Constructive Copying - Digital Literacy Dover

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Constructive Copying

Cut, copy, paste, swap, then repeat. [peterellisjones]

The Process of Constructive Copying

This post focuses on the 'how', for more on the 'why' see my other post, 'Problems with Plagiarism' here.

Phase 1: The Gathering... 

Prepare a (digital) space to use as a container, if your assignment is confined to text only this could just be one long word processing document, or if you feeling a little more traditional, maybe a notebook full of paraphrased notes and direct quotes with just enough reference to lead you back to where you found the information. If it is a 'media rich' assignment combining different media this could be a folder containing text documents, and collections of media such as photographs and video. In much the same way as you have been having to do with text, it is likely that longer videos will need to be trimmed down to the essential elements.

Embark on a research 'safari', this means reading/viewing widely and thoroughly. Thoroughly capture any and all content that you encounter during this initial phase, this could be in the form of condensed notes with blocks of text from books you read transcribed into your own notes (I use dictation software for this, I literally read important sections from the books I read transcribe my notes word for word, carefully including citation in the appropriate format (APA et cetera, with page number references), copy and paste content from original articles (carefully cited) and websites, including provoking discussions encountered on web fora, even transcripts from video material that is of specific relevance to the area of research. When you find an article of particular relevance, a useful strategy is to follow the thread of their research, for example if they cite a particular author to reinforce or verify a point that you think is of particular importance, look up that author's full citation in the bibliography of that article and then track down that article to expand your reading material, of course you can also add to that citation to your list. When reading research articles in PDF form, the notes you compile should include your own contextual notes that you should be inspired to write in the margins if the article is any good. Better still you could add as annotations to the PDF on screen, I like to use GoodReader for this, none of space limits you have to tolerate with paper, and easily searchable later. It is also very important that you attempt to capture any ideas of relevance, this includes ideas that are directly contradicting each other, if anything seek out contradictory opinions/findings that are effectively and intelligently presented. This will come in very useful later when you come to repurpose this material for your own needs.

Patch writing/working

When the initial phase is complete you will have at least one gargantuan word processing document filled with a mind boggling range of excerpts and content that spans a wide range of material that directly relates to your assignment focus, being careful to include the original references either from the article itself or from Google Scholar et cetera. This type of document is often somewhat disparagingly referred to as ‘patchwork writing’, although this connotation is generally because it is assumed (again) that this patchwork state is ready for submission. Generally speaking, it is easy to underestimate the skill needed to avoid patchwork writing, and it is usually easy to spot; if nothing else, because of spelling/grammatical discrepancies, to say nothing of erratic 'voice'—flawless for the plagiarised sections—less than flawless for the sections added to patch the work together. The 'voice' of a patchwork essay can feel extremely dissonant.

“Direct "patchwork" plagiarism occurs when a writer copies material from several writers and rearranges that material with no attempt to acknowledge the original sources.” (my emphasis)

Here’s a good description from one of my favourite sources that you are advised never to cite in an academic article, Urban Dictionary, (along with Wikipedia of course):

patch writing
A technique of writing an essay, blog contribution or research paper by cutting and pasting large chunks of source material and interspersing these with brief connective sentences. The end result is thus a grotesque patchwork of long quotations that reveals little or nothing of the named author's own thoughts or insights [I would argue that if the rewritten text does reveal a great deal about your own thoughts and insights, as opposed, or as juxtaposed to the original author’s, then it’s not really plagiarism any more, is it?].
Source material may be referenced or, when plagiarized, either presented without [or with] citation or in a cosmetically [really? How about articulately? thoroughly? carefully?] reworded format.

Yes, this patchwork is an essential early stage, but, believe me, with constructive plagiarism, it is far from being ‘patchwork plagiarism’. Why? Because we are about to embark on the next phase, as advised by the NIU:

What sets patchwork plagiarism apart from direct plagiarism, however, is that, in patchwork plagiarism, the writer creatively weaves the source materials together with his or her own words into a paragraph that is a mixture of plagiarized and original material. To eliminate this type of plagiarism, you should acknowledge each source that your ideas came from and either enclose the words taken directly from each source in quotation marks or paraphrase the material into your own words.” (my emphasis)

Citations, references, bibliography 

It is very important at this initial phase that you meticulously capture the references to all the material you wish to cite if at all possible, and tag everything with an in-text, or parenthetical citation (eg McHugh, 2017). This can be tricky if you are using text from blogs and online fora (this can be a rich source of intelligent, informed dialogue). Which brings me to another one of my gripes, when oh when will hyperlinking be permitted as a form of referencing in academic writing? I can dream, but for now, you have to show you can play the game of tediously building your list of references and bibliography. For the most part you should be able to get the citations (full reference and in-text) using the usual citation tools. While CiteFast, Bibme, EasyBib and EndNote et al are useful (especially for building your own more obscure references, particularly primary, not officially published sources), my favourite is Google Scholar; search for the original article and you can use the citation tool to copy the reference in the style that you need to use, and it is free! You should use a separate word processed document for this, ideally in table format so that you can paste all of the references into a new row as you work through this assignment, at the end this will become your bibliography, when you sort it into alphabetical order and put a heading at the top.

Now you are ready for Phase 2.

Phase 2: reEverything


Now you thoroughly read and reread through this document, once you thoroughly understand its contents, you make a copy of this document and begin the process of evolving it from its current form into what will finally become your own final assignment. It will need to go through many iterations and versions between this point and that point, as it evolves and mutates into a document that feels like yours, as opposed to feeling like a disparate patchwork of assorted quotations and extracts. Are there words or terms used that you don’t understand? Reword or find out what they mean, then rephrase so they make more sense to you.This process of interpolation/integration/isolation/clarification is the phase where you move to a very deep level of engagement with the learning in this area, don't be afraid to interrupt this process in order to gather more material as new questions arise and new dilemmas present themselves, as you start to formulate his document into something that feels like your own stream of thought.


Now you need to start cutting and pasting and moving text around in the document to create a narrative flow, is there a story emerging from these disconnected text? You gathered them all because they resonated with you in some way, so what is the 'picture' that is forming? Look for a pattern that links these ideas, if you encounter ideas that do not align with this rationale, then those ideas probably need to be deleted, don't panic, the original text is in the original copy of this document if you decide if you need it later. Without a doubt, one of the main challenges you will face using this method is a high word count, (another frustrating element of the game, staying under word length), far in excess of the limits that you will have imposed upon you. Time and time again the challenge of practising concision will be one that will force you to make decisions about what it is you really need to say and what is superfluous.


Now you need to determine which of these sections is most critical to the understanding of your emerging rationale that you are trying to present. These should ideally be maintained as direct quotations from the original source, but of course this is highly unlikely to be an option, as most academic authorities are very critical of an overweighting of direct quotes. Exactly what they will consider an overweighting will vary greatly, good luck getting a clear answer on that one, but a good ballpark is they should be less than 10%. Sections you wish to keep as a direct quote should be highlighted or formatted in bold so that you can clearly identify and contrast them from your own summaries and paraphrasing within the main body of the text that is starting to emerge.


Now you need to take the rest of the text and rewrite it so that it becomes your own paraphrase of the original text while maintaining the reasoning that prompted you to capture it in the first place. In order to be able to create a seamless bridge between potentially disparate ideas, you will need to write these connections yourself, you may find your own notes you captured in the process of reading to be particularly helpful here, transposing context from that in the original article to that within within which you work and learn also helps. If you made a point of capturing alternative/opposing perspectives during your initial research, this now becomes instrumental in evolving this document into something is more yours than theirs, that feels and sounds more like you, your voice, less like a patchwork, and a lot less like the original writers as you attempt to reconcile these different perspectives, or to align yourself with one against the other. This will require you to interpolate text and sequence it in order to be able to bridge the gaps between the various arguments and rewrite them to form a united and interrupted flow.

Again you will encounter paragraphs that you will struggle to rewrite because they were written so effectively by the original author, ideally you would quote these directly, but of course you cannot because you cannot over use direct quotes, so what do you do now? You paraphrase, so you attribute this sequence to the original writer and cite carefully, but instead of directly quoting, you paraphrase the paragraph instead as was so eloquently described by scribbr above; you will need to set the context for the paraphrased section by formulating the text preceding or following the quote or paraphrase to clarify the points you want to imply.

That's it, this is an iterative process, keep cycling through these stages until you have completed your magnum opus.
  1. Remix/reword/remove/resequence
  2. interpolate/integrate/isolate/
  3. clarification/concision/Focus/Discrimination
  4. Rewrite/rephrase/revise/paraphrase/summarise
Then do it all again ⇪ ↻

Many thanks to David Woo and Kurt Wittig for their feedback and their contributions to this post.

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