Developing good academic practice
Developing good academic practice

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Developing good academic practice

2 Writing in your own words

2.1 What do we mean by ‘writing in your own words’?

When you paraphrase another author’s writing, you rewrite their argument using your own words, phrasing and interpreting their text in your own way.

Click on the media player below to listen to David Mayle outlining his expectations of students writing in their own words.

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Transcript: David Mayle

David Mayle, Open University Course Team Chair

As far as we’re concerned, writing in your own words is your opportunity to demonstrate your understanding of the concepts involved. It used to be said that lectures were a process by which the notes of the professor became the notes of the student without ever passing through the mind of either. Therefore we use in your own words as a proxy for demonstrating that it has passed through your mind. It means that the ideas need to be paraphrased, taken apart, put back together again, ideally with reference to your own personal circumstances to demonstrate that you have actually understood the concepts, issues and arguments involved.

In the early days of word processors you’d often see a lot of different fonts used, often in the same document, just because youcould. With modern desktop technology it’s remarkably easy to cut and paste from a source document into your assignment. What we don’t want to see is lots of gratuitous cut and paste, just because you can. What we want is the confidence that were we to talk to you about the material, you could explain it to us. This is the basis of the viva voce examination, which is still used as part of the examination process for a PhD.

Quotes – when should you use them? Well, whenever you want to agree, or disagree, or argue with the ideas contained in the quote. Alternatively, when you need to juxtapose two, or maybe more, quotes for reasons of comparison, comparing styles or maybe there’s a subtlety of interpretation that you wish to develop. You might also wish to indicate that the quote, from its time many years ago, has actually wider applicability than originally indicated. When you shouldn’t be using quotes is merely to demonstrate that you claim to have read the article concerned, and, additionally, just to demonstrate that you’ve mastered the art of cut and paste on your computer.

Writing in your own words – there’s a danger in the use of the word ‘change’ and we don’t wish people to sort of pick up a piece and deconstruct it. I’ve seen some extreme examples of plagiarism where students have carefully changed all of the proper nouns, so Fred becomes George; company X becomes company Y; alternative verbs spring up, so instead of ‘initiating’ it becomes ‘starting’ or vice versa. And then they’ve re-ordered the sentence. They’ve put the second half of the sentence at the front, and the first half of the sentence at the back. I could actually write a computer programme that could do that. It’s not difficult and it’s certainly not intelligent.

The safest way, in terms of advice, is to actually try and avoid cut and paste completely. Read the bit you want to use. Don’t copy it. Turn to your document and write it, as you understand it.

It’s been said that the best way to test your own understanding of something is to try and explain it to someone else. This is what we’re looking for in our assignments. By forcing you to explain something to us in your own words, rather than just cut and pasted from elsewhere, you get to learn stuff. Now whether you are looking to gain qualifications, or whether you are studying purely for self-development, it’s all about learning stuff.

I think plagiarism often starts from a lack of confidence in one’s own abilities. You feel that you’re very early on in a learning curve about a particular topic and so you think, rather than be embarrassed by my words I’ll use somebody else’s, and the problem there is if you use somebody else’s words you never develop the voice of your own. The thing to do, and the OU system is actually rather good at this, is to try it, and then your tutor will write back and say ‘well that bit wasn’t bad, but that bit wasn't so good' and you can develop your voice. And the idea is that by the end of a course, by the end of a qualification, you will have got the voice because you’ve tried, and because you’ve had the feedback. That’s it. If you’re always using somebody else’s voice you will never develop one of your own.

End transcript: David Mayle
David Mayle
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