Why This Humanist Codes: A Genealogy of the Citation Project

Here’s my paper from the 2013 CCCC:


Rebecca Moore Howard

Conference on College Composition and Communication

Las Vegas, NV, 14 Mar. 2013.



Why This Humanist Codes


Several years ago, an applied linguist in Sweden emailed to introduce herself and tell me that she had published an article that tested my hypothesis about patchwriting. “Tested my hypothesis about patchwriting?” I was very much taken aback, even a little indignant. I didn’t have a hypothesis; I had findings. I had paid attention to what my students were doing in my classes, I had described it carefully; I had read exhaustively in the extensive postmodern theory of authorship and the scanty scholarship of student plagiarism, and I had written several articles and a book that had been very warmly received in my field.

That linguist, Diane Pecorari, had kindly attached a copy of her article,[1] in which she says, “Howard’s patchwriting model offers an intuitive appeal and, potentially, a powerful explanation for the phenomenon of non-prototypical plagiarism. However, too little empirical evidence for patchwriting exists” (320). Intuitive appeal? Too little empirical evidence? Surely the woman was mad. Surely she was failing to perceive the power of my analysis.

(As you can readily perceive, I was not trained in data-based methods. My PhD was in English, and although I had written a dissertation in what I would now call Writing Studies, all of my required coursework had been in literature and linguistics. In my department in the early 1980s, there were no courses offered in Writing Studies or in research methodology of any kind. Close reading was all one needed to know, and one learned it in every single class.[2])


I was still mulling over Pecorari’s assertions when I attended the 2006 conference on Writing Program Administration, at which Chris Anson delivered a keynote that stirred many of us in the audience. Anson said (and here I am quoting from the 2008 published version of his talk)[3] that our field, and the specific subfield of writing program administration—needs a reinvigorated research agenda. Anson explained that most arguments advanced by WPAs were based on belief—”whether theorized or not, whether argued from logic or anecdote, experience or conviction” (11)—and that people outside Writing Studies would not be persuaded by WPAs’ beliefs or disciplinary authority but instead would need what Richard Haswell calls “solid and ever-strengthening data” to be persuaded (qtd. in Anson 22).

As a scholar, I was and am very much involved in attempting to persuade academics outside my own field. I wish to persuade them that Turnitin.com is not the magic solution to student plagiarism. I wish to persuade them that students’ textual missteps are not a unitary category of unmitigated evil that we can “catch” with a software program and punish under the label plagiarism but are instead a mixed bag of language acquisition, source misuse, incomplete comprehension of US conventions, undeveloped critical reading processes, multicultural textual expectations, and yes, sometimes evil, deliberate appropriation of unacknowledged sources. The responses in my own field to my early scholarship—the stuff with the “intuitive appeal” but “too little empirical evidence”—were mostly positive; I was able to persuade my colleagues to share my beliefs. My articles, especially a 1995 piece from College English,[4] began showing up in TA practicum coursepacks.

Outside my field, however, I was variously called, in print, in the public media, a fool and a villain who was undermining the foundations of Western civilization and its prospects for continuance. In Reader’s Digest, Tucker Carlson declared me a “skillful apologist” for plagiarists.[5] In the National Review, Jonah Goldberg decided that I was either a “tweedy, French-bathed barbarian in pursuit of destroying Western Civilization” or an “idiot.”[6] In U.S. News and World Report, John Leo categorized my work as “politically correct” (remember that witch hunt?) and even implied that I was—gasp—a feminist.[7] Alumni of my university began writing to the Chancellor, demanding my resignation.

Good times.

It was in that environment that I began to code—not as a way of escaping from the firestorm, though coding is indeed a great escape mechanism—but because it was clear, from Anson’s positive testimony and Goldberg’s, Leo’s, and Carlson’s negative attacks, that I was getting nowhere in changing the way the academy and the culture at large respond to too-close use of source language.

At first I didn’t study the scholarship on coding. I didn’t even know such scholarship existed. (It was 2006, but I was still pretty clueless about data-based research methods. They seemed quite obscure and opaque.)

Instead, I studied Pecorari’s works, deriving from them a method for analyzing and categorizing students’ textual moves when they work with sources. For something as scary as data-based research, working from a model came much more easily to me than working from explanatory guidelines like Cheryl Geisler’s excellent book Analyzing Streams of Language.[8] With Tricia Serviss and Tanya Rodrigue, I hybridized Pecorari’s methods, adapting them to the purposes of what eventually became the Citation Project. As we tested the system, I read everything available on citation context analysis, materials from applied linguistics (Pecorari’s field) and information studies.

We coded. Our coding was a simple categorization of intertextual moves in undergraduate research papers, determining whether students are summarizing, paraphrasing, patchwriting, or copying when they cite their sources. Simple question, simple categories.

Or so it would seem. Actually defining and applying this coding system took three years of work before we felt that multiple coders could more or less readily arrive at similar results when they coded a paper. The process was messy: we were working with naturalistic data, not a controlled study. We used no computer programs to analyze the students’ papers; instead, Writing teachers trained in applying our coding system read those papers and interpreted their citations.

When Sandra Jamieson joined the project as co-principal researcher, she saw that we needed to be able to quantify our results. Braver and more energetic than I, she actually enrolled in stats classes and learned how to use SPSS as our database. Since then, she has been producing amazing quantified analyses of our results.

One of those analyses helps with the argument that patchwriting students aren’t trying to “get away with something.” On the contrary, the frequent co-occurrence of patchwriting and paraphrase suggests that patchwriting is something students inadvertently, perhaps unconsciously, slip into when they’re trying to paraphrase. In a forthcoming article in Across the Disciplines, Sandra reports that “78% of the papers [studied in the Citation Project] include at least one incidence of paraphrase, [and] 52% include at least one incidence of patchwriting.”[9] All but one of the papers that include cited patchwriting also include paraphrase, with the student often moving back and forth between the two when presenting material from the same source.

However, as the results continue to roll out of Sandra’s queries to the database, it appears that an important part of my initial “hypothesis,” with its “intuitive appeal,” is wrong—or at the very least, not proven. Since publishing my first article on patchwriting in 1993, I have argued that when students patchwrite, it is not out of an intent to deceive, not out of academic dishonesty, but out of an incomplete comprehension of the source. Armed with a snootful of the social constructionist theories that circulated in the 1980s, I had postulated that students working in unfamiliar discourse communities do not have the vocabulary for successfully paraphrasing the sources with which they are grappling. My audiences, steeped in the same theory-set, readily agreed. And I still believe that it is a useful, insightful hypothesis.

But it is a woefully incomplete one, and it does not get to the heart of the patchwriting issue. Coding and quantifying has, I believe, gotten us there. What Sandra’s initial analyses of the 174 research papers produced in first-year Writing classes at 16 different institutions suggest is that students patchwrite no matter how simple the source, even when the source is crafted for general-audience consumption.

From that observation, which will be explained in detail in our book Struggling with Sources—which we are currently writing and which Parlor Press has pledged to publish—we are generating a new hypothesis: that students patchwrite because they are engaging shallowly with their sources, usually working only with sentences gleaned from the first three pages of the source. In a sense, they don’t understand any of their sources. How could they, when they’re not actually reading them? And when they don’t understand—when they are merely quote-mining their sources—they patchwrite.

These two hypotheses—my 1993 hypothesis deriving from social constructionist theory, and our 2013 hypothesis derived from quantified analysis of teacher-produced coding of naturalistic classroom data—lead to very different pedagogies.[10]

And the data? Even before we publish our book, those data are circulating from conference presentations, from interviews that others have conducted with us, from faculty development workshops, and from our website. They are circulating and persuading not just in our field but outside it. People are changing their curricula based on the Phase 1 findings of the Citation Project.

Now I am a coder, a data-based researcher, and there’s no going back. Now I maintain a bibliography on coding.[11] Now I insist that graduate students read about coding before they start writing their dissertations.

I still read, teach, and am informed and persuaded by Theory. I would no longer, however, use theory as my sole means of interpreting and understanding cultural texts. I hope never again to find myself so persuaded by a widely-accepted theory that I allow it and it alone to guide my analyses. Whether I—and my graduate students—are studying archival documents, community sites, student writing, or interview transcripts, we categorize, we code, and then we interpret.

Just last week a graduate student asked whether I ever direct dissertations that are not data-based. I was startled by the question, and my startled reaction tells the tale of how far I have moved in how few years. Now my considered reaction is, why would anyone want to write a dissertation that does not bring fresh data to the field of study, that does not analyze those data in ways that allow others to reach their own judgments, to be persuaded by the analysis, to use the data for other queries? I guess the answer I would have given that graduate student, if I’d had time to consider the question, would have been, “A dissertation that is not data-based and whose data are not coded? How very dreary that would be.”




[1] Pecorari, Diane. “Good and Original: Plagiarism and Patchwriting in Academic Second-Language Writing.” Journal of Second Language Writing 12 (2003): 317-345.

[2] Murray, Heather. “Close Reading, Closed Writing.” College English 53.2 (Feb. 1991): 195-208. Print.

[3] Anson, Chris M. “The Intelligent Design of Writing Programs: Reliance on Belief or a Future of Evidence.” WPA: Writing Program Administration 32.1 (Fall 2008): 11-36.


[4] Howard, Rebecca Moore. “Plagiarisms, Authorships, and the Academic Death Penalty.” College English 57.7 (Nov. 1995): 708-36. Print.

[5] Carlson, Tucker. “That’s Outrageous: Reading, Cheating, and ‘Rithmetic.” Reader’s Digest 161.963 (July 2002): 39-42. Print.

[6] Goldberg, Jonah. “Plagiarism Is Rape?” National Review Online. 15 Mar. 2000. Web. 13 Mar. 2003.

[7] Leo, John. “An Outing Is No Picnic.” U.S. News and World Report. 22 May 2000. Web. 9 Mar. 2013.

[8] Geisler, Cheryl. Analyzing Streams of Language: Twelve Steps to the Systematic Coding of Text, Talk, and Other Verbal Data. Pearson, 2004. Print.

[9] Jamieson, Sandra. “Reading and Engaging Sources: What Students’ Use of Sources Reveals About Advanced Reading Skills.” Across the Disciplines (Fall 2013). Print. Forthcoming.

[10] Howard, Rebecca Moore. “Comp 1 Applications of Citation Project Research.” Chenango Metonymy 22 Feb. 2013. Web. 9 Mar. 2013.

[11] Howard, Rebecca Moore. “Coding.” n.d. Web. 9 Mar. 2013.


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