When dealing with sources in the body text of a paper, writers frequently face the choice between paraphrasing or quoting the source. In student writing, mistakes in either can lead to reduced marks or plagiarism procedures. Having seen far too many problems with this recently, I provide a brief overview of both here. This is not meant to be a replacement for university or department resources on academic integrity.
Quoting sources is straightforward – copy a block of text, wrap it in quotation marks, and add appropriate citation information. For long quotations (three or more lines), the quote itself needs to be offset from normal text.
‘The Carmel is a lovely little river. It isn’t very long but in its course it has everything a river should have. It rises in the mountains, and tumbles down a while, runs through shallows, is dammed to make a lake, spills over the dam, crackles among round boulders, wanders lazily under sycamores, spills into pools where trout live, drops in against banks where crayfish live. In the winter it becomes a torrent, a mean little fierce river, and in the summer it is a place for children to wade in and for fishermen to wander in.'(1)
- Copy and paste is easy.
- For the occasional particularly important passage, this can be a way to ensure the point is made sufficiently clearly.
- Quoting a source does not demonstrate your understanding of the text.
- Forgetting the quotation marks can lead to academic-integrity problems.
In secondary school, I was taught to quote a passage, paraphrase it, and then analyze it. I stopped this practice pretty quickly – the end product is very repetitive, and the constant quoting that the typical application would require would interrupt any flow in my own prose. I have had students with similar training, and their application consisted of either a) quote, paraphrase; or b) quote, move on. Neither of these demonstrates much – or any – original intellectual contribution, which is the most important aspect of a student essay.
Paraphrasing is the expression, in your own words, of an idea from the underlying source. There should be no copy-paste manipulation of the source text involved, and both the source and your depiction of it should be fundamentally and structurally distinct from each other. Simply replacing a few words from the original source is not paraphrasing; it is plagiarism.
Two examples paraphrasing the passage above:
Steinbeck’s Cannery Row has often been described as a particularly sentimental novelette. This is clearly demonstrated not only in his beatific depictions of Mack and the boys, but also in his depiction of the locale. Even his image of the Carmel River belies a fondness, the words trickling and flowing in their own little stream.(1)
Steinbeck makes use of an undulating rhythm in his depiction of the Carmel River in Cannery Row. Where the water flows, so do the words: over mountains, through a lake, over a dam, under trees and overhanging banks until it reaches the sea.(1)
- Paraphrasing is a good way to demonstrate your understanding or interpretation of a source.
- Paraphrasing allows you to draw attention to your own thinking.
- Fundamentally rewriting the original idea reduces plagiarism risk. Of course, you still need to cite your source.
- Requires more effort than direct quotation.
- If you fundamentally misunderstood your source, this will be readily apparent.
For university writing assignments, where word counts or page limits mean that space can be a valuable commodity, paraphrasing is the more efficient way to deal with source materials.
My own thoughts
I include a ‘no direct quotes’ line in assessment guidelines for my classes, and discuss this in class when introducing assignments.
I have this rule for several reasons.
First, for policy- or research-focused writing, there is often no benefit to quoting a source directly.
Second, I prefer to know what my students are thinking about the materials they’re using than what those materials say themselves. In most cases, I’ve already read the underlying source several times, so I don’t need it quoted back at me.
Finally, quoting makes people lazy. The common assumption seems to be that if the quote says it, the quoting author doesn’t need to; the result is almost always superficial analysis.
1. John Steinbeck, 1945. Cannery Row. New York: Viking Press. Page 75.