Poor Paraphrases

Learning how to correctly paraphrase the words of another author is one of the most difficult, yet important skills to learn in writing a researched argument. A paraphrase is a restatement of someone else's words and/or ideas. This is a difficult skill because it requires that you fully understand the passage you want to paraphrase. You must understand the passage so well that you feel you could explain it accurately to someone else who has never read it. In fact, the word "paraphrase" comes from two Greek words meaning to explain alongside. So, you can think of a paraphrase as a clarification or distillation that runs alongside of a passage, staying faithful to its original meaning. Plagiarism can sneak into your paraphrases if you are not careful. Many handbooks advise you to compose paraphrases from memory to avoid plagiarizing the source; you can go back and check the paraphrase for accuracy once you have written it from memory.

Paraphrases also must be cited correctly. Signal phrases (also called author tags) usually begin the paraphrase, and parenthetical citations end the paraphrase. Signal phrases are introductory tags that tell a reader, "Hey, I am referencing another source, and here it is!" Signal phrases always include an author's name and sometimes include an author's title/position or other contextual information about the source. Examples of signal phrases are "According to journalist Gregg Easterbrook," "Easterbrook argues that," and "Easterbrook claims. " Parenthetical citations are discussed in Section 3.

There are a few common plagiarism traps related to paraphrases. The following example shows plagiarism in a paraphrase:

Original source: If there is now a scientific consensus that global warming must be taken seriously, there is also a related political consensus: that the issue is GloomCity. In An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore warns of sea levels rising to engulf New York and San Francisco and implies that only wrenching lifestyle sacrifice can save us.

A student uses the source: Gregg Easterbrook wants to convince his readers to give up the attitude that global warming is GloomCity. Easterbrook gathers evidence from past regulations that have helped clean up pollution, and an inconvenient truth is actually much more convenient than many politicians and environmentalists would have us believe (par. 1).

Do you know why this would be considered plagiarism? There are a few reasons. First, the student has plagiarized the phrase "Gloom City," which originally belongs to the author. The student has also appropriated Easterbrook's original title ("Some Convenient Truths" ) as a play on Al Gore's documentary, An Inconvenient Truth. If I knew nothing about Easterbrook's essay or Gore's film, I would think the student had the idea of turning inconvenient truths into convenient truths. Finally, the student could be clearer about representing Easterbrook's argument accurately. In the last sentence of the student paraphrase, think of how the following change would affect your view of Easterbrook's essay: "Easterbrook gathers evidence from past regulations that have helped clean up pollution, and he argues that global warming is actually a problem that can be solved, contrary to what many politicians and environmentalists would have us believe. " In this new sentence, the reader understands that Easterbrook is making an argument to convince readers to think differently about the feasibility of global warming solutions. In fact, this is what Easterbrook argues. In the unrevised student passage, the student has adopted this argument and taken it away from Easterbrook.

This example shows how subtle and devious plagiarism within paraphrases can be. It also demonstrates that even paraphrases crediting the author's name can be considered plagiarism.

The following example shows a different type of plagiarism in a paraphrase:

Original source: Yet a paralyzing negativism dominates global-warming politics. Environmentalists depict climate change as nearly unstoppable; skeptics speak of the problem as either imaginary or ruinously expensive to address. One reason the global-warming problem seems so daunting is that the success of previous antipollution efforts remains something of a secret.

A student uses the source: In his essay, "Some Convenient Truths," Gregg Easterbrook observes that a petrifying sense of despair has ruled global-warming politics. Environmentalists talk about climate change as inevitable; skeptics talk about the problem as either invented or too costly to do anything about. For one thing, global warming is an overwhelming problem because the victory of past clean-up efforts is still not well-known (Easterbrook par. 7).

The student has credited the source with a signal phrase and a parenthetical citation. The student has also provided new words for the original source. So why is this plagiarism? Paraphrasing is not an exercise in using your thesaurus and plugging in synonyms. You must restate the author's words and sentence structure - literally explain the passage in your own terms. The above example is plagiarism because the student has stolen the author's original word order, although each word is different. It is also possible to plagiarize the structure of paragraphs or even entire essays, though this is not as common as stealing sentence structure.

Paraphrasing Exercise: Read the original source and look at the attempts to paraphrase it. Decide which attempts are acceptable and which attempts have plagiarized the source. Be prepared to discuss your findings with the class.

Original source: Americans love challenges, and preventing artificial climate change is just the sort of technological and economic challenge at which this nation excels. It only remains for the right politician to recast the challenge in practical, optimistic tones. Gore seldom has, and Bush seems to have no interest in trying. But cheap and fast improvement is not a pipe dream; it is the pattern of previous efforts against air pollution. (from paragraph 14)

1. According to Gregg Easterbrook, our nation's past battle against air pollution should prove that the political pessimism surrounding the problem of climate change is the only thing impeding steps towards improvement (par. 14).

2. The prevention of climate change is not a pipe dream. If it weren't for pessimistic policiticians like Al Gore and George Bush, global warming would have a solution by now (par. 14).

3. As Gregg Easterbrook points out, climate change is a surmountable obstacle, and "it only remains for the right politician to recast the challenge in practical, optimistic tones" (par. 14).

4. Easterbrook writes that a more positive attitude about climate change would make a huge difference (par. 14). It is up to prominent politicians, such as Al Gore and George Bush, to shift the tide of pessimism towards an attitude of optimism.