academic credit, we cannot get credit for something that we have not written ourselves. If we have loads of 'accidentally' copied sections from other author's work, then this is not our own work: it is the work of others. We have simply done a mash-up.

The illustration on this page shows 272 words from a TurnItIn similarity score run on a piece of student work. Of those 272 words shown, 196 have been stolen and reused without indicating that they were not the student's own writing (72%). They have been cited, but not quoted. Of the 76 that remain, 42 of them are correctly treated quotes (15%). The remaining 26 words are the student's actual work... totalling 10%.

I wouldn't give someone a job if they could only do 10% and nick or borrow the rest. This is shades of Developer Bob.

We need to demonstrate our original thinking, not our ability to 'monkey see, monkey do'. Business School students around the world apparently have the highest levels of dishonesty when compared to other faculties (terrifying! McCabe, Butterfield & Trevino, 2006). 

What employer wants an employee who steals before they even get into the workplace?

As a result, a large part of my role each year is to model honestly, and to help my students to be able to be honest.

  • Reference: McCabe, Donald L., Butterfield, Kenneth D. & Trevino, Linda Klebe (2006). Academic dishonesty in graduate business programs: Prevalence, causes, and proposed action. Academy of Management Learning & Education, September 2006, Volume 5, issue 3 (pp. 294-305).


  1. Hi Sam, I hope you are well :-) I entirely agree with your views and thank you for your may interesting postings on learning and teaching more generally. Best wishes, Glenn

  2. Thanks Glenn: very kind of you!