As information continues to proliferate, especially in digital format, it becomes more difficult to determine the difference between general information, known to everyone (common knowledge) and information for which credit must be given. For high school and college students, evidence is presented in a research paper through a direct quote or paraphrase. During the research process, using information by paraphrasing often feels overwhelming, especially with digital resources. This critical part of the research paper writing process is not an intuitive skill. There is an inherent abstract nature to paraphrasing ("put it into your own words") which can be difficult to discern. Proper paraphrasing helps students avoid accidental plagiarism. Even with citation checkers like turnitin.com, students need a deliberate educational process to avoid accidental plagiarism.
There are many misperceptions about paraphrasing because there are no firm educational guidelines established beyond instructions to "put it into your own words." It can be confusing to decide which original words are permissible to reuse and which words need to be restated. People who are teaching it—or who have to teach it—may find it challenging to do themselves.
Often, students attempt to paraphrase too much text and lose the essential meaning of the original sentences. It is often confusing to choose the sentences to paraphrase from the source. Many have experienced variable results when attempting to paraphrase.
Micro-paraphrasing, with its clearly defined steps, streamlines the paraphrasing process by emphasizing reading comprehension and the different types of language (unique information, common knowledge, and critical terms) to be analyzed and restated. It offers definite guidelines for the number of sentences which should be paraphrased at one time. The resulting paraphrase is one clear and concise sentence. This makes it easier for teachers to read and grade student work. The paraphrase clearly ends with a parenthetical citation. Results improve when paraphrasing and paraphrasing instruction are considered a reading comprehension issue first and a writing issue second. Instead of the abstract "put it into your own words," micro-paraphrasing creates the paraphrase from the important, unique meaning of the original sentences. A distinct and manageable process for paraphrasing increases the student's confidence with this skill, and increases the likelihood that they will do it.
There are three distinct reading-based language tasks for students to master within this process.
- Identifying common knowledge. Students need to understand that common knowledge within the original sentences should not be used in the paraphrase.
- Identifying the terms in the sentences which cannot be restated. These critical terms serve as the structure for the new paraphrase.
- Identifying the unique information which is important enough to be used as evidence in the research paper. At the same time, students should also identify what is irrelevant, even if it is not common knowledge.
Paraphrasing with fewer sentences has many advantages for inexperienced researchers. Since micro-paraphrasing uses a maximum of three original sentences at one time, it further insures the ethical manipulation the language of others. It is easier to visualize how to change the structure of the original sentences. It also avoids the tendency to read too much when paraphrasing, losing the essential meaning of the sentences. While this approach can also be considered summarizing, this language emphasis creates a prerequisite process for more complex paraphrasing.
Micro-paraphrasing is a process with four successive steps. These steps should be defined clearly to students during the instruction. Depending on the students, the micro-paraphrasing steps can be reinforced with additional instruction to build competency.
Step 1 — Read the sentences precisely.
What does this mean? Without appropriate reading comprehension, paraphrasing is an inaccurate process. An integral part of the micro-paraphrasing instructional process emphasizes precision reading. Students must grasp the essential, unique meaning of the original sentences. The concept of common knowledge should be reviewed with students at this time. (See the lesson plan, Considering the Audience: Common Knowledge Questions for ideas on this topic.) As they read the sentences, encourage them to differentiate between what they already know about the topic, what is implied within the original sentences and does not need to be restated and what is unique enough to provide evidence in a research paper.
Step 2 — Identify critical terms.
Critical terms are those words which can't be restated another way. Recognizing which words need to carry over to the paraphrase is an important part of this process.The critical terms are normally names, places, proper nouns, and words which cannot be stated another way. Recognizing these critical terms is challenging. Students have a tendency to over-identify these terms. They need to understand that not all of the critical terms need to be used in the paraphrase, rather, only the terms necessary to keep the paraphrase's meaning consistent with the original sentences. Any relevant words which are not critical terms will need to be restated in the paraphrase.
Step 3 — Determine the new structure.
Students should be able to see the "lead" of the original sentences chosen for the paraphrase. This is connected to the reading comprehension process of micro-paraphrasing. Instructors should prompt, "With what idea do these sentences start?" Students should mark the two sentences with related ideas to be paraphrased. These sentences should be in the same paragraph but do not need to be right next to one another. The sentence which is first in the paragraph is dominant for determining a new lead for the two sentences. Using just two sentences for a paraphrase allows the structure to be changed easily, avoiding plagiarism. The new "lead" of the paraphrase should be restructured based on the unique information found in the original sentences. The new paraphrase needs to start differently than the original.
Step 4 — Write the paraphrase and apply the citation.
The instructor should review the school's accepted citation style along with the role a citation plays in a paraphrase. The paraphrase should be one sentence only. This provides clarity and the best use of the original information to create an argument. Writing the paraphrase should be a deliberate process where accuracy is checked by students against the original for meaning and for readability. The original sentences are not hidden during this process.
Practice and deliberate instruction is essential to reduce plagiarism. Micro-paraphrasing, with four definite steps, gives students a concrete method to be successful. Restating the original sentences through focusing on the unique information is a clearer method than "put it into your own words." This emphasis on reading comprehension and the most concise use of language possible is the counterbalance to the cursory reading encouraged by computer screens and smart phones. When reading is better, writing and research improve.
For more ideas and examples around micro-paraphrasing and other forms of skill building that help prevent plagiarism, check out Darr's book, Combating Plagiarism: A Hands-On Guide for Librarians, Teachers, and Students, available from Libraries Unlimited.
Terry Darr's long-term collaboration with a high school history teacher taught her the challenges faced by students conducting research—and by librarians and teachers tasked with teaching plagiarism prevention. Her book is full of tested concepts for teaching these complex topics, emphasizing our modern reliance on digital sources. An extensive student reference section covers common knowledge, fact, and opinion. A wealth of practical resources includes real-life examples from research papers as well as plenty of instructional materials, exercises, and lesson plans.
Offers an instructional plan for plagiarism education for middle school and high school students, allowing librarians to become a resource for students, teachers, and school administrators.
- Helps librarians to feel confident in their professional positions as plagiarism experts on campus
- Teaches librarians how to help students who have already plagiarized
- Provides opportunities for librarians to collaborate with teachers and writing centers through plagiarism education
- Acts as a reference guide with all types of questions to ask students about plagiarism during the research process
- Creates an important framework for the ethical and appropriate use of information in schools