Inappropriate Paraphrasing

You may have learned that paraphrasing is the appropriate way to use reference material. In psychology (and many other disciplines) it isn't. Here, paraphrasing is defined as: finding the exact sentence or passage that is relevant to your own paper, lifting it out of the source, switching out a few words for synonyms or re-arranging the words a bit, and dropping the resulting sentence or passage in your paper. Paraphrasing of this sort is actually considered plagiarism in psychology. When you use information from a source, the goal is to put it entirely in your own words. Even when discussing someone else's ideas, the reader still assumes that you wrote your own unique sentences (even if you include citations). Doing otherwise, then, is implicitly trying to take credit for someone else's work and that is plagiarism.


Why is Paraphrasing Such a Problem?

In psychological writing, you are typically explaining or defending a point by using evidence gathered by other authors - often multiple authors.  Because the ultimate point you want to make is not dependent on the particular wording those other authors used, the entire paper you write needs to be in your own words - even in those places where you are discussing someone else's research. Only in rare instances will the particular wording another author used be important to your point. 

Paraphrasing or using more than a few direction quotations interferes with the "flow" of your own writing. It is often difficult for the reader to see how the paraphrased or quoted ideas fit with your broader discussion because they have not read the same source material you have. Thus, in psychological writing, paraphrasing is considered bad writing practice. For similar reasons, using more than a few direct quotes is also considered bad writing practice.

To avoid the (common) tendency to paraphrase, try these tips:

  • Write notes about what you read using your own words.
  • Before you begin writing your paper (or a portion of it), close all the original sources and create a first draft using your own words.
  • You can refer back to a source for more detail as part of the revision process. 


Inappropriate Paraphrasing Example

(courtesy of Professor Paul C. Smith)  

Here is an example paragraph from a source:

"Long-term memory, that immensely complex storehouse, has also been most extensively studied with the use of verbal materials, usually presented in the form of long lists. As we shall see, this approach has resulted in some extremely important findings, but it has also been a bit misleading. After all, remembering lists of words is somewhat different from remembering a conversation, a recipe, or the plot of a movie" (Klatsky, 1975, p.17).

Here is an inappropriate paraphrase:

Long term memory is a complex storehouse that has been studied extensively using verbal materials presented in the form of long lists. While this approach has resulted in some important findings, it has been misleading. Remembering a list is not like remembering a discussion or a movie (Klatsky, 1975).

Here is an appropriate summary of that information:

Researchers usually study long term memory by having subjects attempt to recall aloud items from long lists. Because such a task is different in important ways from the kinds of tasks long term memory is usually called upon to perform, our findings are somewhat questionable (Klatsky, 1975).

The inappropriate paraphrase is not really the student's own words, but rather just Klatsky's words rearranged a bit (with a few words omitted). A person could write such a paragraph without really understanding the original paragraph at all. The author of the appropriate summary, on the other hand, must have understood Klatsky's original paragraph. The meaning of that paragraph is captured in the summary, but the words used to express that meaning are the author's own. Do not include material you do not understand (you can always ask your professor for help with concepts you don't understand). 

Also of note: both the appropriate and inappropriate passages included a source citation. You want to include the source citation even if you are not using a direct quote. You want the reader to understand where you learned the information you are sharing. However, including a citation does not change the fact that inappropriate paraphrasing is plagiarism.


Other useful links:


Muhlenberg information about plagiarism including more examples & FAQ's.

More information about Writing Papers and APA citation style.